Inside 3ICE 3-on-3 hockey's revolutionary first season

Courtesy of 3ICE

The 3ICE 3-on-3 hockey league will award the Patrick Cup to its inaugural champions this weekend in Las Vegas. Just don't expect the winning players to lift it over their heads.

"It's heavy as hell, man," said E.J. Johnston, the founder and CEO of 3ICE. "It's like 65 pounds."

The first year of this start-up league has been defined by inventive thinking, creative solutions to challenges and an untraditional approach to hockey. So it's only fitting that the 3ICE season -- which concludes with a four-team tournament at Orleans Arena on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, CBS) -- would end with a string of meetings about the proper way to present a trophy that weighs as much as a German shepherd.

"It's a running joke internally," Johnston said. "We'll likely take if off the table and then have them skate it below their waist. Certainly not above their heads."

To create the trophy that 3ICE wanted at a lighter weight would have taken a year. Time being of the essence, the trophy-makers used a heavy porcelain base for the Patrick Cup, which is named in honor of league commissioner Craig Patrick.

Joe Mullen, who coaches the eponymous top seed in the 3ICE championship tournament, hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup three times as an NHL player. This trophy weighs nearly twice as much.

"I hope I get the chance to win it, but I'm not even tryin' to lift it," he said, chuckling.

Johnston said the plan is to create a lighter championship trophy for the second season of 3ICE.

There are other weighty issues facing 3ICE as its first season concludes. But after nine weeks of exhausting, exhilarating and frequently innovative hockey, there's a celebratory mood about this first campaign -- and not just because there's $1 million on the line in Vegas this weekend (with around $127,000 going to each player on the winning team).

At the end of his six-team league's first season, Johnston is left wondering about how the imaginative rules could influence the NHL's 3-on-3 overtime -- like allowing the puck to be played off the netting -- and whether 3ICE is ahead of a curve that could see the format adopted as a Winter Olympic event in the near future.

What Johnston is certain about is that 3ICE hit most of the targets he envisioned.

"I think we've crushed it. When the fans come and see us, they're so psyched we're here," he said. "It's a rocket ship. The sky's the limit."

3ICE WAS ANNOUNCED in January 2020, a league that sought to capitalize on the kinetic qualities of the NHL's 3-on-3 overtime format that was adopted in 2015. Initially, the plan was to have eight teams named for different sponsors. That became six teams named for the former NHL players coaching them.

The coaches were an early selling point for the league and by far the biggest stars associated with 3ICE: Hockey Hall of Famers Mullen, Guy Carbonneau, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy and Grant Fuhr and former Philadelphia Flyers star John LeClair.

"We were all kind of looking at each other in the meetings when it started. I mean, it's a whole new start-up league," Mullen said. "But once we got the guys on the ice and we could see how it was working, it really was pretty cool to be a part of it."

Jeremy Brodeur, an ECHL netminder who played on Carbonneau's team, said the coaches weren't just window dressing.

"You would think that they were just faces behind the bench, but all these guys actually worked really hard to get a system down or match their lines," he said.

The players were mostly minor leaguers, and only a handful had NHL experience.

Tyler Murovich hadn't played professional hockey since the 2017-18 season with the ECHL Wheeling Nailers, the ninth season of a minor league career. A Pittsburgh native, the 32-year-old is a youth hockey coach at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania. The 3ICE executive team had him on its radar as someone who could play with the speed and creativity needed for 3-on-3 hockey.

Murovich went to Las Vegas for the recruitment showcase thinking that, at best, he'd be on a taxi squad this season. Instead, he was tied for second in the league in goals with 20 heading into the final weekend.

The league's debut season was built on stories like these. There is Brandon Hawkins, a dominant ECHL scorer, getting the chance to hit the SportsCenter highlight reel with an electrifying scoring move. And Joe Whitney, a 34-year-old Boston College product who had five NHL games in his career before playing with the Iserlohn Roosters in Germany last season, leading the league in scoring.

"We had some guys early in the season that weren't really sure about this because their focus was training for their own upcoming seasons," Murovich said. "But as this has gotten more intense, and with the money on the line, they've realized how fun it is.

"They really did get the right crew of guys here. Whether they played in the NHL or in the minors for a lot of years, they were perfectly suited for this entertaining style of hockey."

RATHER THAN A traditional league schedule, 3ICE played nine weeks in eight locations: Denver; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Hershey, Pennsylvania; London, Ontario; Pittsburgh; Quebec City; Nashville, Tennessee; and opening and closing weekends in Las Vegas. The teams played in a single-day bracketed tournament, with different levels of prize money on the line for the winners.

The games consisted of two eight-minute halves with a running clock that only stopped for penalties and injuries. Teams consisted of six skaters and a goalie.

The league would fly in players, coaches and other personnel on Friday to that weekend's host city. Travel was Johnston's biggest learning curve this season. The frequent flight cancellations around North America created some havoc; there were a couple of occasions when coaches wouldn't arrive at the arena until a few hours before the games.

