Prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, the National Hockey League announced that their new overtime format would be a five-minute period with just three skaters per side. Whether you think this is the right way to decide a winner or not, it is hard to argue with the entertainment factor the 3-on-3 overtime period has given us.
The greatest hockey players in the world have been able to show off their speed, skill and creativity with the wide-open ice. What if there was a professional league that just solely used this format to provide an action-packed, fast-moving game? That is the exact question E.J. Johnston asked himself and now he is preparing to make it become a reality with 3ICE.
Overtime, All the Time
Johnston has had hockey in his blood stream since birth. He is the son of Ed Johnston, who won five Stanley Cups; two as a goaltender with the Boston Bruins and three in the front office of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In fact, it was a trip with his father, about three years ago, to the Penguins’ rookie camp, that got the ball rolling on the idea of a 3-on-3 professional hockey league. At the end of the camp, the prospects took part in a 3-on-3 tournament and it brought the house down.
“These guys were doing the greatest, riskiest, most fun hockey dangles and it was electric,” Johnston recalled. “I said ‘Oh my gosh, this a business!’ I saw how the crowd was reacting and how they were on the edge of the seats. That was the light bulb moment for me.”
From that point, Johnston began thinking of how he could capture that excitement which led to the creation of 3ICE. Set to debut on June 19, 2021, 3ICE will be a traveling professional hockey league that will feature eight teams of six skaters and a goaltender playing a 10-week season. The eight-week regular season will see the entire league travel to eight different cities and play a single-elimination tournament at each stop. After a one-week break, the championship will be held in the 10th and final week.
“This is really a perfect storm of my personal passion – the way I grew up – and my professional experience and expertise,” Johnston said of 3ICE.
The motto being used by the start-up league is “overtime, all the time.” Johnston’s vision is to take what he feels is the best part of hockey and make it their full format.
Hall of Fame Staff Brings Instant Credibility
One of the first tasks Johnston needed to accomplish was finding a commissioner; someone to be the face of the new league. Fortunately, he only had to make one phone call, per the suggestion of his father, and that was to Craig Patrick.
“He loved the concept,” Johnston said of Patrick. “He saw the value. He saw the vision. He bought into what we were going to do with this and we are very happy to have him.
“Our list was one person and we got him. He’s been fantastic. He’s a walking encyclopedia of expertise, knowledge and trivia and as well as contacts and relationships. He thinks and knows the game in ways that very few people can.”
Patrick has done just about everything one can in the game. After his eight-year NHL career, he was Herb Brooks’ assistant coach for the 1980 United States “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team. Following a stint as both head coach and general manager of the New York Rangers, Patrick became general manager of the Penguins in 1989. They won two Stanley Cups under his leadership and he drafted players like Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin in his later years.
Speaking of Stanley Cups, the eight coaches on board have won 24 combined championships during their NHL careers. The very impressive list includes Guy Carbonneau, Grant Fuhr, Ed Johnston, Joe LeClair, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Angel Ruggiero and Bryan Trottier.
“For us, it was an important statement to make,” Johnston said of his impressive roster of coaches. “We wanted to come out of the gates with excellence. Craig brings a huge amount of that, but these guys take it even further. To use ‘Hollywood speak,’ we had an A-list. We built that list; myself, Craig and our chief of hockey operations Steve Baker, who played six years in the NHL as a goalie. One by one, we started reaching out.
“Our first criterium was they had to be world-class hockey names and minds, and then enthusiasm. For us, that was important. We wanted to be in business with people who want to be in business with us. They all jumped at it. I am flattered by the kind of people we have on board.”
The Ideal 3ICE Player
While the eight coaches bring in some big star power, 3ICE has yet to sign any players as they are still 13 months away from debuting. While Johnston envisions signing some star names who have had long NHL careers, he has the ideal type of player for the league in mind.
“The average NHL career is about three and a half years if you’re lucky,” he said. “You’ve got these guys that come into the league at 21 or 22, who play for four or five years, and unfortunately, for whatever reason, economics or where the game is moving, they don’t have a place anymore in the 5-on-5 game. If the NHL was 3-on-3, they’d still be the stars and the showcase.
“I think about a guy like Connor Carrick in New Jersey. He’s a young, mobile defenseman who’s got great hands, but is a little under-sized. In our system, he is going to be our showcase. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound guy has a huge role in the 5-on-5 game, but not necessarily in the 3-on-3. These guys are going to be in their mid-20s to mid-30s who’ve got the NHL pedigree.”
Johnston does not want 3ICE to be a “senior league” of older players who are just looking to use their names to make a paycheck. While there will be a place for players the NHL has stopped calling for whatever reasons, the 3ICE player will have to bring speed and creativity to the ice if he wants to earn a roster spot.
A Television-Ready Format
The one-day tournaments will be in eight different cities across both Canada and the United States. Each game will consist of two eight-minute halves, with a four-minute break in between. There will be an eight-minute pause in between each game. With seven games being played, there will be 112 minutes of hockey played inside of a 210-minute live television broadcast.
The entire eight-week regular season and championship round will be broadcasted on live television. 3ICE already has a deal in place to show the regular-season on CBS Sports Network, in the United States, with the championship to be aired on CBS proper. Meanwhile, in Canada, TSN and RDS have the broadcast rights for the new league.
“It will be an action-packed evening with seven results and a champion crowned,” Johnston said. “We think it translates really well on TV and for the in-arena experience.”
The host cities have not been announced yet, but Johnston says they have about 15 cities in mind, focusing on the Midwest and Northeast of both Canada and the United States. Eventually, he wants to have the fans ultimately decide which “hockey hungry markets” will become host cities for the 3ICE tour.
The format will allow for an action-packed in-game experience and television broadcast, as well. The one-day tournament provides a “snackable” and sharable content that comes in quick bites. Johnston does not want 3ICE to be looked at as competitor to the NHL, but rather a way to give hockey fans more of the game the love when it usually isn’t available.
“We have always positioned ourselves as additive not competitive,” he said. “We are more hockey. We fit right into the offseason; during those long summer months when you’ve got nothing going on in the hockey world.”
Johnston’s ideal scenario for the league’s inaugural season is to be playing in front of full arenas while providing a great product that appeals to not only hockey and sports fans, but to general entertainment consumers as well.
“It’s packed houses and we nail two things,” Johnston said of his perfect first season. “First, it’s the in-arena experience for the fans and players. The on-ice product is to be high-class and high-speed. Then, we make sure we nail on the TV broadcast side. These are the two big metrics of success for us. We want to make sure we are delivering something that is memorable and entertaining.”
The on-ice product is the only missing piece of the puzzle, at this time. Considering the Hall of Fame quality of the commissioner and coaching ingredients, adding in a national television deal in both Canada and the United States, and Johnston could very well have a recipe for great success on his hands.