USA Hockey: What are Tier I, Tier II, AAA, AA, A, B (and BB?)?

When my kid joined the circus that is youth hockey, I was assaulted by lingo that had mutated wildly in the thirty years since my own youth hockey “career” ended. Then as now, there were mite, squirt, peewee, bantam and midget teams. Then as now, there were AAA, AA, A and B teams. But that basic vocabulary had evolved into a snarl of Tier teams, Tier I, Tier II, rec, Double-B, birth year teams, Brick teams, tournament teams, minor teams, major teams, ADM teams, Select teams, Midget-minor teams, Midget-major teams, mini-mites, mighty-mites…

As a kid, I was dimly aware of the existence of an entity known as USA Hockey, but I don’t think I knew that it governed my local (Michigan) hockey team. I probably would have said it had something to do with the Olympics (which it does). From the USA Hockey 2012 Annual Guide:

USA Hockey’s primary emphasis is on the support and development of grassroots hockey programs. […] While youth hockey is a main focus, USA Hockey also has vibrant junior and adult hockey programs that provide opportunities for players of all ability levels. […] As the National Governing Body for the sport of ice hockey in the United States, USA Hockey is the official representative to the United States Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation. […] USA Hockey is divided into 12 geographical districts throughout the United States.

USA Hockey, Inc., is recognized as the National Governing Body for the sport of ice hockey in the United States under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act Title 36, Chapter 17 § 391 United States Code.

The 12 Geographical Districts of USA Hockey

Listed in order of number of registered members.

  1. Central [Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin] (59K)
  2. Minnesota (55K)
  3. Michigan (53K)
  4. New York (48K)
  5. Massachusetts (47K)
  6. Southeastern [Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, District of Columbia] (47K)
  7. Pacific [Alaska, California, Nevada, Washington, Hawaii, Oregon](43K)
  8. Rocky Mountain [Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma] (39K)
  9. Atlantic [Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware] (36K)
  10. Mid-American [Ohio, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana] (35K)
  11. New England [Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont] (35K)
  12. Northern Plains [Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming] (14K)

Signing Up

I’m quite sure that no-one ever asked to see my birth certificate (to prove that I wasn’t lying about my age) or required me to register with USA Hockey as a pre-requisite for joining a team. But that (birth certificate and USA Hockey registration) is what we had to do — and by we I mean the hockey parent “we” which doesn’t include me at all — even for us (him) to take a “Hockey 101″ class, or to play in a mite house-league.

We (this time I mean me, me and the other old people) also never had to sign “letters of intent,” as Quisp Jr (and his teammates and every kid playing on a travel team now) has to, binding him contractually to one club for the entirety of the season. The letter of intent is a contract of more than 10 pages in length (I’m tempted to say 20 pages), the kind which I as a grown-up generally would send off to a lawyer to draft a response. But he and we (his parents) just signed the thing. When I was a kid, I would say I “made the team.” Quisp Jr says he “signed with.”

Signed with!

Since he joined the circus, I have been bothering every parent who would stand next to me for thirty seconds with my incessant questions regarding the definitions of these various terms for team levels and what have you. Naturally, I also used Google, expecting to find some kind of easy-to-access resource that would boil this mess down to a chart or a simple FAQ. What I found were scattered bits and pieces, much of it contradictory or so badly-written that it begged the questions it was supposed to be answering.

What’s a Mite, Squirt, Pee-Wee, Bantam or Midget?

And why are they all words that mean “small”?

I don’t know where the names came from, so let’s just get that out of the way.

USA Hockey groups players according to birth year. Each level consists of two birth years. In order to make it as confusing as possible, the names of the levels refer to age rather than birth year. The thing you need to know is, a player is the “age” he will be on his birthday in the calendar year in which the season in question starts.

For example: the 2012-13 season has just begun (in October). My son was born in 2003. That means he turns nine in calendar year 2012. So he plays in the 10 and under group, a.k.a. 10U (a.k.a. Squirts). Also in Squirts this season are kids who turned 10 in 2012. If they were born in the first months of the year, they will turn 11 while the 2012-13 season is still going. They will be 11, playing in 10U.

A child born on 1/1/2003 and another child born on 12/31/2003 are both 2003 birth year (obviously), but are also both “9” years old for the purpose of grouping, and so they both play (this season) in 10U (a.k.a. Squirts). If the kid born on 12/31/2003 had been born the next day, he would be an ’04, would be “8” this entire season, and would be playing in 8U (a.k.a. Mites).

