Beyond Bruce Cassidy taking over the Golden Knights bench, there was another reason to look to Las Vegas the last few days for some intriguing hockey news.
The brand new 3ICE league, the brainchild of onetime Reading kid E.J. Johnston, was set to open play Saturday in the Orleans Arena, just a short skate off the Vegas Strip.
Some four years in the creation-and-development stage, 3ICE is a six-team touring (i.e. barnstorming) league that will stage its games the next two months across eight North American sites, including the NHL-abandoned outpost of Quebec City.
Inspired by the NHL’s three-on-three overtime format that grew out of the 2004-05 lockout, all 3ICE games will be played with only six skaters on the ice and playing time for each game will be only 16 minutes — split in halves. Each venue will stage six games, the last of which will crown a champion for that weekend.
The tempo is fast. Take a seat, and don’t take your eyes off the ice, despite the fact that it’s highly unlikely you’ll know a single name out there, other than the high-profile coaches: Guy Carbonneau, Grant Fuhr, John LeClair, Larry Murphy, Joe Mullen, and Bryan Trottier.
Johnston, the 49-year-old son of ex-Bruins goalie Eddie Johnston, is the 3ICE rainmaker, his creation inspired by the excitement he felt while taking in a Penguins rookie camp one September day and watching the session wrap with some three-on-three play.
“There’s about 1,000 people in the place, packed house,” he recalled, “and everyone’s oohing and aahing at these unknown guys playing three on three. And it got me thinking … ”
Bill Guerin, then the Penguins’ assistant general manager, was in the stands, recalled Johnston, and so were other brass, including Craig Patrick and Jim Rutherford. After gaining a sense of what seemingly everyone found so enjoyable about the action — speed, skill, smarts, etc. — Johnston went home that night and roughed out what he likes to refer to as a “snackable” version of traditional five-on-five hockey.
Other sports, including basketball, cricket, rugby, and car racing, have tried similar “mini-me” approaches, with mixed success. One of them in recent days struck oil: The Indian Premier League’s downsized version of cricket, known as Twenty20, on Wednesday sold its media rights for $6 billion. Disney bought in with both webbed feet. Not even Jed Clampett — black gold, Texas tea — struck for those kind of numbers.
Johnston, though duly impressed by the IPL’s success, believes that most other pro sports’ downsized permutations have been “watered-down versions of their big brother sport.” But with 3ICE, he believes, he has designed a league that extracts hockey’s richest nectar.
“In my opinion, and I think that of true of hockey fans, three on three is the best part of the game,” he said. “After a year of poking holes in it, to make sure I wasn’t just imagining something, I knew I had something special. I put my foot on the gas, raised some money, and built my team.”
Perhaps 3ICE’s biggest hurdle will be trying to sell hockey in the United States and Canada during the summer, be it to entice fans into arenas or engage them on TV. Like any entertainment business, eyeballs are everything, and the trick for Johnston, fellow investors, broadcast partners, coaches, and players, will be to drag viewers from beachside to rinkside.
For those who love the game, maybe there’s enough hockey gold for the Zamboni to pan from the stream. Games will be played weekends through Aug. 20, with stops in Denver (June 25), Grand Rapids, Mich. (July 2), Hershey, Pa. (July 9), London, Ontario (July 16), Pittsburgh (July 23), Quebec City (July 30), and Nashville (Aug. 6). Then it’s back to Vegas for title weekend on Aug. 20.
Each of the six team rosters will be stocked with six skaters and one goalie. A 12-man taxi squad, with ex-Bruins forward Chris Bourque one of the backup skaters, also will be on hand at each stop. Most players have college or minor pro experience.
Johnston would not divulge the venture’s start-up cost, other than to say it was “low eight figures,” decidedly short of $50 million. Ideally, he said, the league could reach profitability in a couple of years.
“Our [players] live at home, Monday through Friday, their time is their own,” he said, noting the league’s low-cost business infrastructure. “They fly in on a Friday, play on a Saturday, leave on a Sunday, so we don’t have huge money we’ve had to raise. We think we’ve built a better mouse trap from a business standpoint.”
Rich Krezwick, who long ago ran TD Garden, said he has been intrigued by Johnston’s plan from the start. Reached at home on the New Jersey shore, Krezwick noted investors should be encouraged by the fact the league begins with TV partners in place.
