A couple of weeks ago, the No. 1-ranked play on SportsCenter’s Top 10 featured former Penguins prospect Brandon Hawkins skating in on a penalty shot … and scoring on a sick spin-o-rama lacrosse move.
That’s the type of action fans can expect to see when 3Ice comes to Pittsburgh this Saturday. As their slogan says, it’s truly ‘the best part of hockey,’ as the new summer league utilizes the same electrifying 3-on-3 format the NHL uses for overtime.
Or, as AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh’s Steve Mears – who is calling the games for 3Ice alongside his usual partner Bob Errey – puts it, ‘overtime all the time.’
Founded by EJ Johnston, the son of Penguins legend Ed Johnston, it consists of six teams coached by former NHL greats. They are battling for ‘The Patty’ Cup, named after another Penguins legend, Craig Patrick, and a whole lot of prize money over nine tournaments spread across North America – and Pittsburgh is where it all began.
A few years ago, EJ was at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex watching Penguins development camp with his dad, Patrick, Jim Rutherford, Bill Guerin and members of the scouting staff. The facility was packed with people watching the prospects finish the week with a 3-on-3 tournament, and EJ was blown away by not just the on-ice product, but the response from the crowd.
“People are ooh-ing and ahh-ing at these unknown guys absolutely putting on a clinic,” Johnston said. “That was a lightbulb moment for me. There’s like 1,200 people there who are on the edge of their seats, they’re applauding. I just couldn’t believe how fun this was, and I knew that 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 skaters plus one goalie. Each tour stop has six games: three in the opening round, two semifinals, then a championship game – which all takes place in about three hours or less. Games consist of two eight-minute halves. There are no power plays, just penalty shots. And since this is already technically overtime format, if a game ends up tied, the teams go to one-round shootouts until a winner is determined.
The coaching staff is made up of former Penguins Bryan Trottier, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy, along with John LeClair, Grant Fuhr and Guy Carbonneau. They are all in the Hockey Hall of Fame, with 23 Stanley Cup rings among them – not to mention the achievements of Patrick, who serves as commissioner, and Ed, who is deputy commissioner.
“There’s just so much greatness walking the halls of 3Ice, and the players feel it, the fans feel it,” Johnston said. “We’ve named the teams after the coaches. It’s awesome. They are huge, huge names to have in this. They bought in, they believe in it, and they’re having a ton of fun.”
And they’re also super competitive. “They’re really into it,” Johnston said with a laugh. “Murphy talks about how stressful it is. LeClair wants to win so bad. He is food when he gets off the ice and doesn’t win.”
A training camp and tryouts first took place back in April, with 3Ice looking for players who fit more of a Ferrari/Maserati type mold versus Mack trucks/bulldozers. Johnston uses Conor Sheary as an example, calling him “a super-fast waterbug that can just do incredible stuff.”
His biggest obstacle was always his size, as the winger stands just 5-foot-9. And when Sheary was in more of a fourth-line checking role, he wasn’t able to showcase his true talents. But when put in the right situations with the right players, his speed and offensive ability really shined – and that’s part of 3Ice’s goal.
“We knew there were a ton of guys out there that fit our mold,” Johnston said. “They’re between 5-7 and 6-1, we don’t really have any big, big guys. And they’re fast. That’s what we’re looking for. Great hands, fast, creative as hell.”
While most of the players are younger, with the average age around 28-29, former Penguins forward Ryan Malone is an exception. He’s one of a few players with Pittsburgh ties, including Bobby Farnham, who played parts of four seasons in the Penguins organization, and Tyler Murovich, who is from the area.
Johnston said they weren’t just pleasantly surprised at how the product is coming along – they’re overjoyed. After the players got used to the format following the first couple of weeks, they’ve really settled in. The top four teams make the playoffs and championship in the ninth and final week, “so guys trying to go from sixth and fifth to second, third, fourth – it’s going to get really, really heated. Now, it’s getting real.”
While the league has an incredibly impressive global TV footprint, fans won’t want to miss seeing this action live.
“It’s been really fun, and it’s gotten better with each 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 crowd for it.”
Fans interested in buying tickets for Saturday’s game, please click here.