Hamil­ton Steel­ers join 3-on-3 tour

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TERI PECOSKIE

A new pro hockey team is com­ing to Hamil­ton. Well, sort of.

The Hamil­ton Steel­ers — one of four freshly an­nounced 3HL Tour ex­pan­sion teams — won’t have a home rink and might only play here once a sea­son. Yet, Justin Fox is con­fi­dent the city will get be­hind the club and his off­beat 3-on-3 brand.

“Ni­a­gara, Hamil­ton, Brant­ford — that whole area is some­what of a hockey hot­bed,” he said. “I think there’s an op­por­tu­nity there.”

Fox, 39, is the CEO and founder of the rov­ing 3HL Tour, a 3-on-3 league that pits a dozen teams against each an­other in brack­et­style tour­na­ments across south­ern On­tario. He’s also an en­tre­pre­neur, a sports nut and the owner of the Steel­ers, who, he in­sists, were named for the city rather than its now-de­funct CSL club.

Fox said the league, which just wrapped up its four-month in­au­gu­ral sea­son in May, was in­spired by the NHL’s shift to 3-on-3 over­time — “I just saw it and thought, ‘wow, this is pretty ex­cit­ing.’” So, that’s what the league of­fers, only with­out 60 min­utes of reg­u­la­tion first.

Here’s how it works: Two teams, each made up of three play­ers and a goalie, play two sev­en­minute halves with a one-minute break in the mid­dle. There is no off­side and no ic­ing, but there is an over-and-back rule to stop them from run­ning down the clock. There are also penalty shots in lieu of mi­nor penal­ties and face­offs are in­stan­ta­neous, which means the ref drops the puck whether the cen­tres have lined up or not.

The bulk of the league is made up of ju­nior hockey grads, former col­lege play­ers or guys who played a few sea­sons of mi­nor pro. A cou­ple of them, like former Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mike John­son, even have NHL ex­pe­ri­ence. At each stop on the tour, they play for a por­tion of an over­all purse — maybe $15,000 — and only get paid for games they win.

An op­ti­mist, Fox be­lieves the league could be­come a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to some of the pro­fes­sional loops in Europe and the U.S. The added ben­e­fit, he said, is the tour­na­ments are on week­ends, which al­lows play­ers to get on with the rest of their lives, whether that’s work or school or kids.

“I see this far big­ger than peo­ple can even imag­ine. I joke, but I think in three, five, eight years we could be knock­ing on the NHL’s door as the pro hockey league of choice here in Canada or North Amer­ica or po­ten­tially world­wide,” he said.

One of the chal­lenges, how­ever, is that his­tory isn’t on his side.

While Hamil­ton does have a rep­u­ta­tion for sell­ing out big events — a bonus for a league with plans for an an­nual visit — it’s not been kind to hockey up­starts.

The Orig­i­nal Stars Hockey League, with far big­ger names, nixed plans for a game here dur­ing the 200405 NHL lock­out. Tick­ets weren’t sell­ing. And the WHA, which was formed dur­ing the same labour dis­pute, never got off the ground. Mario Frankovich, who owned the rights to the lo­cal WHA fran­chise, still be­lieves this is a good sports mar­ket — but noted it’s crowded. When it comes to hockey, for ex­am­ple, there’s an OHL team here, and two NHL teams, an AHL team and an ECHL team within an hour’s drive.

Fox, a Toronto na­tive, isn’t wor­ried. His prod­uct is unique, the level of play “pretty phe­nom­e­nal” and, even in Year 1 tour­na­ments drew 500 peo­ple or more.

“The ex­po­sure we got last sea­son and just the re­ac­tion peo­ple have when they hear about the idea — a lot of peo­ple think ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Or ‘Great idea, that’s amaz­ing, 3-on-3 is ex­cit­ing.’ So from a fan’s per­spec­tive, they’re pretty amazed.”

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