by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

Billy McCreary admitted it’s difficult for him to pinpoint one overriding emotion in the wake of the Danbury Hat Tricks being eliminated in the FPHL semifinals by the Columbus River Dragons on April 24.

“At the end of the day you look back on it all and it was a good experience, a positive experience, and I think the community really enjoyed the brand of hockey and the excitement we brought to Danbury Ice Arena this season,” the Hat Tricks general manager said.

“But I just wish we could have just given our fans another game or two of excitement and brought the championship home.”

The Hat Tricks were third in the FPHL this season with a .574 points percentage (36-22-3) and had a 24-6-0 record on home ice. They rallied to defeat the Binghamton Black Bears in the best-of-3 first-round playoff series, including a dramatic Game 2 win at home when Steve Mele scored the tying goal with 13.1 seconds remaining in regulation and Nicola Levesque netted the game-winner 3:48 into overtime.

However, a 7-4 loss in Danbury and a 5-1 defeat in Columbus brought an abrupt end to the Hat Tricks season in the second round.

“At the end of the day we just fell a little bit short and ran out of steam,” McCreary said. “But I’m very proud of what these guys accomplished this season.”

McCreary recently sat down for a Q&A to discuss a variety of topics, including his winning the 2021-22 FPHL Founder’s Award, with the Hat Tricks Insider.

Is it even more disappointing to have fallen short of winning the championship this season because there were so many veteran players who returned and bought in to taking one more crack at it after COVID-19 wiped out their chance to do so the past two seasons?

“I can’t say enough about those guys, to buy into another year and go through the grind and making it work with their families. It certainly made it a special season. But by the same token it makes it even that more disappointing. It’s been a long process and they bought into everything we asked them to do, and they did it with a ton of passion and they did it for our community and fans. I know the heartbreak they had falling short and not being able to come back to Danbury with the trophy, so it’s a tough pill for me to swallow because I do care about those boys.”

Corey Anderson, Phil Bronner and Peter DiSalvo announced their retirements shortly after the season ended. How did that make you feel?

“I really wanted those guys who are retiring to go out on top. That was a feeling that I got to achieve in my career and I know it kind of helps put closure on things for some guys. Unfortunately, they’ll have to battle through it a little bit and now we have to reset and move forward with the guys that are going to be coming back next year.”

Hat Tricks captain Jonny Ruiz established franchise records for most goals (49) and points (85) in a season and was an FPHL First Team All-Star. How proud are you of his growth and achievements the past three years?

“His season was inspirational. Jonny has grown leaps and bounds as a person, as a player and as a leader. He’s become much tougher mentally and more formidable as an opponent. He’s a great leader and we certainly would not have achieved the success we had this season without him.”

Defenseman Steve Brown, another one of those veteran players, also was named a First Team All-Star. What made him so good this season?

“He’s certainly a very quiet, stoic and strong leader. Stevie is a presence on the ice, in the locker room. He doesn’t have to say much and is very simple in his approach with the game, always there to defend his teammates and to make the smart play. I’d take 25 guys like Steve Brown, if I could.”

Will this offseason be one of transition for the Hat Tricks?

“Well, we don’t know who all will be coming back next season, it’s early to say. But there’s no question the veteran guys drove the train for this organization this season. The younger guys got to open their eyes and ears to learn how those guys go about their business, which is team first. I think the culture we’ve built here the past few years will help us move forward instead of moving the other way. That’s our commitment.”

Who are some of the young building blocks for the future in Danbury?

“You look at a guy like [defenseman Johnny MacDonald], I think it was just a tremendous rookie year for him. He wasn’t in the lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs (against Binghamton) and it hurt us. So, we put him right back in there and I thought he was one of our better defensemen. He proved he’s a force to be reckoned with and will be a big piece for us moving forward.

“Brendan Pepe finished his college career (at Stony Brook University), played [seven] games for us at the end of the season, played the entire playoffs and I think he’s a defenseman who’s only going to get better and better. He’s certainly going to be a piece for us in our future and we’re excited to have him.

“Evan Lugo came to us kind of late there after college, put up four points in five games for us down the stretch, and if it wasn’t for the veteran guys we had -- Nic Levesque, Bronner, the Mele brothers -- Evan Lugo probably makes that playoff roster. Next year I think he becomes a big piece to what we’re doing up front.”

With DiSalvo retiring, how important is goalie Brian Wilson?

“This was his first year at the minor pro level and that comes with growing pains for anybody, but I thought there were stretches where ‘Willy’ played some tremendous hockey for us. The one thing about Willy is he really enjoys the process, he enjoys being challenged. Moving forward he’s going to have an opportunity, with Pete retiring, to take on more of a workload. It’ll be up to him to produce those results and he’s earned that opportunity. I’m real excited to have him back next year.”

What does winning the Founder’s Award (for outstanding service to the FPHL) mean to you?

“I was pretty shocked. to be honest with you. It’s a tremendous honor. We’re always trying to raise the bar here as far as our organization is concerned. To be recognized by the league, I certainly don’t take that lightly. All of our goals are team driven and we don’t worry about individual accolades, but it’s a welcome surprise.”