The NHL is the major professional league for Canada and the U.S. Then there's minor pro, also considered to be a farm system, which includes the AHL, ECHL and a couple of others I don't really know. In Canada, the next step down is Junior hockey, under the umbrella of the CHL. That's divided into the WHL, OHL, QMJHL, and includes players up to high school. The NHL website has links to all of this stuff. You forget to mention the European elite leagues, where the Russians and the Finns, Chezks and Swedes play. They send their fair share of players to the NHL.
There are different levels of hockey, depending both on skill and age. Tier hockey refers to the upper levels of hockey and includes the AA and AAA levels. AAA (higher than AA) refers to one of the highest levels of amateur or minor professional hockey. This is a similar ranking system as used by baseball. This does apply to professional minor league hockey, such as the AHL being considered AAA and the ECHL considered AA, both being minor leagues and both being professional leagues.
The majority of ice hockey around the world is played under the umbrella of three organizations, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, and the International Ice Hockey Federation, each with their own set of rules. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey rulebooks are used in most amateur hockey in North America, and the IIHF rulebook is used in both amateur and professional leagues. The National Hockey League has its own rulebook, from which the rulebooks of most North American professional leagues are derived. United States high school leagues use the National Federation of State High School Associations rulebook, and varsity college hockey is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association's rules. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_hockey_rules
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