According to Johnston, TV rights have been sold to CBS Sports Network and CBS in the US (rights digital and linear), and TSN and RDS in Canada, along with ESPN International (upward of 200 countries).
“Pretty remarkable,” said Johnston ahead of Saturday’s start, “and we haven’t even dropped the puck yet. The networks got it. They loved it. They all bought it in the room, off [the written proposal] well over three years ago.”
Top earners among the players will make some $160,000 each, the bulk of that a $127,000 payout they’ll each make if their club wins the title. The average pay over the eight weeks in the regular season, said Johnston, should be $36,000 per player. No one will make less than $2,000 for each stop on the tour.
LeClair is the lone coach among the six not to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Patrick, the league’s commissioner, was key in coaxing them into the new venture, said Johnston. Salary for the coaches, he said, should land at about $75,000.
The original plan was for 3ICE to begin immediately after the NHL ends its Stanley Cup playoffs. Because of the ongoing pandemic and delay in NHL scheduling this season, Saturday night also was Game 2 of the Cup Final.
“In a perfect world,” mused Johnston, “the Stanley Cup ends on, say, June 12 and we are on June 18, 15, or 16 and, boom, we just roll into our season. From a long-term success standpoint, these are small peccadilloes. We’d prefer differently now, but it’s fine, we’re going to be here a long time doing this thing.”
The tour stops closest to Boston will be July 9 in Hershey, Pa., and July 30 in Quebec City (each just under a 400-mile drive from the Hub of Hockey). Approximate ticket range: $25-$40, prices that harken back to Original Six days.
What’s old is new again, just with more room on the ice.
TAKING THEIR TIME
Not much buzz on Bruins coach
The Bruins have remained tight-lipped about their coaching hire, very much in keeping with how Don Sweeney and Cam Neely conduct business.
To this point, they have not disclosed publicly any of the prospective candidates to replace Bruce Cassidy, whose payday in Vegas, according to a late Thursday report by ESPN’s Kevin Weekes, came to five years/$22.5 million. That’s great jingle, especially in the income-tax-free state of Nevada. No wonder Cassidy was beaming at his introductory news conference when asked the question about his contract terms.
Joe McDonald of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette tweeted midweek that Spencer Carbery was among those to be interviewed in Boston.
Carbery, 40, grew up in British Columbia (Neely country), and has nine years of head coaching experience, all in the minor leagues (most recently three seasons with AHL Hershey). He just wrapped up his first year as an assistant on the Maple Leafs staff.
Joe Sacco, the assistant who filled in briefly as bench boss when Cassidy was in COVID protocol this season, had his audience with Sweeney and Neely. Until further notice (maybe a 5 p.m. news release on a Friday in July?), Jay Leach has to be considered the front-runner.
Leach, 42, spent four seasons as the AHL Providence bench boss until packing up a year ago to be an assistant with the Kraken. Energetic and engaging, he has worked with a handful of Boston’s current players and knows the organizational ethos. He also has the polish and temperament to handle day-to-day media obligations, an area where Cassidy excelled from Day 1.
Another local, ex-Boston University coach David Quinn, also is on the Sweeney-Neely invite list. He has experience from his Comm. Ave. days with Terrier twins Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. Quinn’s three seasons as Rangers bench boss (2018-21) were underwhelming, but he did help shape a core group, as delivered by then-GM Jeff Gorton, that finally came alive this season under Gerard Gallant. The Blueshirts finally cratered, emotionally and physically, after grabbing a 2-0 series lead over the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
No matter who takes charge of the Black and Gold bench, he will rank No. 3 to Sweeney and Neely in terms of scrutiny and pressure for the upcoming season. By ditching the successful Cassidy, thus fingering him for the postseason shortfall, they’ve fixed the crosshairs on themselves. A vocal contingent of the fandom has done the same. This is the angriest fans (and some media) have been over a coaching dismissal since Harry Sinden turfed Don Cherry as head of the Lunchpail AC in the summer of 1979.
Only months later, Sinden also turfed Cherry’s successor, Fred Creighton. Yet another reminder that Cassidy, much like the hallowed Fours on Canal Street, will be a tough act to follow.
