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3-on-3 hockey league launches, could be step toward Olympics

3ice hockey

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 25: Kevin Fitzgerald #28 of Team Mullen scores a goal against Ryan Zapolski #31 of Team Fuhr during 3ICE Week Two at Magness Arena on June 25, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Harry How/3ICE/Getty Images)

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Hours before Canada beat the U.S. to win women’s hockey gold at the Beijing Olympics in February, International Ice Hockey Federation officials lamented having only two medal events on sports’ biggest stage.

The IIHF and IOC have discussed adding to that, and a new 3-on-3 league that debuted earlier this month could be another step toward more hockey on a global scale. With Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier, Grant Fuhr, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy among the coaches and fast-paced games featuring plenty of goals, 3ICE is another experiment that could make 3-on-3 part of hockey’s long-term future.

“We want to get this thing off the ground and make sure it’s entertaining — it’s got the entertainment aspect to the degree we can possibly give it and give it some credibility,” said Trottier, who won the Stanley Cup six times as a player. “All of us would be grateful for the opportunity to grow with this to the point where it does go bigger, better, Olympic, global: wherever the growth takes it.”

Seven years after the NHL adopted 3-on-3 for overtime in the regular season, 3ICE founder E.J. Johnston has big ideas about taking it international and eventually holding a youth tournament like baseball’s Little League World Series and annual adult world championships.

Commissioner Craig Patrick, a back-to-back Cup winner in 1991 and ’92 as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and gold medalist as an assistant coach on the 1980 U.S. “Miracle On Ice” team, has been impressed with the available talent since tryouts in April and sees room for 3-on-3 hockey to carve out room in a crowded entertainment landscape.

“A lot of sports are going to short-form type things, and that’s kind of what we are, like BIG3 basketball,” Patrick said. “There’s a cricket league in India that’s vastly followed and doing very, very well. There’s rugby sevens. Everybody’s doing something a little different in their sport, and we feel that this is the way to go for hockey.”

He’s not alone in that thinking. After 3-on-3 basketball debuted as an Olympic event in Tokyo last year, new IIHF president Luc Tardif has set the goal of doing the same for hockey.

It may not happen as soon as 2026 in Milan and Cortina, a men’s tournament that is again expected to feature NHL players after two Olympics without them, but 3-on-3 was tried at the Youth Winter Olympic Games in Lausanne in 2020 and will get another look with more serious competition at the same event in South Korea in 2024.

“Maybe we can have a format more adapted to a new public,” Tardif said. “We’re always going to play traditional ice hockey, but why not try to find a way for a new format?”

The format is off to high-scoring start for 3ICE, with games averaging almost eight goals apiece.

“3-on-3′s always fun to watch, the pace is high and it’s exciting for the fans,” said Fuhr, who backstopped Edmonton to four Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s. “It’s a great league for guys to showcase their talent. Whether they’re looking for another contract, looking for a place to play in Europe, it gives them an opportunity, which would generally be in an offseason, to go out and show people the skill that they have.”

One-time New Jersey Devils forward Joe Whitney is the leading scorer in a league that also includes former NHL winger T.J. Hensick and goalies like Martin Brodeur’s son, Jeremy, and Ryan Zapolski, who was the U.S. starter at the 2018 Olympics.

Assuming the NHL resumes regular Olympic participation, a 3-on-3 tournament could provide additional spots for players.

“The skillsets are, in some ways, so different to play 3-on-3 as opposed to 5-on-5 full contact,” said Parker Milner, who is goaltending in 3ICE after the pandemic abruptly ended his playing career in the minors. “You get a chance to showcase some other guys, and there’d be some other skillsets that would be useful for 3-on-3.”

Another incentive: 3-on-3 could get more countries involved in hockey. Tardif pointed out it’s easier for some national federations to put together rosters of 12 or 13 players than the full 22 or more necessary for tradtional hockey.

“The 3-on-3 opportunities might be great for the small countries that are not able to get the full team and it might be a beginning platform to grow and to really show the hockey in many other cities,” IIHF senior vice president Petr Briza said.

For now, those cities are Las Vegas and Denver, which played host to the first two weekends of games, with stops upcoming in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Canada before returning to Las Vegas for the playoffs on Aug. 20.

Milner said it’s a good chance to keep hockey going throughout the summer after the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup. He added that some 3ICE rule changes, particularly players not being able to take the puck back past the red line, could work in the NHL to make overtime even better.

“At least in the first couple weeks we’ve seen that just creates kind of an up-and-down game,” he said. “I know a lot of people complain about the shootouts. I think you’d definitely see a lot fewer shootouts if they were able to implement that.”