Johnston said bringing the 3ICE road show across the border was "an absolute nightmare" and that he has doubts about returning to Canada in 2023, citing mountains of paperwork, the tax differences and vaccination-status issues.

"We had a lot of guys that couldn't cross the border this year because they didn't want to get vaccinated," he said.

At each event, they would all gather for a "welcome and orientation dinner" on Friday night, which acted as a debriefing from the previous weekend's games and a previewing of the action on the following day. Johnston would act like a coach in a team meeting, speaking for around 15 minutes and presenting a short slideshow.

They'd review the current standings and what was at stake in Saturday's games. They would announce who would wear "the golden helmet" as the most recent scoring leader. There would be a rules refresher; Murovich recalled getting called out for leaving too early on a penalty shot. They also would announce in-season rule tweaks as league officials saw what worked and what needed refinement, specifically on icing and goalie interference plays.

Early on Saturday morning, there would be an optional skate, followed by formal practices before the games began in the afternoon.

There were three games in the opening round, two more in the semifinals and a championship game, all of it fitting into three-hour window. Brodeur said the compact schedule was challenging for the players.

"The way it worked, if you played the first game then you could be sitting in the locker room for 48 minutes to an hour. It was tough to keep your legs under you," he said.

Not every 3-on-3 overtime in the NHL is a classic, and the same holds true for the 3ICE tournaments. Johnston said they had "one or two dud games every week" because of blowouts, but they were balanced by "three or four unreal games." He said the scoring totals for the games were around where he anticipated them to be prior to the season; but from an intensity standpoint, the on-ice product exceeded his expectations, he explained.

Johnston felt there were a few reasons for that increase in quality:

1. Players were getting in better shape. "I think some of the guys thought this was going to be a fun summer beer league thing. They didn't necessarily know what to expect early on," Johnston said. "Guys were gassed in the first week or two, and then they realized that in their off week, they had to make sure their cardio was going."

2. They better understood the game. Even if the players had competed in 3-on-3 hockey before, they hadn't played it quite like this, thanks to 3ICE's unique rules. Johnston said that thankfully it was a short learning curve.

3. They realized the stakes. While some of the players might have approached 3ICE as a way to stay in shape during the summer or tour North America on someone else's dime, the intensity of the games grew as they started to see "real money" rolling in for victories, according to Johnston.

"When those first couple of checks hit, it's like, 'Oh, s---,' because the team picks up $50,000 every time they win," he said.

Over the course of the regular season, the top-earning players will make more than $170,000, with many others in the $20,000 to $50,000 range.

As the season drew closer to its finale, the jawing and slashing between players, along with the pace of play, saw a noticeable uptick.

That was especially true in Nashville on Aug. 6. Team Carbonneau had to win one of its final two games before the season finale but failed to do so. Hence, it was Team Mullen, Team Murphy, Team Trottier and Team LeClair that advanced to play in Las Vegas this weekend.

Carbonneau was one of the coaches who took the assignment to heart, to the point of breaking down tape between games. Johnston said he took the elimination hard.

"Walking around the locker room, he was salty," Johnston said. "His team lost out at a shot at a million bucks. They took it seriously. The coaches are buddies, but not when they step in between the lines."

That's only been exacerbated by the success that Team Mullen has had this season, winning five of the eight events on the tour.

"There are a couple of coaches that really don't like that Joey Mullen's team was winning five out of eight weeks." Johnston said.

Mullen laughed at the tensions among friends.

"Hey, it's not my fault! The players played really well. But everybody wants to win," he said. "For the most part, it's been really good. Although we did have some kinks early on with the rules and everything."

DESPITE 3-ON-3 HOCKEY not exactly being friendly to goalies, Brodeur was drawn to 3ICE for the chance to make some spectacular saves. But what ended up really intriguing him were the collection of distinctive rules that defined the league.

After a season playing under them, Brodeur said his hockey brain had been rewired.

"I actually played in a charity tournament recently in Philly, and I was freaking out when guys were not playing the puck off the netting," he said. "My brain is in '3ICE mode' right now."

Much of the 3ICE 3-on-3 game looks like that of the NHL's overtime: no fights, little physicality and lots of scoring chances. But this league offered some incredible variations on that theme. Among the revolutionary rules for 3-on-3 hockey in 3ICE:

No power plays. When a team is penalized in an NHL overtime, its opponent gets a 4-on-3 power play. In 3ICE, the opposing team gets an automatic penalty shot. The coach chooses the shooter; although in the future, there might be a chance that the fans select the shooter via the league's app.

Arguably the best goal of the inaugural season was scored on such a play, as Hawkins of Team LeClair pulled off this twirling lacrosse-goal beauty:

"Jailbreak" penalty shots. Hawkins wasn't the only skater on the ice for his penalty shot. In a radical departure from NHL rules, 3ICE instituted what Johnston called the "jailbreak" penalty shot. The shooter gets a head start and a clear path to the goal. But as soon as he touches the puck, the rest of the skaters -- three defenders and two of his own teammates -- begin sprinting after him.

