A few years ago, at the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie camp, E.J. Johnston observed the joy among a few thousand fans while watching a 3-in-3 tournament.
"It was electric," recalled Johnston. "It was an end-to-end action. It was all the creativity and the passing of goals and tic-tac-toe that hockey fans love."
The extra five minutes of the NHL, instituted in 2015, gained almost immediate popularity and praise from hockey fans. Johnston – whose father, Eddie, won two Stanley Cups as a goalkeeper for the Boston Bruins and is a longtime member of the Penguins' office – had an idea. If unknown perspectives could entertain a crowd like this, Johnston thought, it could be hockey's next innovation.
Johnston is now the CEO and founder of "3ICE", a new 3-in-3 hockey league that is set to debut in North America next year, with several renowned coaches (six of them at the Hockey Hall of Famers) serving as coaches the eight inaugural teams. Craig Patrick, assistant to Herb Brooks in the 1980 US Olympic gold team, is the commissioner of the league.
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& # 39; NO ONE SEEN THIS COMING & # 39 ;: Mega-complexes desperate to get youth sports back
The logo of the new 3-in-3 hockey league is set to debut in 2021. (Photo: Courtesy: 3ICE)
"One conversation I had with my father was, & # 39; We are going to need someone on top of this & # 39;", said Johnston. "And his first response was Craig Patrick."
Patrick's excitement was evident from the start; he played with Johnston's father before E.J. was born, and his own relationship goes back 30 years. The founders are confident that the mind-boggling style of play will attract prospects and a fan base.
"We are predicting that we will be able to have a lot of exciting hockey," said Patrick, "even more than the NHL overtime format, because we will be looking for a lot of speed and skill everywhere and we will see different rules that allow this to happen more often in our game. It's just an exciting undertaking for me. "
The eight coaches are: Grant Fuhr, a four-time Stanley Cup winner; Bryan Trottier, six-time World Cup champion; triple champion Guy Carbonneau; five times All-Star John LeClair; the four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero; Larry Murphy, a four-time Stanley Cup winner; three-time champion Joe Mullen; and Ed Johnston. Johnston and LeClair are the only members of the group not selected for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Who exactly these coaches will have on their roster has yet to be seen, but Johnston thinks building the pool of players will be one of the easiest aspects of the launch. Johnston points to a specific body type – shorter and faster players, with elite hands and stick speed – and age (between 20 and 30 years old) when describing a typical 3ICE player.
"These guys will have NHL pedigree. If the NHL were working overtime all the time, they would still play in the league," said Johnston. "Creativity is really what we are looking for".
Patrick said goalkeepers will also need to fit this mold, as they will be dealing with the puck more often than the game is used to. 3ICE will consist of 56 players – eight teams of seven individuals, with six skaters and one goalkeeper per team.
The 3ICE schedule starts in June and lasts nine weeks, with the eight teams traveling to a different location each week. Currently, the league has reduced the list to 15 to 20 metropolitan candidates, mainly in the northeastern United States and Canada, but also in the Midwest.
"We want fans to participate and defend the city," said Johnston. "So if we get an overwhelming response in Columbus, Pittsburgh, Erie or Toronto, it will obviously tip the balance."
Each stop will essentially be a different tournament – seven games total, bracket style and single elimination. The eight-minute halves will have a race watch. Clashes are discouraged. There are no penalties, just penalty shots.
"We want to promote and sell hockey in the purest way," said Trottier.
"It will have its audience," he added. "In today's world of attention to wham-bam, I think that the speed, the idea of several games, the idea of short periods, action, action, boom boom, will attract a lot of eyes."
To help attract those eyes, 3ICE partnered with TSN in Canada and CBS Sports in the U.S. to broadcast games. Johnston reached almost all the sporting properties of all the major chains, but "CBS just had enthusiasm and ability. Honestly, they have the brand and the assets that they will put behind it, that really got us excited." said.
Ruggiero does not place much importance on being the lone coach. It is not new for the first woman to play a men's professional hockey league in the USA (outside the goalkeeper position).
"Hockey in hockey," she said. "It's the same game, regardless of gender."
Among the challenges she expects is how much she will be able to train in the game, given the hectic environment that 3-on-3 provides. In his opinion, preaching the draft and the conditioning aspect of coaching will translate into success.
As the teams guarantee one game per weekend, the magnitude of each game will naturally be more intense, said Ruggiero. The novelty of the league should largely mitigate the most competitive advantages.
"Everyone is going to be competitive," said Ruggiero, who recently had his first child. "Each of these eight coaches will want to win this thing. But it will be fun. It definitely raises the profile, with so many Stanley Cup winners, gold medalists, behind the bank."
Ruggiero spent 2010-18 as a member of the International Olympic Committee. Shortly after being elected, she participated in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. There, 3 on 3 basketball became "literally overnight, the most popular event".
In 2016, Ruggiero founded his company, the Sports Innovation Lab – a market research company focused on the intersection of sports, technology and the future of sport. The company's findings revealed that younger generations are drawn to shorter, more involved formats.
So when Johnston asked Ruggiero to embark on 3ICE, it was an easy yes.
"I love the fact that we already had some exposure at the NHL level in overtime," she said. "Now, you're taking it a step further.
"Hockey needs to do things differently to keep the next generation involved."