The NHL pre-season has kicked in to high gear, yet a lot of chatter is not about new players, new line combinations, or even the NHL China series. It’s about face-off violations.

The NHL is notorious for selecting an obscure rule and enforcing it at the start of every season, but this time it appears to have gone further out of control. Every pre-season game has become a plodding mess of called-back faceoffs and penalties for technical violations.

“Why don’t they just drop the puck?” many people have shouted in to their TV.

Well, what if they did drop it? What if the official simply dropped the puck and let the game continue immediately?

What if you took the most exciting parts of NHL hockey—like 3-on-3 overtime—and packaged it together with other elements of sports we love as fans: a bracket style tournament with cash prizes for the teams each game and an eventual champion every week?

Two years ago, 3HL Inc. CEO and Founder Justin Fox was watching the NHL’s new 3-on-3 overtime, and the idea popped into his mind to do just that.

One year later, he successfully launched the 3HL TOUR.

What is the 3HL TOUR?

Probably all of us experienced the same feeling on our first viewing of the NHL’s new 3-on-3 overtime hockey. “Whoa! This is great! It’s fast paced. It’s full of action. The players have to be creative... I can’t believe the NHL finally did something right!”

Fox had those thoughts, but also saw an opportunity. What if 3-on-3 hockey could be spun into a whole new kind of hockey league that plays a complete tournament in only three to four hours? The Toronto-based entrepreneur took that idea and ran with it.

”I had that entrepreneurial mindset,” he explained as to how he turned an idea into a hockey league so quickly.

“I think the turning point was sitting there talking about what we would call the league, and when the name 3HL came up, we thought that would be a cool name. I went and bought the domain and that was intriguing to me that what we would want to call it was actually available,” Fox said of the origin of how the league was named.

“Literally the following morning I was already filing the articles of incorporation for 3HL Inc. So it happened very quickly.”

Fox is still the sole owner and investor in the league for now. Beyond his role as the CEO of the 3HL, Fox is the owner and proprietor of The Mobility Shop, one of the league’s sponsors. His experience running his own business was a part of the reason he was able to get the league up and off the ground so quickly, but so was the interest from players.

The talent in the league includes many who have recently played in the NHL. “It’s pretty amazing actually to see. As the league went on last year the talent level in the league grew, and you start to see guys like a Charlie Stephens—or this year we have guys like Stefan Legein—guys who played at the highest levels.”

It’s no secret in this day and age that social media is critical to growing a new business, sports league or otherwise, and it has been a key part of Fox’s strategy. “Social media allowed us to do what, 10 or 15 years ago, was sort of unthinkable.” The league streams games online, last year on YouTube, and this coming season likely on Facebook Live.

The bracket-style tournament format required some changes to the classic hockey game format. Obviously, eight teams can’t complete at one rink on one day in  the traditional format. Games are shortened to 14 minutes each, with a break after 7 minutes.

Modifications have also been made to speed up the game, and prevent unnecessary stoppages of play.

The icing and offside rules were discarded. When there is a reason to stop play, like a puck up over the glass or in the netting, the officials don’t wait for a perfectly lined up faceoff, they simply drop the puck and let the game continue.

Instead of a player going to the box and having a power-play for rule infractions, a penalty shot is always awarded. A further innovation that sprang from that idea was to have “chasers” follow the shooter. If the puck doesn’t go in the net, play continues, and the chasers from the opposing team could potentially even pick up a rebound and score.

The entire premise has caught on quickly with players and fans alike.

“It’s Go go go, non-stop action” says Fox. “There’s lots of scoring chances, lots of opportunities, the players themselves are exceptional hockey players. They are at the top 1% or 0.5% of the world.”

The 3HL TOUR expands to twelve teams

For the 2017-18 season the 3HL has expanded from eight to twelve teams. Fox explains it was partly due to demand, and partly to balance out the geographic layout of the league.

Fox says there’s interest in even more teams, but logistics are an issue. With no guaranteed money, it’s not fair to ask players to travel long distances to a tournament from which they could be eliminated after only 14 minutes. That’s why, this season, four of the league’s twelve teams will get a bye each event. In general, the eight closest teams to the event city will play in the tournament each time.

What does the future hold for the 3HL?

For Fox, the long term plans are ambitious, and there’s room some for some skepticism about what he thinks is possible given he is going up against corporate hockey giants.

With absolute seriousness, he sets the bar for success quite high. “Our goal is to be the number one pro hockey league. Period. It could be ten, or fifteen, years out. We’re aiming for the top.”

That being said, why should he not dream big after getting the 3HL off the ground, with fan support growing, and the league expanding by 50% this season in such a short period of time?

His interim goals, however, are certainly closer to being realised, and in some instances already being achieved. “If I had to predict what happens five years out? I see this as being Canada’s pro-hockey choice for everyone outside of the NHL. My goal is in the next couple of years to have a million dollar purse. Within five years I see that as very attainable.”

His targets are players who will not quite make an NHL roster, or have only briefly, but that still have the talent to play in a professional hockey league. “The guy who is making the choice to go play in the AHL, or the ECHL, or the DEL in Europe, or whatever other league, he’ll have the option to play professional hockey, making a decent amount here in Canada. That’s our goal.”

Corporate partnerships are one path to make that happen, and the 3HL has just announced a new one with Winnwell who will provide sticks and equipment to players for the coming season. Fox says there are more on the way. The more sponsors, the more cash there will be to hand out, and the more interest there will be from players.

Season schedule

The 3HL TOUR will have one pre-season game, 16 regular-season games, and end with the Champions Cup match in Guelph on April 21st.

3HL TOUR Schedule

September 30Kitchener (Pre-Season)
October 21London
November 11Collingwood
November 25Guelph
December 9Oshawa
December 23Aurora
December 30Toronto (Mattamy Athletic Centre)
January 1Buffalo
January 21Barrie
February 3Kitchener
February 11Stratford
February 19Niagara Falls
March 17Waterloo
March 18Hamilton
March 24Coburg
March 31St. Catharines
April 14Toronto (Ted Reeve Arena)
April 21Guelph (Championship Game)

Admittance to the pre-season event on September 30th in Kitchener is free with a food drive donation, for all other events, tickets can be bought for $20. There are optional add-ons to join the players for a meet and greet, or even get to take the ice in warm-up and sit on the bench for the game.

The 3HL is a family friendly event, with opportunities for children to meet and talk to the players. There is live entertainment before the game, and at intermissions.

You can find more information about locations and tickets on the 3HL website here.