Many Junior Hockey Leagues in Play for El Paso Rhinos
It has been a wild week for the El Paso Rhinos. On Tuesday, the Western States Hockey League announced that they would not play their upcoming season and instead, they would prepare for 2021-22. That decision left the El Paso Rhinos without a league to play this fall and the most dominant franchise in the WSHL needed to act fast. That is exactly what they did, and the Rhinos made this announcement on social media less than 24 hours later.
600 ESPN El Paso spoke with Rhinos head coach Cory Herman on SportsTalk Wednesday, but he would not reveal which league his team will be moving to for the 2020-21 season. If you look around junior hockey in the US, there are six possibilities that are in play for the Rhinos. Here is a look at each of them.
United States Hockey League (USHL) - Tier 1
This is the highest level of junior hockey in the US, and the cost of operating a team in the USHL is more than double of Tier 2 leagues like the WSHL. Although this Junior A Tier 1 league is filled with potential college and NHL talent, most of the teams are located in the midwest. The closest clubs to El Paso are located in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska and Fargo, North Dakota. As far as talent development, the USHL has featured many potential NHL draft picks along with top D1 prospects. Interestingly enough, there are no Junior A Tier 1 leagues in the south or western part of the US.
North American Hockey League (NAHL) - Tier 2
The NAHL is the highest Junior A Tier 2 hockey in the country and features 26 teams spread out over the country with a 27th (Wichita Falls) coming next season. The South Division features many clubs with regional ties to El Paso, including (Albuquerque) New Mexico, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Odessa, and North Richland Hills. It could be a possibility for the Rhinos, although seven teams already make up the South Division, which would have to increase to eight to accommodate El Paso. The majority of the players in the NAHL have been sent to D1 colleges, with a few others going to D3 schools.
North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) - Tier 2
This league is similar to the WSHL in terms of quality of teams. It features 30 clubs spread out over five divisions, with Oklahoma City joining next season. The NA3HL South Division makes sense as a potential landing spot for the Rhinos, since it features three teams in Texas (College Station, Richland Hills, and Euless) and another in Lafayette, Louisiana. Many of the teams in the NA3HL have sent players to D1, D2, and D3 colleges.
Eastern Hockey League (EHL) - Tier 2
The first thing you see on the EHL's home page is that 1,152 of their players have received NCAA commitments. However, there is no chance that the Rhinos would be playing in this league, since all of their clubs are located on the east coast. The EHL is less than 10 years old and it formed in 2013.
United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) - Tier 2
The USPHL brands itself as "The Nation's Premier Hockey League". It consists of eight divisions and a total of 52 teams. The mammoth league will continue to grow since nine teams from the WSHL will be moving to the USPHL to play beginning in the 2020-21 season. The Fresno Monsters, San Diego Sabers, Anaheim Avalanche, Utah Outliers, Southern Oregon Spartans, Las Vegas Thunderbirds, Pueblo Bulls, Northern Colorado Eagles, and Ogden Mustangs are all on their way to the USPHL, and likely will form a new West Coast Division. The Rhinos could make it an even ten teams, but they would be the only Texas representative in the USPHL. Its alumni include NHL veteran Zach Stanford, Jack Eichel, Jimmy Vesey, and Charlie Coyle, while many more players have been able to play college hockey.
United States Premier Hockey League (Elite Division) - Tier 2
Of all the leagues mentioned, the USEHL is the lowest level of Tier 2 hockey. It is still part of the USPHL, but most teams in the Elite Division are from the northeast, southeast, and Florida. Like the EHL, the Rhinos have no chance to move into this league, since every trip would be a major bus ride for Coach Herman and his junior club.
Based on all of the Junior Tier 2 leagues that are playing, I think the Rhinos best opportunities would be in either the NAHL, NA3HL, or USPHL. Regardless of which league they end up playing in, the good news is that Rhinos hockey will be back on the ice for the 2020-21 regular season.