The levels are:

  • 8U (Mite)
  • 10U (Squirt)
  • 12U (Pee-Wee)
  • 14U (Bantam)
  • 16U (16U Midget, sometimes called “Midget-minor”)
  • 18U (18U Midget, sometimes called “Midget-major”)

What is a Tier team?

A Tier team is the highest level of what we used to (and still do) call “travel teams.” According to USA Hockey, tier teams exist only at the Bantam level and above. (Before this year, there were Peewee tier teams, but not anymore, according to the USA Hockey 2012 Annual Guide.)

However, some states (California, for example), recognize “tier” teams for pee-wee and above. Since USA Hockey does not sponsor nationals for pee-wees (according to the 2012 guide), I’m not sure what the “tier” designation can possibly mean for a pee-wee team at the state level.

Tier I is the highest level. Tier II is below Tier I. USA Hockey recognizes both Tier I and Tier II as official designations. Tier I is supposed to be for the highest skilled players and allows billeting of players from other geographical regions. Tier II is supposed to be geographically-limited to to the location of the team. The definitions, per USA Hockey:

TIER I – Any youth or girls’ team that is properly registered with USA Hockey as a Tier I national championship-bound team.

TIER II – Any youth or girls’ team that is certified Tier II by an affiliate organization which has jurisdiction over the team. Tier II certification will be based on criteria set up by the affiliate […].

In other words, USA Hockey leaves it to the state programs (CAHA in California) to sort out the tiers.

Are Tier I and AAA the same?

[sociallocker id=”16181″]Almost everyone I asked said that Tier I means triple-A. Nationally, it doesn’t. In fact, USA Hockey does not recognize AAA at all. USA Hockey doesn’t recognize ANY letter designations. They don’t recognize AAA, AA, A, BB, B.

USA Hockey ONLY recognizes Tier I, Tier II, rec/house, and adult.

However, states sometimes define their Tier I teams as AAA. Sometimes. But not always.

Are Tier II and AA the same?

No. Just as with Tier I and AAA, there is also no official correlation between Tier II and AA. USA Hockey does not recognize AA at all.

Again, USA Hockey only recognizes Tier I, Tier II, rec/house, and adult.

However, states sometimes define their Tier II teams as AA. Sometimes. But not always.

What is a “rec” team?

USA Hockey designates all youth teams, including travel teams, that are not Tier teams as “rec” teams. That means all pee-wee teams and below, whether they call themselves AA, A, BB, B, or in-house, are “rec teams.”

Does “travel team” have any official meaning?

When I was a kid, a travel team was a team of the best kids of your particular age group. It cost the same or maybe fractionally more than lowly “house league,” and you had nicer jerseys and you played teams from other towns.

It’s not an official designation, though.

Are there Mite or Squirt (or Peewee) Tier teams?

No. USA Hockey does NOT recognize Tier teams for levels below Bantam. You will hear people talk about Squirt Tier teams. There are message boards devoted to discussing them. The designation doesn’t exist.

(Prior to 2012-13, USA Hockey recognized Tier teams at the Peewee level, but this year’s USA Hockey guide recognizes only Bantam and above. Sorry, Peewees.)

And, again, USA Hockey does not recognize letter designations for any level of play.

If someone tells you their kid plays for the So-and-So Tier I Squirt AAA team, what they’re telling you is that their kid plays for a squirt rec team that travels and may carry a state (but not USA Hockey) recognized letter designation, which they (the parents and/or the local hockey league) has decided to call “Tier” in order to suggest its greatness by association with the official USA Hockey designation to which it has no connection whatsoever.

Are there National Championships for Mites, Squirts or Peewees?

No. USA Hockey does not recognize (much less organize or sponsor) National Championships for levels below Bantam (Peewees had nationals before this year, now not).

Does USA Hockey recognize State Championships for Mites, Squirts or Peewees?

No. The individual state organizations do, however (e.g., CAHA, in California).  I am pretty sure we had state finals for squirt “A” when I was a kid in Michigan. Sponsored by whom, I have no idea. But it wasn’t USA Hockey.

How does USA Hockey define AAA, AA, A and B?

They don’t. You will find no reference to any of those terms in USA Hockey.

What are the rules related to birth year (major/minor) teams?

USA Hockey does not recognize “birth year” teams. As far as I can tell, CAHA or SCAHA (the state and local organizations for Southern California) don’t either.

