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Joe Pavelski fires a heat-seeking missal from the top of the circle to win the game with 3 seconds left. Thomas Vanek dominates the game as though his team has an extra skater every time he’s on the ice. Ty Conklin makes an ESPN highlight worthy glove save to thwart Patrick Sharp. A determined Dave Drewiske catches a careless forward with his head down and, well you know what comes next. Adam Burish goads David Backes into a foolish retaliatory penalty. Johnny Moore blocks a slap shot and goes coast to coast with the loose puck and scores a short hander.

What am I talking about? These are NHL players and there’s a lockout right? You are assuming that it must be a pick up game to keep the players from getting rusty. Perhaps it’s a game being played in Europe. Maybe it’s just a description of the “action” in a Strat-O Matic hockey board game. If you guessed any one of those answers you’d be wrong.

The above action is currently happening in hockey rinks all across the Midwest…. in the United States Hockey League. The USHL is the top level (Tier 1 Junior “A”) of junior hockey in the USA. All of the previous mentioned players along with over 150 others are currently on NHL rosters and many are all-stars. A few are taking their turn this summer, showing off the Stanley Cup for a day.

The USHL you wonder? Yes, a 16-team league featuring the best amateur talent in the USA. Midwestern cities such as Green Bay, Sioux City, Waterloo Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Lincoln, Fargo, Sioux Falls, Muskegon, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Kearny, Omaha and did I mention Chicago? Yes, in Bensenville, Illinois (right next to O’Hare International) features the USHL Eastern Division leading Chicago Steel.

USHL players are from ages 16 to 21 years old, and include many players who are already NHL draft picks and a majority who already have committed to playing in the country’s finest college programs. The caliber of play in the USHL is so high, that before the United States Olympic team allowed pros to play, USHL players were often selected to represent their country in the Winter Games.

USHL hockey features swift skating, hard hitting, fisticuffs, spectacular saves, Tic-Tac-Toe passing, courageous shot blocking and break neck speed. The games display bone rattling checks, frantic boards and corners scrums, breathtaking breakaways, pin point sharpshooters, fire wagon end to end rushes, 90 MPH slap shots and the ever present revenge filled rivalries that span decades.

Oops, I almost forgot, all of this excitement costs only 6-8 dollars per ticket and with free parking to boot. What, great hockey for the price of a McDonald’s meal? Are you kidding me, you say? Nope!! In a few short years you will pay at least 50 bucks a seat (or even $25 for standing room), to see some of these very same players.

It’s almost like getting to watch and even hanging around the Wright Brothers while they were still working on their first airplane. Hanging around? Yes, after the games they loiter in the rink lobby to greet their families and friends and wait to board the team bus. These future NHL stars are happy to talk with fans, sign autographs and even are photographed. No “attitude” on display with these young men…just humility, gratitude and (win or lose) enthusiasm, as they soak up the attention and share their joy.

So as you NHL starved hockey fans pine for the action to resume, stop by a hockey arena in nearby city that offers great action. For less than it costs for a beer and a hot dog at any NHL arena, you have the opportunity to watch and interact with some of the best young talent from around the world. Even if you can’t get to the rink, you can watch any game on the Internet via the Fast Hockey network at www.fasthockey.com.

But if you can make it to the game who knows, some future NHL all-star, and possible hall of famer, will not only be happy to talk, autograph anything you’d like and have his picture taken with you…he’ll probably thank you for coming.

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@ The USHL is kind of the CHL of the USA. It's a great league...more and more I see USHL players littering the first 3 rounds of the NHL Draft. I don't believe it has peaked either. I would anticipate expansion in the near future. This league growing and prospering would attract more new fans than any other avenue. The NHL should be sponsoring them, solidifing their grip on the sometimes fickle USA fan base.

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So I have questions. What is the difference between the tiers of USA junior hockey? For example the Jr Flyers in West Chester are a Tier III. Yet some have been drafted by the NHL. Is it mostly location or is it truly talent levels?

Also, I noticed that MN didn't have a Tier I team. Is that because their high school hockey program is so strong, with most of the talented players moving on to college?

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