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NHL vs. AHL — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Published on January 27, 2024
The NHL (National Hockey League) is the premier professional ice hockey league in North America, featuring the highest level of play, while the AHL (American Hockey League) serves as the primary developmental league for the NHL.
NHL vs. AHL — What's the Difference?

Difference Between NHL and AHL


Key Differences

The NHL is the top professional ice hockey league in North America, known for featuring the world's best players and teams. The AHL, although professional, primarily functions as a developmental league for players aspiring to reach the NHL.
Teams in the NHL compete for the Stanley Cup, the most prestigious award in professional ice hockey. AHL teams, on the other hand, compete for the Calder Cup, which is significant in minor league hockey.
The NHL attracts a global audience and includes players from around the world, making it highly competitive and diverse. The AHL is more focused on developing talent, often featuring younger players and those on the cusp of breaking into the NHL.
Financially, the NHL generates more revenue and offers higher salaries and larger budgets for teams and players. In contrast, the AHL operates with smaller budgets and offers lower salaries.
The level of play in the NHL is generally faster and more sophisticated due to the experience and skill of the players. AHL games, while competitive, may not exhibit the same level of play as the NHL.

Comparison Chart

League Level

Premier professional league
Developmental league


Stanley Cup
Calder Cup


Mostly North American

Player Experience

Higher, world-class players
Developing, younger players


Higher revenue, salaries
Lower revenue, salaries

Compare with Definitions


Attracts a large, international fan base.
NHL games are broadcast globally, attracting fans worldwide.


Features younger players and prospects.
The AHL is a great place to watch up-and-coming hockey talent.


Consists of teams across the United States and Canada.
The Boston Bruins are a successful team in the NHL.


Teams compete for the Calder Cup.
Winning the Calder Cup is a significant achievement in the AHL.


A major professional ice hockey league.
The NHL is widely regarded as the pinnacle of professional ice hockey.


A professional developmental ice hockey league.
Many NHL players start their careers in the AHL.


Teams compete annually for the Stanley Cup.
Winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal for NHL teams.


Has a more localized fan base compared to the NHL.
AHL games are popular among local hockey enthusiasts.


Known for high-level competition and talent.
Players from around the world aspire to compete in the NHL.


Serves as the primary developmental league for NHL.
The AHL is crucial for the development of future NHL talent.

Common Curiosities

Are the rules the same in both the NHL and AHL?

The rules are largely similar, but there can be minor differences in regulations and implementation.

How does the level of play in the AHL compare to the NHL?

The NHL features a higher level of play, with more experienced and skilled players compared to the AHL.

Can AHL players be called up to play in the NHL?

Yes, AHL players can be called up to the NHL, often to fill roster spots due to injuries or other needs.

Are AHL games broadcast on television?

AHL games are broadcast, but they have a smaller broadcast reach compared to NHL games.

Do NHL and AHL teams have affiliations?

Yes, most NHL teams have AHL affiliates where they develop their prospects.

Can AHL teams participate in the NHL playoffs?

No, AHL teams have their own playoffs and do not participate in the NHL playoffs.

Do players in the AHL get paid as much as in the NHL?

No, AHL players generally receive lower salaries than NHL players.

Is the AHL international like the NHL?

The AHL is primarily North American and does not have the same level of international representation as the NHL.

Can an AHL team win the Stanley Cup?

No, only NHL teams compete for the Stanley Cup. AHL teams compete for the Calder Cup.

How many teams are in the AHL?

The number of teams in the AHL varies, but it typically features around 30 teams.

Is the AHL considered professional hockey?

Yes, the AHL is a professional league, though it's a step below the NHL in terms of competition level.

Do NHL and AHL teams play each other?

NHL and AHL teams do not play official games against each other.

How do players enter the AHL?

Players can enter the AHL through various routes, including being drafted, signed as free agents, or through NHL affiliations.

How long is the AHL season compared to the NHL?

The AHL season is roughly similar in length to the NHL season, but the number of games is usually fewer.

Are the arenas for AHL games smaller than NHL games?

Yes, AHL arenas are typically smaller than NHL arenas, reflecting the difference in fan base size.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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