The National Collegiate Hockey Conference became the first league in college hockey to use three-on-three overtimes in 2015. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association followed suit in 2016, the Big Ten in 2018 and Atlantic Hockey in 2019.
By the end of this summer, college hockey's two holdouts, Hockey East and the Eastern College Athletic Conference, may also be forced to adopt the three-on-three overtime concept, which has caught on in virtually every hockey league in the world.
It's a rules-change offseason in college hockey (they occur every other year) as long as the coronavirus pandemic doesn't get in the way of that.
At the top of the to-do list for the NCAA Rules Committee is to tackle overtime format. Robust discussions are already happening behind the scenes.
The NCHC, which has been college hockey's strongest proponent for using three-on-three overtimes, is advocating for something new.
Currently, every game that's tied after regulation goes into an NCAA-mandated five-minute, five-on-five overtime. If still tied after that, the game goes into the books as a tie. However, the NCHC, WCHA, Big Ten and Atlantic Hockey move into a five-minute, three-on-three for conference points only. If nobody scores, the game moves into a sudden-death shootout for conference points only.
The NCHC is proposing to eliminate the five-on-five overtime and move straight into three-on-three for all tie games in all leagues, including nonconference games. Statistics registered in the three-on-three would count -- they don't right now -- and the game result would be classified as a win or a loss.
However, in the RPI formula -- which is used as part of the Pairwise Rankings, which select the NCAA-tournament field -- a win in the three-on-three would be worth less than a regulation win.
Three big reasons for the change are to increase excitement of the game, make overtime policy uniform across college hockey and to decrease the length of games.
"I believe the country overall in college hockey -- women's, men's, Division I, Division III, is warming up to three-on-three more and more," NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said. "Our preference is to continue having it part of our structure. We'd like to see 60 minutes of five-on-five, then move right into the three-on-three. That has to be (decided) at the national level.
"The question is how the three-on-three will count toward the RPI. I don't think anybody is proposing a model that would have 100 percent (value) going to the three-on-three winner or zero percent to the loser. This is where the conversation gets hung up. In the 60 (regulation) minutes, it's all or nothing. If you go to three-on-three, both teams are getting something. If you have a winner in the three-on-three, that winner should get something slightly more than the loser -- some type of weighting."
Steve Piotrowski, the NCAA rules editor and Big Ten director of officials, said: "I know there's appetite by a lot of coaches to use the three-on-three. The sticking point is what's going to happen with the Pairwise. If you go to three-on-three, how is it going to impact the Pairwise? Is it going to be X points to each team if you get into a three-on-three situation? If it goes to a shootout, is that gap going to be narrowed more?"
If nobody scores during the three-on-three, there will be proposals to either hold a shootout with almost no RPI points on the line (for example, a 51-49 split) or call it a tie (a 50-50 split) in the RPI and hold a shootout for conference points only.
Fenton said the NCHC conference point structure would remain the same: three points for a regulation win, two points for a three-on-three or shootout win, one point for a three-on-three or shootout loss and no points for a regulation loss.
If the NCAA does adopt the NCHC's proposal, the league would likely go back to a three-person shootout instead of a sudden death one.
Multiple committees involved
To make this happen, there needs to be cooperation between separate NCAA committees.
The Rules Committee would first have to approve the new overtime format. Then, the Championship Committee would be the one that sets the RPI parameters. Hashing out that exact formula will be critical in gaining overwhelming support from college hockey's coaching body.
Further complicating matters is the makeup of the Rules Committee. Currently, there are no representatives on the 11-person Rules Committee from any of the three Western-based conferences (NCHC, Big Ten, WCHA), which have been the longest-standing three-on-three overtime proponents.
That will change in the fall when UND associate athletic director Erik Martinson begins his stint on the Rules Committee, but Martinson won't be part of the discussions this rules cycle.
Momentum is tilting the NCHC's way, though.
According to two sources, Hockey East, which recently hired a new commissioner in Steve Metcalf, appears to be ready to back three-on-three, which would leave the ECAC as the only holdout.
"A lot of coaches can't deny they have an appetite for the excitement of three-on-three, but they say they don't want to play exhibition hockey," said Piotrowski, explaining the movement to give RPI value to three-on-three. "Their concern is if they win or lose, what's it going to be worth in three-on-three."
Fenton said he did not have any suggestions on RPI values for three-on-three, leaving that in the hands of the Championship Committee.
Handing out different RPI values for different wins wouldn't be a new concept. It's currently happening: Teams get different values for home wins and road wins.
Under normal circumstances, college hockey coaches would have met in Naples, Fla., last week to discuss overtime and other issues. That meeting never happened because of the coronavirus outbreak. Leagues are instead meeting on their own via apps like Zoom.
Meanwhile, the Rules Committee is sending out a survey to the coaches to get their input before the committee meets in June.
"There's a survey going out to the hockey body," Piotrowski said. "That will provide the last bit of information that the Rules Committee will receive from the hockey body moving into the June formal meetings. We'll see what results are brought from the survey."
While this survey will be of coaching staffs, the NCHC attempted to survey players last year.
Fenton sent out a survey to every college hockey commissioner and asked if they could distribute to their teams. Four of the six conferences participated and returned more than 500 surveys. They showed that 97 percent of the players wanted three-on-threes.
"For the excitement of the game and the length of the game, we have proposed playing 60 minutes of five-on-five, the moving right into five minutes of three-on-three," Fenton said. "Our hope is that the Rules Committee can address it."