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It’s always overtime in the new barnstorming hockey league

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Larry Murphy embarks on a new journey.

The Scarborough Hockey Hall of Fame defender already has an impressive resume: four Stanley Cup rings and 1,615 NHL games, including a few seasons with the Maple Leafs. Now a broadcaster for the Red Wings, Murphy will coach Team Murphy in an innovative new professional hockey league — 3Ice — debuting this weekend and featuring 3-on-3 hockey.

“I’m excited,” Murphy told the Star in a phone interview. “I look forward to being behind the bench. And I like the concept.”

Murphy never coached, but it doesn’t matter. Hockey has never been played at such a high level: six teams of six players and a goalkeeper play a different tournament in a different city every weekend, for nine weeks, to eventually become champions.

It starts this weekend in Vegas and there are two stops in Canada (London, Ontario, on July 16, Quebec City on July 30). Games last 16 minutes – two eight minute halves on regulation ice. Each weekend tournament takes the form of a bracket, with the final championship tournament on August 20 in Vegas and $2.2 million (US) in prize money up for grabs over the nine weeks.

It is the brainchild of EJ Johnston, the son of former NHL goalkeeper Eddie Johnston, and a go-getter in the TV and event management industry.

“The top four (teams) will make the championship playoffs during our last weekend in Vegas,” said Johnston. “And the winning team will get $127,000 per man that night, plus whatever they’ve raised in the regular season. We think our regular season average should be around $36,000. So the top men in this league make about $ 160,000 for nine Saturdays of work, that’s not bad.

Johnston switched to 3-on-3 hockey when the NHL introduced it as an overtime feature, and he’s spent the past four years fine-tuning a business plan that’s paying off with multiple partners that will make 3Ice available in 165 countries, behind just the NHL. TSN, TVA, ESPN, and CBS have all signed up as broadcast partners.

“We like to say we’re a different game played with the same rules,” Johnston said. “I like bigger bodies, cornering and grinding it out. But that’s not our game. We’re Ferraris and Maseratis sliding up and down the ice. We’re looking for different body types, guys built for the 3-on-3 open ice.”

The players are not household names outside of their own household. Former Marlie Chris Mueller, a 36-year-old who played 53 NHL games, is an example of the kind of player the league attracted. Some Europeans, some ECHLers, some free college players.

Former Leafs defenseman Larry Murphy, left, who entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004 along with Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque, is a coach in a new, successful 3-on-3 competition.

The bigger names are the coaches after whom the teams are named: former NHL stars Murphy, Grant Fuhr, Bryan Trottier, Guy Carbonneau, Joe Mullen and John LeClair.

Murphy says fans of skill and speed will love the games.

“It’s speed, puck possession. It’s what you see in those five-minute (NHL) overtime,” Murphy said. “Rules are being drawn up to actually keep the flow continuous. Basically, the only face-offs are at the beginning of each half. A team scores, you pull the puck out of your net and off you go. So you will see continuous action. It will be relentless for every half of eight minutes. It is hockey with a high tempo and high tension.”

The league has already had a dry run for the players and a scouting opportunity for the coaches who drafted their teams.

“The drawing experience was great,” Murphy said. “You kind of get a taste of the highs and lows of a draft where your heart is on a certain player and with every choice you kill, hoping he doesn’t get caught.”

Johnston calls this a “snackable” version of hockey. And a stripped-down, high-scoring version of the sport can attract new fans, as rugby sevens has done for rugby. The tour, with a new champion every week, offers a few other benefits.

“It’s better for us because it gives us the flexibility to move and play our game wherever we want,” Johnston said. “If we crush it in a few places or if we don’t get it right in one or two places, great. We’ll turn it off.”

There is another advantage for the players and coaches.

“We don’t need to have camps or physical location,” Johnston said. “Everyone who works for us lives at home from Monday to Friday. They fly on Friday, they play Saturday, they fly home on Sunday. So it really is an ideal model for all our players.”

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