"You've got everybody chasing the guy. There have been a couple of goals scored off of rebounds," Johnston said. "I could see the NHL maybe adopting that."

Intentionally icing the puck is a penalty. Essentially, defending teams can't just shoot the puck down the ice to end the pressure in their zone -- even if it's an attempt at an empty net at the other end. Any "intentional" icing results in a penalty and thus a penalty shot. But there is some subjectivity in the rule, as an attempt at a hockey play that results in icing is exempt.

No goalie restrictions. Goalies can play the puck anywhere on the ice, but they're also protected inside a large blue arc that stretches from the front of the net to the end boards. It's officially called "The clear zone," but Murovich said it's also known as "The mushroom."

When a goalie freezes the puck, the defenders have to clear that zone so the goalie can pass the puck. After a goal, the team that scored has to move all the way back to the neutral zone so the defending team can start their rush up ice. That's because ...

There are almost no faceoffs. There's a faceoff to begin the half, and that's it. Play begins with the goalies after stoppages.

Pucks off the netting are live. If the puck is cleared off the netting that's draped behind the end board glass to protect the fans and it bounces back on the ice, it's live and playable.

"I love it. In our informal pro leagues in the summer, we always do that anyway just to keep the game moving," Murovich said. "It's fast-paced."

The "half-court rule." In basketball, once a player crosses midcourt, the ball can't be dribbled or passed back across that line. In 3ICE hockey, if the offensive team brings the puck back over the center red line without interference from the defensive team, that's ruled a turnover.

"You can't just loop back around for a change or kill clock back there," Johnston said. "It's super boring. It's a no-brainer. The NHL is definitely going to adopt that, in my opinion."

Time will tell if 3ICE influences the rules of 3-on-3 hockey in the NHL. But Johnston believes this is just the start for his league.

JOHNSTON HAD TWO main goals heading into the inaugural season.

"We had to nail the on-ice product, and then we had to nail the television broadcast," he said.

3ICE had a deal with CBS Sports in the United States, TSN in Canada and ESPN for international rights. From having cameramen on the ice to other innovations, Johnston was pleased with the video product.

"I'd put my broadcast against anything in hockey and most things in sports," he said.

While he was happy with the broadcasts, he admitted that the gates could have been stronger for 3ICE at the arenas.

"I think we underperformed a little bit. Most crowds were between [3,000] and 4,000, which is fine and I'll take it. But I want to be around [5,000] to 6,000 and get most of the lower bowl sold in the NHL buildings. And I'll get there," Johnston said.

3ICE held events in NHL-sized arenas in Pittsburgh, Nashville and Quebec City and in smaller venues in Denver, Grand Rapids, Hershey, London and Las Vegas. While the NHL buildings felt cavernous because of the crowd size, they also had high-quality facilities -- with NHL trainers and medical staffers -- that the players appreciated.

"So even if the crowd's not huge, you still feel like you're getting a nice kind of pro experience by being in those locker rooms," Brodeur said.

The plan for next season is a little different: 3ICE wants to go to cities multiple times in 2023. If it's a 10-week season, the league would visit the same city in weeks 1 and 5, weeks 2 and 6 and so on, playing in the same arena each time. One key in selecting these areas, Johnston said, is to find tenants that will partner with the league.

"Then they'll just hammer their season-ticket holders for us," he said.

Johnston hopes to attract more sponsors next season to create more revenue streams.

Then there's the sports wagering piece. Sportradar is 3ICE'S data analytics partner, and the league hasn't been shy about embracing betting in its second season. The tournament format and robust offense lend themselves to that, while Johnston believes there's a prop betting market for 3ICE, as well.

The plan for 3ICE is to become profitable in its third season. Despite the outlay for facilities, travel, prize purses and other expenses in Year 1, Johnston said he likes where the league is financially. He expects 3ICE to do a Series B of financing before the end of the calendar year.

He also anticipates an uptick in player quality.

"The recruiting for 3ICE is over; the recruiting is us existing," Johnston said. "The phone is now just ringing."

He expects an increase from around 35% ex-NHLers to upward of 70% next season, while intentionally keeping roster spots open for college players and unknown talents.

Perhaps the greatest unknown for 3ICE: what the Olympics could do to boost the 3-on-3 format's standing.

The International Ice Hockey Federation is working to bring 3-on-3 hockey to the Winter Olympics, with a task force exploring the logistics and the best format. Johnston called the adoption of Olympic 3-on-3 hockey "inevitable," and he said it could be a boon to 3ICE when it happens.

That's the big picture for 3ICE. On a smaller scale, the league will learn from its first campaign, whether it's tweaking its schedule, adjusting its rules or ordering a championship trophy that won't require a trip to the chiropractor after it's lifted.

Murovich's advice to 3ICE: Stay the course.

"People need to see the broadcasts," he said. "People need to see the stuff on social media. People need to see it in person too, because they'll really notice the speed of the game.

"It's fun. It's loose. There's music playing during the game. And it's absolutely 'hair on fire' hockey."