Seemingly out of the blue on Monday afternoon there came word of a new hockey league coming to fruition in time for Summer 2021. They already had their TV deals in place with both TSN and CBS Sports, an partnership with ASM Global, who operate around 60 arenas in North America with and they had a prized format we’ve all come to love in the past few years, the 3 on 3 format that we all can’t get enough of in overtime.

The league also promises to fill a void of the summer months when hockey disappears from our TVs, but not from our hearts. According to E.J. Johnston, CEO of 3ICE, the plan is that as soon as the Stanley Cup is awarded, 3ICE starts touring. They’ll hit the road for nine Saturdays from June to August, being wrapped up before the start of NHL training camps, or before Saturday sports television transitions to College Football.

It very much seems like this league is going to happen, and reached out to E.J. Johnston to find out more.

According to E.J. the idea of building the league came largely from the success of the new overtime format, which he admits to believing would be gimmicky at first. The quick buy-in to it not only from himself, but so many people around hockey changed his mind, and seeing the crowd that 3 on 3 tournaments drew at both the Penguins and Devils training camps led him to believe that 3 on 3 could be its own product. The success of leagues like Big 3 and the enthusiasm for the 3 on 3 CHEL mode in the EA NHL series certainly helped enforce that belief as well.

In talking with E.J. I get the understanding that he has a good grasp for what can realistically be achieved as far as a talent pool. The intention is to target those former NHL players who found themselves on the outs of the league around 27-32, and still have the energy and speed to play an uptempo 3 on 3 game. They’ll be looking for those bottom six forwards who play under 15 minutes a night, but you still see them used in overtime. I couldn’t help but think of a player like Linus Omark, who has an electrifying offensive skillset, but couldn’t make it work. E.J. suggest Robbie Schremp as another example, but stands by Conor Sheary as his prototypical 3ICE player.

Interestingly enough when I asked E.J. about whether with the rise of popularity of the Women’s game, if the league would be open to women as well, he replied with a yes, citing his experience with witnessing Cammi Granato dominate a Penguins Fantasy Camp a few years back, and the demonstration of skill during last year’s NHL All-Star weekend. He emphasized given the high skill and speed aspect of this game and limited contact would make this league a potential fit for all.

While the primary players being looked at for this league may be former NHLers, it is interesting to see that there is the potential for this, and if not immediately, there are talks of 3ICE Women, 3ICE Junior, and 3ICE Europe as potential future offshoots.

Personnel was a big topic of conversation for me, as I am curious about the star power that they would have, and the level of interest that this league will receive from players, to which Johnston notes that agents have been very supportive of this league being developed and are quick to offer up names of clients who would be interested in this. The league is anticipating having a couple hundred players interested annually for around 70 spots (there will be 8 teams with 6 skaters and goaltender, but also a reserve list and tournament backup goaltenders.)

Part of the goal of the league is to turn these players into stars, and have the players be who fans cheer for even more than teams. Having players demonstrate what they have in this league and earn a contract or tryout in the NHL is something the league hopes to see. As well as celebrate the unique talents and skills that players can bring to this league that might not work in the NHL.

Personally I think this league has the potential to become a perfect breeding ground for affordable backup goaltending, but that’s my inner Kyle Dubas thinking.

Some other really cool stuff

Admittedly I was intrigued and optimistic about the league before this conversation, but in talking with E.J. I’ve found myself getting increasingly enthusiastic about what this could be. In addition to the 3 on 3 format and using penalty shots instead of penalties, there are other cool aspects to the game that we can expect to keep it moving fast. A running clock is part of it, but they are also exploring options that encourage goaltenders to play the puck instead of covering it. There will be fewer faceoffs and we can expect to see some ideas borrowed from CHEL to keep things moving fast.

Additionally, E.J. has cited the XFL as a model for increasing fan interaction and creating “the biggest locker room in the world”. One of the coolest features of this will be when a backup goaltender is required in a game, fans will have the ability via their app to vote on which goaltender will go in.

Fans will also be able to weigh-in on goal reviews, although to what extent the will be a part of the outcome remains to be seen.

The construction of the team is another thing that will appeal to die hard hockey fans, as the league will undergo a mini-combine and coaches will begin each year by drafting their teams. Not a bad way to create some initial excitement.

Before the season starts fans will also get the opportunity to vote on which cities will be visited by 3ICE. There will be nine weekends of games, and 3ICE will likely put a list of 15-20 cities to the public to vote on. The goal being to find a balance of NHL/AHL markets along with some under-served hockey cities like Halifax, Quebec, etc.

All of this sounds pretty good, and pretty reasonable as well. The league fills the summer void for hockey fans looking to see an uptempo version of the game and potentially through showcasing the most exciting part of hockey, some news will be drawn to the sport as well. It will be interesting to see how this league continues to take shape over the next year.