Hamilton Steelers join 3-on-3 tour
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.”