You will see teams such as (for example) the Jr. Kings ’03 Squirt A team. They have chosen to have only “03” birth-year players. Sometimes people refer to teams whose players are all in their first year of a level “minor” teams and teams whose players are all in their second year of a level “major” teams. USA Hockey does not recognize “major”or “minor” teams.

In the case of the aforementioned Jr. Kings ’03 Squirt A team, they are referred to by SCAHA as “Jr. Kings (2)” Squirt A. “Jr. Kings (1)” Squirt A is their birth-year 2002 team.

But please note this confusing detail: USA Hockey has two levels (age groups) that are sometimes referred to as “major” or “minor”. They are “midget major” (18 and under) and “midget minor” (16 and under). When I was a kid, there was only “midget,” which was 16 and under. After that, you could move on to juniors (16-20). Now you have the option of “midget major.”

However, USA Hockey calls these groups 18U Midget and 16U Midget.

What the hell is BB?

I had never in my life heard of a double-B team until this past spring. It appears to have been made-up to allow better grouping of B level teams. BB and B, just like A, are all, officially, according to the mothership, designated “rec/house.”

USA Hockey doesn’t recognize BB. CAHA, in California, doesn’t recognize BB.

SCAHA, So-Cal’s local league, does acknowledge the BB/B distinction. Nevertheless, state-wide, the BB and B teams must compete under the same “B” umbrella for a single “B” state championship.

Who decides whether a team is AAA, AA, A, BB or B?

The team. That is, the organizing body of parents and whoever else who runs whichever team your kid plays for.[/sociallocker]


  24 comments for “USA Hockey: What are Tier I, Tier II, AAA, AA, A, B (and BB?)?

  1. jewelsfromthecrown
    October 16, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    Good heavens…it’s such a business now.

    “Quisp Jr. Signs With Local Team, Ponders Exclusive Chocolate Milk Deal”

    • October 16, 2012 at 5:40 PM

      It’s worse than applying to private schools. And somehow, exactly the same.

  2. Stuv
    October 16, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    Quisp, you should go to a bookstore and read just the first chapter of the book “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell. It shows statistics on how the Canadian youth hockey system favors kids born in the first three months of the calendar year, just like your 10U example. The “older” kids are who get picked for all-star teams, who then get access to better coaching and more practice, leading to a better chance of really succeeding in the sport. The whole book shows many examples of how superstars in many fields (not just athletic) rose to the top not just through pure talent and drive, but also due to many favorable circumstances (like birth month) going their way as well.

  3. USHA#17
    October 17, 2012 at 10:08 PM

    Thanks, as a former USAH coach (and trustee) at the high school level I could never figure out what the hell our level was considered. Midget Major–High school “AA” (?) I suppose, Now, thanks to your in depth research I still don’t know what frigging “official” level I coached.

    One year one of the schools brought down and housed a bunch of AAA boys from eastern Canada. AAA vs low AA, ugh. That same year I also coached against Trevor Lewis.

    • USHA#17
      October 17, 2012 at 10:11 PM

      Oh, PS, good luck with Jr. Getting him going in hockey is a bit like buying a kid a set of drums…except you get excited. when he plays.

      • October 18, 2012 at 10:21 AM

        Thanks. I’m just trying to give him the tools and let him do with it what he will. Oh, and trying not to be one of those parents.

    • October 18, 2012 at 7:17 AM

      And high school is a whole other classification, which I didn’t get into, and which is (as you experienced) pretty murky. I am going to do a follow-up post on the snarl of juniors (Tier I and II, A B and C), high school (prep and varsity, division I and II), college, US Development Program, and of course Midget 18U and 16U. My high school team (in the pre-velrco age) was officially registered Junior C, and played in those state finals as well as high school. It’s confusing to pretty much everyone.

  4. BrownieGoesBoom!
    October 18, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    Thanks for the explanation Quisp. If my daughter, who is currently a mini-mite, decides to seriously pursue hockey (and she’s already talking about it) I imagine I’ll have to understand all of this.

    • October 18, 2012 at 9:12 PM

      Girls’ hockey will be the subject of another post, as there are special or additional guidelines.

    • October 18, 2012 at 9:13 PM

      p.s. I still don’t feel I understand it.

  5. November 26, 2012 at 9:40 PM

    ” It cost the same or maybe fractionally more than lowly ‘house league,'”
    lol. Good luck with that now.

