One of the National Hockey League's exciting innovations was introducing 3-on-3 overtime play with its offensive pace and unpredictability. That format has inspired a new 3-on-3 professional hockey league called 3ICE, debuting in North America in 2021.
"Three-on-three hockey has proven to be an incredibly exciting display of speed, skill and creativity, and we see a creation of a league based entirely on that as a natural extension whose time has come," said E.J. Johnston, CEO of 3ICE.
Debuting in June 2021, the 3ICE league will essentially be a traveling road show. There will be eight teams of seven players and a goalie, with one coach. The teams will not be affiliated with a city, but rather with different sponsors, taking a page from Formula One racing.
Each tour stop will feature a bracket-style tournament format, with games played on a full-sized rink. Each game will have two eight-minute halves and a running clock. "No penalties, only penalty shots. No long intermissions. Just pure excitement," said 3ICE commissioner Craig Patrick, the former Pittsburgh Penguins general manager and "Miracle on Ice" Team USA assistant coach.
The league plans for some in-game fan interaction, such as allowing fan votes to determine second-round matchups and potentially even voting to determine the result of a video goal review, rather than having officials determine it.
Johnston, son of former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Eddie Johnston, told ESPN that the league will play at NHL and AHL arenas, but will also target "hockey mad" cities that don't have professional teams, such as Halifax and Quebec City.
As for the players, Johnston said the league will be made up of "former NHL players," likely between the ages of 27-32, whose size and speed would better lend themselves to the rigors of 3-on-3 play. "We're not looking for guys that are senior tour right now," Johnston said. "Graybeards aren't gonna be in this league."
"So, as you know, the average career is probably about three-and-a-half to four years if you're lucky in any pro sport, but hockey's the same. So if you come into the league at 22 or 23, you play for three, four years and have between 100 to 200 games under your belt. But then the league isn't asking you back. You're taking a look at opportunities in Europe or maybe you're going to retire," Johnston said. "But if you could just not have to go into the corners against a 6-foot-6 parade of monsters, then you could really show off your speed, your skill, your creativity."
Part of the appeal of the 3ICE league for those players is potentially as a showcase for NHL teams. The 3ICE tour will run from right after the Stanley Cup Final in June through the end of August. NHL training camps open in September.
"If they come into our league and they light it up, then you know what, I think it'd be fantastic if they end up getting back into the NHL." Johnston said.
The league has signed a deal with CBS Sports Network for television coverage in the United States, and with TSN and RDS for coverage in Canada.