A few weeks ago, the #1 game in SportsCenter’s top 10 featured former Penguins pro Brandon Hawkins sliding in with a penalty…and scoring with a sick Spin-O-Rama lacrosse move.
That’s the kind of action fans can expect when 3Ice comes to Pittsburgh this Saturday. As their tag line goes, it truly is “the best part of hockey” as the new summer league uses the same electrifying 3-on-3 format that the NHL uses for overtime.
Or, as AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh’s Steve Mears – who calls the games for 3Ice alongside his usual partner Bob Errey – puts it, “Overtime all the time.”
Founded by EJ Johnston, son of Penguin legend Ed Johnston, it consists of six teams coached by former NHL greats. Competing for ‘The Patty’ Cup, named after another Penguin legend, Craig Patrick, and a whole host of cash prizes in nine tournaments spread across North America – and Pittsburgh is where it all began.
A few years ago, EJ was at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex watching the Penguins’ development camp with his father Patrick, Jim Rutherford, Bill Guerin and members of the scouting team. The facility was packed with people watching as prospects ended the week with a 3v3 tournament and EJ was blown away not only by the On Ice product but also by the crowd response.
“People are ooh-ing and ahh-ing at these unknown guys who are absolutely hosting a clinic,” Johnston said. “That was an aha moment for me. There’s about 1,200 people sitting on the edge of their seats, they applaud. I just couldn’t believe how much fun this was and I knew there was a league and a TV program and product to be developed and built around this.”
So a format was constructed: six teams, each with six field players plus a goalkeeper. Each tour stop has six games: three in the opening round, two semifinals, then a league game – all lasting around three hours or less. The games consist of two eight-minute halves. There are no power plays, only penalties. And since this is technically already an overtime format, in the event of a tie, teams will go into a round until a winner is determined.
The coaching staff includes former Penguins Bryan Trottier, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy, as well as John LeClair, Grant Fuhr and Guy Carbonneau. They’re all in the Hockey Hall of Fame, including 23 Stanley Cup rings — not to mention the accomplishments of Patrick, who serves as commissioner, and Ed, who is assistant commissioner.
“There’s just so much grandeur that goes through the halls of 3Ice and the players feel it, the fans feel it,” Johnston said. “We named the teams after the coaches. It is great. They’re huge, huge names to have around. They bought in, they believe in it and they’re having a lot of fun.”
And they’re super competitive too. “They’re really into it,” Johnston said, laughing. “Murphy talks about how stressful it is. LeClair is desperate to win. He is it furious if he leaves the ice and doesn’t win.”
A training camp and tryouts were held for the first time in April, with 3Ice looking for players who fit the mold of Ferrari/Maserati rather than Mack Trucks/Bulldozers. Johnston cites Conor Sheary as an example, calling him “a super-fast water bug that can do just incredible things.”
His biggest obstacle has always been his height, as the winger is just 5ft 9 tall. And when Sheary was more in a fourth-line checking role, he failed to show his true talent. But when he got into the right situations with the right players, his speed and offensive ability really shone – and that’s part of the goal of 3Ice.
“We knew there were a lot of people out there that would be a good match for us,” Johnston said. “They’re between 5-7 and 6-1, we don’t really have big, big guys. And they’re fast. This is what we are looking for. Great hands, fast, damn creative.”
While most players are younger, with an average age between 28 and 29, former Penguins forward Ryan Malone is an exception. He is one of the few players with Pittsburgh ties, including Bobby Farnham, who played in the Penguins organization for four seasons, and Tyler Murovich, who is from the area.
Johnston said they’re not only pleasantly surprised at how the product is doing, they’re overjoyed. Once players get used to the format after the first few weeks, they’ve really settled in. The top four teams make the playoffs and the championship in the ninth and final week, “so guys trying to get from sixth and fifth to second, third, fourth — it’s going to be really, really hot. Now it becomes real.”
While the league has an incredibly impressive worldwide TV coverage, fans won’t want to miss seeing this action live.
“It’s been really fun and it’s getting better every week,” Mears told NHL Network. “I love it. It’s exciting and this is a home week for me. I think we’re going to have a great audience for it.”
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