  6. Fast Walk to Fresno
    February 1, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    This is a good article. I’m constantly trying to explain this to other people in our hockey association. I might use this to point them to.

    As for the “BB” designation and others like it, those are used in Quebec to designate travel teams. In QC, house/rec. programs are all “single letter,” e.g., A, B, C. Travel teams are “double letter,” e.g., CC, BB, AA. (They don’t do AAA until you get to Midget).

    • February 3, 2013 at 5:02 PM

      That’s interesting re the Quebec designations. I’ve been meaning to do a post on the differences between US and Canadian youth leagues/levels/etc., but it turns out to be a pretty big topic and my ignorance is vast.

  7. phil langone
    September 8, 2013 at 6:42 PM

    Just reading this now. My son started playing roller hockey at a local Burbank rink last year (he was 4). This past summer he started playing ice hockey at Pickwick in the Golden Bears program and his love for the game really kicked into gear. I love watching him, but the way kids hockey is structured is so confusing. AAA, AA, mites, ADM etc etc… Glad I’m not the only one trying to figure it out. Like you, I just want to give him what he needs to be the best he wants to be and let him take it from there.

    • September 9, 2013 at 12:51 PM

      Especially at that age (and under 10 in general, really). I believe the kids should get to be the dreamers (I’m going to play in the NHL!) and the parents should try not to have any more emotional investment than they did when their kids said they wanted to be firemen or trash truck drivers. Well, maybe more than that. But everyone gets hung up on the tangled web of letters, when the reality is it doesn’t matter at all. All it takes to be an A team (for example) is a group of parents who want to call it that, and a club that’s willing to take their money.

      Since your kid is 5 (mine is now 10, or 10 in hockey years, since he’ll be 10 on his 2013 birthday), he’s got three years to enjoy the relative quiet and bliss of mites, just working on skills and friendships.

      • Bob Knob
        September 9, 2013 at 1:49 PM

        I like hockey so much I’m concerned my son is just going to play something else because he knows I like it so much. Oh well. He’s not going to be pro anything, right? I don’t think I’ll have a problem not being overbearing but we’ll see how hard it will be.

        • September 9, 2013 at 9:17 PM

          I don’t think dad liking hockey puts kids off hockey. I’m pretty sure it’s dads (and moms) demanding their kids “perform” and/or be perfect (or “stars”) that puts kids off hockey. Which is why something like 2/3 of all kids quit by the time they’re 13.

      • phil langone
        September 9, 2013 at 3:21 PM

        Thanks for the insight.

  8. shiny
    September 9, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    Like Phil below, I just got around to reading this (especially since I only started following you on twitter recently…) Wow that is a lot of information. My head hurts trying to absorb it all. I have a friend whose son plays on a travel team and she constantly complains about older/bigger kids playing on opposing teams and teams “cheating” or trying to sort of get around the rules to have a better advantage. BTW, she also mentioned something about “B” teams involved with the travel and I had no clue what she was talking about. Crazy how many different levels there are of youth hockey

  9. randolph
    April 4, 2014 at 7:06 PM

    Wrong on the age group dumb dumb!

  10. Brian
    November 16, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    I assume he’s referring to your comment above where you said your son was 10 and enjoying being in mites, but 10 years old are squirts so the troll thinks you are a “dumb dumb”. I think it proves the point you were trying to make in the first place, the designations are confusing and everyone gets them mixed up now and then.

    Enjoyed the article, thanks.

  11. vince
    February 20, 2015 at 6:53 AM

    Great article. i have a question though and have not been able to locate an answer.

    1. why Birth year? Something official on the reason for this in USA hockey or an educated opinion

    2. Reason for moving checking to Bantam and eliminating peewee nationals? Again something official or an educated explanation.

  12. laotrabanda
    March 22, 2015 at 9:27 PM

    The other part of the rub that I’m learning is that all of the grading (tier/letter(s)/whatever) is based on the TEAM skill level. In our neck of the woods, the best we can put together for a single mite team is a middling B? team but our skill level runs from first year skaters who can barely stand up to a couple of really talented kids. We’re lucky to have enough kids to field a single team let alone multiple teams at various levels. How do we find resources (good coaches etc.) to really encourage the occasional kid who truly has potential? Most likely, they will eventually fall way behind their “age/year” group from larger markets simply due to lack of coaching and serious competition. The focus on team ratings has its drawbacks. How about finding ways to nurture individual talent out of markets that aren’t necessarily on the radar of those who keep track of these things?

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