Still waiting on Sweeney’s deal
Worth noting again, by the way, Cam Neely said on May 19 that he hoped to have a new deal for Don Sweeney tidied up in a day or two. A month gone by, not a peep from Neely or Buffalo-based ownership about where that stands.
It’s possible Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, 82, is paying more attention than many of us might believe. Perhaps Jacobs, who said after the fact that he went too long with Harry Sinden as boss, is feeling queasy about Sweeney’s results after seven seasons at the helm.
Reminder: In nearly a half-century of ownership, Jacobs is able to wrap his arms around only the Stanley Cup title, in 2011.
Many of Sweeney’s deals have proven ineffective, and he has had some pricey swings and misses in free agency (to wit: Matt Beleskey, David Backes, John Moore, and most recently Nick Foligno). Hampus Lindholm should be prove to be a solid/impactful get, but is that enough for Jacobs now to offer Sweeney, say, a three- or four-year extension, which would be de rigueur for someone who already has his time on the job?
It’s most likely that Sweeney stays, given that he and Neely have been left to handle the call on the new coach. But we only need to look at Bruce Cassidy’s departure to understand how serendipitous and capricious change can come on Causeway Street.
Cassidy said he was assured he was returning on his expiring contract after a quick end-of-season chat with Sweeney in the days after the Hurricanes dumped the Bruins in Game 7. Three weeks later, Cassidy’s backside carried the print of the Black and Gold screen door.
For whom does that door swing next?
Giving it the old college try
Over the course of the regular season, the Avalanche dressed 15 players who had at least one year of NCAA experience, most notably star defenseman Cale Makar, who finished up two years at UMass Amherst in the spring of 2019. The magical Makar was set to suit up for Game 2 of the Cup Final Saturday night with the Avalanche only three wins shy of bringing him his first ring.
In Game 1 on Wednesday night, Makar was joined by Josh Manson (Northeastern) and Alex Newhook (Boston College) as ex-Hockey East players on the Avalanche game roster.
Other ex-NCAA players to play in Game 1 for the Avalanche: Devon Toews (Quinnipiac), J.T. Compher (Michigan), Erik Johnson (Minnesota), Jack Johnson (Michigan), and Nico Sturm (Clarkson).
The Lightning, far less reliant on the NCAA talent pool, dressed only four former college kids: Alex Killorn (Harvard), Ross Colton (Vermont), Ryan McDonagh (Wisconsin), and Brian Elliott (Wisconsin), the latter of whom backed up Andrei Vasilveskiy in net.
Of the total 12 ex-NCAA players to make the Game 1 rosters, only Killorn and Elliott remained true to their school, playing all four years.
Your faithful puck chronicler (BU, 1975) is only left to wonder, how does either club possibly expect to win without a Terrier in the fight?
No doubt Cassidy will find a fix to the struggling Golden Knights power play, but the Bruins’ late-in-season struggles on the man-advantage no doubt factored in Sweeney and Neely giving him the gate. Over a 12-game stretch that ended April 28, the Bruins went 0 for 39 on the PP, blanked for a total of 66:04. However, they did bounce back with 6-for-29 proficiency in the seven games vs. the Hurricanes … The NHL made it official prior to Game 1 of the Cup Finals: The salary cap for next season will increase by a little more than 1 percent, to $82.5 million … Less than two weeks to go before the start of the NHL’s first buyout period on July 1. Sweeney said in his last news conference of the season that he isn’t inclined to use the option, which could mean Foligno is back in Boston for another season at $3.8 million. Unlike the first year of the deal, however, the Bruins have some trade flexibility, allowed to deal the veteran to any of 16 teams. Any deal, though, likely would include the Bruins retaining a portion of his salary … Ray Bourque keeps on running. The ex-Bruins captain, who lifted his lone Cup with the Avalanche 21 years ago, next Saturday is staging a 7.7-kilolmeter run and 5K walk at the Breakaway Ice Center in Tewksbury. All part of the Bourque Family Foundation. For details, go to: bourqurace.org … Longtime NHL employee, looking to purchase a ticket or two for Game 1 of the Cup Final in Denver, followed protocol and connected with the Avalanche box office. Price per ticket for the upper bowl: $1,100. Am I the only one who looks at that price and ponders where in the world I might be able to fly, round trip, for that kind of dough?
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.