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Junior Hockey Thrives in Illinois: Part II – Tier III Juniors

By ahai's Jim Clare August 18, 2015

In the last issue of SNAPSHOT we took a closer look at Junior Hockey in Illinois focusing on Tier I (USHL) and Tier II (NAHL) teams. This week we finish up with Tier III and the two leagues that have teams in Illinois (USPHL and NA3HL). As we mentioned in the last issue, Tier III Junior Hockey encompasses multiple leagues across the United States. It is a pay-to-play level of Junior Hockey, and is more akin to how AAA hockey works; players pay a fee to play and a monthly billet expense. Let’s look at the 4 teams in Illinois that play Tier III Junior Hockey.


The newest entry into Illinois Junior Hockey is the Chicago Cougars who will play their games out of the Sears Center off of I-90. A great opportunity for hockey fans in the Northwest p

art of Chicagoland to catch some talented young hockey players try to reach their dream. The Cougars will play in the newly formed USPHL Midwest division. The United States Premier Hockey League was formed a few years ago after the highly successful Eastern Junior Hockey League split up. It has since expanded down the east coast and now to the Midwest. This affiliation will give the league access to teams beyond the Midwest as it showcases the players across the country.

John Schwarz, part of the ownership group of the Cougars, brings his success with the Dells Ducks junior program to Chicago. “The Cougars will provide fun, affordable, and action packed entertainment for the entire family”, says John. “At the Sears Center, you can get up close to the players, meet them after the game, and hopefully come back again!” One of Schwarz’s keys to success with his junior experience is immersing the players in the community whether it is within the local schools or a variety of charitable endeavors; it is vital to the team’s integration with the surrounding area.

Like their counterparts in the NA3HL, billet families for the out of state players is of utmost importance. As Schwarz puts it, “becoming a billet family is a win-win situation for the players and the families”. Another win-win is for the local youth hockey community in the Northwest Suburbs. You will see the Cougars players on the ice with the little ones, from learn to skate programs to youth team practices. Schwarz encourages the youth teams in the area to take in a Cougar game and skate on the ice with the team.

The USPHL Midwest division should prove to be a competitive league, featuring skilled and hardworking players all fighting to take the next step in their development. Schwarz says, “Parents and kids alike will get a feel for what it looks like to play junior hockey and educate themselves as their children approach that age.” We are excited to have the Cougars in our backyard here in Chicago. Reach out to them for ticket information and game day events. With a stellar leadership team, including NHL goaltender Craig Andersen (a Chicago native), the Cougars look to have a great inaugural season.

Tier III – NA3HL

Central Illinois benefits from several junior teams as well. Last week we introduced you to the Bloomington Thunder and Springfield Jr. Blues. In Peoria, the Mustangs have roamed the ice for 16 years. They are a staple on the sports landscape in Peoria, with hundreds of players passing through the Mustangs over the years. “The Mustang family is strong. Our annual alumni night brings back former players to renew old friendships,” says owner Paul Wayvon.

Peoria participates in the Tier III NA3HL junior league. This past season several Mustangs players were able to move up to play in the Tier II NAHL. The relationship between the leagues, as discussed, is a benefit to its players. Speaking of players, one thing Paul is excited about is the number of players from Central Illinois that play on the Mustangs, “The Mustangs select 8 to 12 players that played their minor hockey in Central Illinois”. Paul emphasized that it’s not just Illinois players, but a heavy focus on skaters from the Midwest.

As with all our junior teams, the Mustangs are and have been involved with the local community for almost two decades. Visits to local hospitals, Pink in the Rink Night for breast cancer, food drives, and local events are just some of the outreach programs the Mustangs are involved with.

Come out to see the Mustangs at the Owens Center this fall, and if you are down in Peoria for a youth game take advantage of watching some exciting Junior hockey!


You may recognize the name, but the location has changed. The Blaze moved their home from Bloomington to Decatur this year and boy what a welcome they have received. Decatur took second place in the National Kraft Hockeyville contest this past year and received $75,000 to improve the arena where the Blaze ply their trade. Due to a generous donation and community fundraising, another $75,000 was raised for a total of $150,000 for improvements to the Decatur Civic Center which the Blaze call home. The local Decatur Youth Hockey Association drove this amazing campaign as the Blaze moved in to make Decatur home. The relationship between the two is fast growing as many Decatur youth families are billeting Blaze players.

As part of the USPHL Midwest, along with the Chicago Cougars, Decatur is excited to be involved with the local community. The energy created by the youth association should bode well for the Blaze as they begin their second year in this tight knit community.

AHAI had the pleasure of attending the Decatur Days Parade honoring the Decatur Youth Hockey Association for their work on the Hockeyville campaign and subsequent fundraising campaign. It was great to see the Blaze players marching in the parade and spreading the word about their team. Sharing the rink with the youth team allows them ample opportunity to be part of the development of these young skaters. We met several billet families on our visit and they couldn’t have been more excited to be a host family to these players.

When in Decatur, check out the Civic Center and the Decatur Blaze!

About The USPHL

The United States Premier Hockey League of 2022-23 is the nation’s largest junior amateur ice hockey league and the only league to span the continental United States, from Maine to California, and from Florida to Washington State.

The USPHL includes over 100 organizations comprised of 11,000 players spanning the ages of 6 through 20, including Youth and Midget Division teams in the Tier 1 Hockey Federation.

Overall, across all its divisions, the USPHL see more than 3,100 alumni playing college hockey each year and more than 250 playing pro hockey, including in the NHL.

The league’s top level, the Tuition Free Tier II National Collegiate Development Conference, led all North American Tier II leagues with three players selected in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and has seen more than 200 NCAA Division I commitments since its 2017 inception. The NCDC will also expand to include the NCDC West, with teams in Colorado, Utah and Idaho for 2023-24.

Follow the Cougars on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and TikTok @ChicagoCougarsHockey.

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