The CHL currently places a cap of three 20 year old or "overage" players per team, while only four 16 year olds are permitted. While Fifteen year old players were formerly permitted to play a limited number of games per season at the CHL level, they are now permitted to play only if they are deemed "exceptional" by the CHL. The only player to qualify under this rule thus far is John Tavares. CHL teams are currently permitted two "imports", or European players each, though this cap is expected to be reduced to one within a couple of seasons.
CHL teams are considered professional by the NCAA, thus any player who plays a game at the Tier-I level loses their eligibility to play for American universities. They retain eligibility for Canadian universities however, and all three leagues have programs in place to grant scholarships for any player who plays in these leagues provided they do not turn professional once their junior career ends. Many of the top North American prospects for the NHL play in the CHL, and more players are drafted by NHL teams than any other organization.
The champion of each league competes in an annual tournament with a predetermined host team for the Memorial Cup, Canada's national Tier I championship.
Junior A teams are considered amateur by the NCAA, thus players intending to go to American universities tend to choose this route rather than play in the CHL. Junior A teams tend to play in much smaller markets than CHL teams, and thus play to much smaller crowds.
Some leagues also operate outside the control of the CJAHL and Hockey Canada. Presently, the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League in Ontario, and the WHA Junior West Hockey League are operating as "rebel" leagues.
Junior "C" is generally a local based system, but is considered highly competitive in most regions. Ontario celebrates Junior "C" Hockey with 6 rounds of playoffs (up to 42 games of best-of-seven playoff rounds) for the Clarence Schmalz Cup which was first awarded in 1938. The Ontario playdowns are played for between 6 of the Province's 7 different regional leagues. In Quebec and West of Manitoba, Junior "C" hockey tends to be an extension of the local minor hockey system and is sometimes called "Juvenile". In Ontario, Manitoba, and the Maritimes, Junior "C" is run independently of minor hockey systems.
Junior "D" was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but fell off in the early 1990s. In Quebec, Junior "D" is actually known as Junior "B" and is run strictly by minor hockey associations. The last great Junior "D" league is not even a "D" league at all. The OHA's Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League is the accumulation of the merger of the Northern, Western, and Southern Junior "D" leagues in the late 1980s. At 16 teams, the league renamed itself a Junior Development league in the early 1990s, and the SOJHL in 2006. In recent years, the SOJHL has been trying to get itself declared a Junior "C" league.
Teams at the lower level of junior hockey tend to operate as extensions of local minor hockey systems. While some future NHLers come from the lower levels of junior hockey, they are few. There is no national governing body at these levels, only provincial.
The United States, unlike Canada, does not have Major Junior Hockey, but does have several levels of junior hockey.
Tier 1 Junior A
The United States Hockey League (USHL) is currently the only Tier 1 Junior league in the country, it consists of teams in the central and midwestern US. The USHL provides an alternative to Major Junior Hockey for kids who want to play in the NCAA. While playing in the USHL, all player expenses are paid for by the team.
Tier 2 Junior A
Currently the North American Hockey League is the only Tier 2 Junior A league in the United States. The NAHL consists mostly of teams playing in the central and southwestern parts of the United States. The NAHL, like the USHL, provides young players a great alternative to Major Junior Hockey. While playing in the NAHL, all player expenses minus room and board are paid for by the team.
Tier 3 Junior A
The United States currently has six Tier 3 Junior A leagues, the Atlantic Junior Hockey League, the Eastern Junior Hockey League, the Central States Hockey League, the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, the Northern Pacific Hockey League, the International Junior Hockey League , and the Western States Hockey League. In addition to paying for room and board, players at the Tier 3 level pay a fee, commonly ranging from $4,000 to $6,500.
In the United States there are three leagues that are given the Junior B designation. These Leagues are the Empire Junior B Hockey League, Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, and the Continental Hockey Association Premier Division.
Independent There are many other leagues that call themselves Junior A teams but are in fact independent. Independent leagues fall outside of the junior structure provided by USA Hockey. Examples of independent leagues are the America East Hockey League. and the Wisconsin Junior Hockey League.
The lack of an amateur draft in Europe means that the onus is on the teams to sign the most talented youngsters they can get, and the presence of an affiliated junior team provides a place for young players who aren't yet ready for the rigours of the professional game to develop. However, not all players on a European junior team are necessarily the property of their professional club, and may elect to sign elsewhere.
This situation is reminiscent of the NHL during the farm system era of the Original Six.