Hat Tricks Insider: Aaron Atwell Q&A

by Jim Cerny

When last season ended, Aaron Atwell knew he had a major decision to make regarding his future. At 32 years old and after eight seasons in professional hockey, Atwell had to choose between putting his body and mind through another grueling season as a player or starting a new chapter in his life.

The inner debate continued into the summer. Then he tore his Achilles tendon playing soccer. Not the Achilles he previously had torn. But the other one. If ever there was a sign that it was time for a change, this was it.

“It was just another piece of confirmation for me that it was time to stop (playing),” Atwell said this week after announcing his retirement as a professional hockey player. “It’s not that I regret anything. I’m just looking forward to moving on.”

The articulate former defenseman, who played the past two seasons with the Hat Tricks, pivoted quickly into his post-playing career. Atwell will be the video coach and regional scout in Ontario for the Hat Tricks this season. And he’s helping start up a hockey program for at-risk children back home in Toronto.

Atwell sat down this week with the Hat Tricks Insider for this Q&A.

What stands out the most about your three seasons playing in Danbury with the Titans and Hat Tricks?

“It’s a collective memory. I can’t pick out just one thing that really stands out for me. I really enjoyed playing (in Danbury). I was on winning teams when I was there and the fans there are probably the best fans I’ve played in front of. I was also able to enjoy my life off the ice, which is rare in the minors. For me, Danbury is just home and that’s something that will probably never change.”

Is it special to remain with the Hat Tricks and work with (general manager and coach) Billy McCreary this season?

“I’m actually really happy that I can still be involved with the Hat Tricks because it’s a chance to work with Billy. I’m really excited for the organization and for him as a friend that’s he’s back coaching the pro team (McCreary was coach of the Hat Tricks in 2019-20 and the NAHL junior Hat Tricks the past two seasons). I just think he’s got so much fire in him, that the pro game makes more sense for him. Billy is somebody I respect and trust; and I know I can be candid with him, the communication between us is really easy and smooth. I’m looking forward to working together with Billy. I have no doubts he’s going to do a super job this year.”

You sustained quite a few injuries last season and missed several games. But you used that time to do some video work with the junior teams in Danbury, and you even jumped behind the bench as an assistant with the Hat Tricks. Has that helped prepare you for your new role with the organization?

“Yeah, I chopped up some video for them last season when I was out. So, I’ve kind of done a little bit of this with them before and they know what to expect of me and know what they’re going to get. So, I’m expecting it’s going to run smoothly. I’ll be working remotely, doing some scouting for the junior teams and some for the FPHL team. But for the most part in Toronto I’ll be back in forth with the Hat Tricks coaching staff, chopping up video, focusing specifically on the D-corps. I’ll look over footage, take notes and send back to them with detailed breakdowns.”

You’ll also be working in youth hockey at home In Toronto. Tell us about that program.

“I’ll be coaching kids aged 6-10 in Toronto in at-risk communities, one of them being the community I grew up in. It’s a fully funded program so these kids don’t pay for equipment, they don’t pay for ice time or registration. They literally don’t pay for anything. We give them meals on the days we do have practice. All they have to do is show up. It’s the first program of its kind. I’ll oversee the coaching for it and be the head coach for the whole program. It should be exciting.”

Let’s play word association. First thing you think of when I mention one of your former Hat Tricks teammates. Start with Gordy Bonnel.

“The most important piece to the Hat Tricks puzzle. He became a leader last season. Works his (butt) off, does all the little things right. He does not complain. He speaks up when it’s necessary and people listen.”

Frankie McClendon.

“You need Frankie around because he’s always doing the right things. He’s a really good veteran, gets along with everyone. A really good goalie.”

Johnny Macdonald.

“That’s my boy! He’s hungry, confident but not arrogant, always trying to get better. He’s just a good person. I love Johnny Macdonald.”

Steve Brown.

“Sherriff Brownie! He’s my brother. Period. I’m so glad that I played in Danbury so that I was able to meet him and build such a really good relationship. You will always get honesty with him.”

Last one. Jonny Ruiz.

“Jonny’s like that little brother. It’s been awesome to see him grow. He’s always energetic, silly and goofy. He’ll put a smile on your face even when you’re upset.”