A few years ago at Pittsburgh Penguins rookie camp, E.J. Johnston observed the delight among a couple thousand fans as they watched a tournament of 3-on-3 contests.
"It was electric," Johnston recalled. "It was end-to-end action. It was all the creativity, and goal-scoring and tic-tac-toe passing that hockey fans love."
The NHL's five-minute, 3-on-3 overtime period, instituted in 2015, gained almost immediate popularity and praise from hockey fans. Johnston — whose father Eddie won two Stanley Cups as a goaltender with the Boston Bruins and is a longtime member of the Penguins' front office — had an idea. If unknown prospects could entertain a crowd like that, Johnston thought, it could be hockey's next innovation.
Johnston is now the CEO and founder of "3ICE," a new 3-on-3 hockey league set to debut next year across North America, with several big-name coaches (six of them Hockey Hall of Famers) serving as the coaches of the eight inaugural teams. Craig Patrick, the assistant to Herb Brooks on the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic gold squad, is the league's commissioner.
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'NOBODY SAW THIS COMING': Mega-complexes desperate to welcome youth sports back
The logo of the new 3-on-3 hockey league set to debut in 2021. (Photo: Courtesy: 3ICE)
“A conversation I had with my dad was, ‘We’re going to need somebody at the top of this,’" Johnston said. "And his first answer was Craig Patrick.”
Patrick's excitement was evident from the start; he played with Johnston's father before E.J. was even born, and their own relationship goes back 30 years. The founders are confident the breakneck style of play will attract both prospects and a fanbase.
"We’re anticipating that we’re going to be able to have a lot of exciting hockey," Patrick said, "even more than the NHL’s overtime format, because we’re going to go for a lot of speed and skill throughout and we’re going to look at different rules that enable that to happen more frequently in our game. It’s just an exciting venture for me."
The eight coaches are: six-time Stanley Cup winner Bryan Trottier; three-time champion Guy Carbonneau; five-time All-Star John LeClair; four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero; four-time Stanley Cup winner Larry Murphy; three-time champion Joe Mullen; and Ed Johnston. Johnston and LeClair are the only members of the group not selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Who, exactly, these coaches will have on their rosters remains to be seen, but Johnston thinks assembling the player pool will be one of the easier aspects of the launch. Johnston points to specific body type — shorter, faster players, with elite hands and stick speed — and age (mid-20s to early to mid-30s) when describing a typical 3ICE player.
"These guys will have NHL pedigree. If the NHL was overtime all the time, they’d still be playing in the league," Johnston said. "The creativity is really what we’re looking for.”
Patrick said the goalies will need to fit that mold, too, since they will be handling the puck more often than the game is accustomed to. 3ICE will consist of 56 players — eight teams of seven individuals, with six skaters and one goaltender per squad.
The 3ICE schedule begins in June and lasts nine weeks, with all eight teams traveling to a different location each week. Currently, the league has whittled the list down to 15-20 metropolitan candidates, primarily in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, but also the Midwest.
"We want the fans to chime in and make the case for their city," Johnston said. "So if we get an overwhelming response in Columbus or Pittsburgh or Erie or Toronto, that will obviously tip the scales."
Each stop will essentially be a different tournament — seven games total, bracket-style and single-elimination. The eight-minute halves will have a running clock. Faceoffs are discouraged. There are no penalties, only penalty shots.
"We're out to promote and sell hockey at its purest," Trottier said.
"It's gonna have its audience," he added. "In today’s wham-bam attention span world, I think the quickness, the idea of multiple games, the idea of short periods, action action, boom boom, it’s gonna grab a lot of eyeballs."
To help grab those eyeballs, 3ICE partnered with TSN in Canada and CBS Sports in the U.S. to broadcast games. Johnston reached out to nearly every major network's sport properties, but, "CBS just had the enthusiasm and the capability. Quite honestly, they have the brand and the assets that they’re going to put behind this that made us really excited," he said.
Ruggiero doesn't put much stock in being the lone female coach. It's nothing new for the first woman to play in a men's pro hockey league in the U.S. (outside of the goalie position).
"Hockey's hockey," she said. "It's the same game regardless of gender."
Among the challenges she expects is how much she will actually be able to coach in-game, given the frenetic environment 3-on-3 provides. In her opinion, nailing the draft and the conditioning aspect of coaching will translate to success.
Because teams are guaranteed one game per weekend, the magnitude of each game will naturally be more intense, Ruggiero said. The novelty of the league should largely mitigate most competitive advantages.
“Everyone’s going to be competitive," said Ruggiero, who recently had her first child. "Every one of these eight coaches is going to want to win this thing. But it’ll be fun. It definitely raises the profile, having so many Stanley Cup winners, gold medalists, behind the bench.”
Ruggiero spent 2010-18 as a member of the International Olympic Committee. Shortly after being elected, she attended the Youth Olympics in Singapore. There, 3-on-3 basketball became, "literally, overnight, the most popular event."
In 2016, Ruggiero founded her company, Sports Innovation Lab — a market research company focused on the intersection of sports, technology and the future of sport. The company's findings revealed younger generations being drawn to shorter formats with more engagement.
So when Johnston asked Ruggiero to come aboard 3ICE, it was an easy yes.
"I love the fact that we’ve already had some exposure at the NHL level in overtime," she said. "Now, it’s kind of taking that one step further.
“Hockey’s got to do things differently to keep the next generation engaged.”
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