Hat Tricks Insider: Commissioner’s Cup Final Notebook

by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

Billy McCreary, Jonny Ruiz and Gordy Bonnel have been with the Danbury Hat Tricks since the very beginning. McCreary, the general manager and coach, built a team from scratch that inaugural season in 2019-20. Forwards Ruiz and Bonnel were original Hat Tricks, now captain and alternate, respectively.

So, to say that it was a special moment Monday when the Hat Tricks advanced to the Commissioner’s Cup Final for the first time would be underselling it some. Simply watching the expressions on their faces was proof there were no words to express what they were feeling after a dramatic 3-1 win in Game 3 of the semifinals against the Binghamton Black Bears.

“To be able to experience this with Billy and Gordy is unbelievable,” Ruiz shared. “I can’t really explain how much it means to me. I’m just grateful for this opportunity, and to share it with them.”

The Hat Tricks open the best-of-5 Final against the Carolina Thunderbirds on Friday in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

“The emotions of Monday night are hard to describe,” McCreary said. “I remember telling the players at the start of the year that championship teams run themselves come playoff time. So, it was really nice to sit back and enjoy their show. I am just so proud of this group and we’re not even close to finished.”

The journey to this point took many turns and detours. That 2019-20 team looked to be the best in the FPHL when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the playoffs and a possible championship run. After going dark because of the pandemic the next season, the Hat Tricks returned with a vengeance in 2021-22. Ruiz scored a franchise-record 49 goals and the Hat Tricks reached the second round of the playoffs, falling to the Columbus River Dragons.

With a revamped roster that still prominently features Ruiz and Bonnel, the Hat Tricks blitzed through the 2022-23 season, winning the FPHL regular-season title. They swept the Elmira Mammoth in Round 1 of the playoffs and rallied from 1-0 down to eliminate the Black Bears in the second round. Fittingly, Ruiz and Bonnel assisted on Brendan Dowler’s game-winning goal in the third period.

Which brings us to their first appearance in the Commissioner’s Cup Final. A championship is three wins away.

‘Reaching the Final is great but our job is not done,” Ruiz explained. “Not until we win it all.”

It’s all about family for the Hat Tricks

After Tobias Odjick added an empty-net goal with 31 seconds remaining Monday, the Hat Tricks coaching staff and players on the bench all huddled together in a big hug. And they weren’t alone. Injured and scratched players were invited from the stands and on to the bench to share in the final moments of the semifinal series as the crowd at Danbury Ice Arena counted down the final seconds.

McCreary has preached since Day 1 that the Hat Tricks are a family. So, whether you were playing in the decisive game Monday or were not in the lineup, you were part of the victory.

“To see our coaching staff going crazy and see all the scratches running to celebrate with us shows how close we are in Danbury,” backup goalie Frankie McClendon said.

McCreary explained that the bench celebration before everyone jumped on the ice at the final horn was natural, not planned.

“I remember just watching the clock tick down and then one of the players shouted to get the staff together with the players and the scratches,” McCreary said. “It just shows that everything we do, we do it together, and we do it as a family. No individuals. A gritty, tight-knit family.”

McClendon seeks championship against former team

Speaking of McClendon, he helped the Thunderbirds win the Commissioner’s Cup in 2019. He was 9-1-0 during the 2018-19 season with a 2.61 goals-against average and .910 save percentage and was Carolina’s backup in the postseason.

The 30-year-old was even better this season with Danbury. McClendon was 10-2-0 with a 2.19 GAA and .917 save percentage, teaming with Brian Wilson to backstop the Hat Tricks to a League-high 44 wins. Wilson has played all five playoff games, so far.

“For me trying to win another championship and go against my former team, it’s going to be a great experience,” McClendon explained. “Obviously, I have some great memories from our run there, but that’s in the past now and I’m excited that I have the chance to be on another run here and create new memories with my Hat Tricks family.”

Hat Tricks-Thunderbirds championship Final matchup

*The Hat Tricks (44-7-5, 129 points) finished first in the Empire Division and first overall in the FPHL. The Thunderbirds (40-12-4, 117 points) were first in the Continental Division and second overall in the League.

*The Hat Tricks were 3-1-1 against the Thunderbirds in the regular season.  

*Danbury was 2-1-0 on home ice and 1-0-1 down in Winston Salem.

*When the Thunderbirds won 6-3 at Danbury Ice Arena on Jan. 6, it marked the Hat Tricks first loss at home all season. The Hat Tricks are 27-2-2 at DIA this season, including the playoffs.

*Like Danbury, Carolina swept their first-round playoff series (against the Port Huron Prowlers) and then lost Game 1 of the second round on the road, 6-1. But in similar fashion as the Hat Tricks, the Thunderbirds rallied at home, winning Game 2 against the River Dragons 6-5 in double overtime and Game 3 4-3.

*Hat Tricks forward Michael Marchesan leads the FPHL with 10 points in the playoffs. His six goals are second, behind Thunderbirds forward Petr Panacek, who has seven.

*Jacob Ratcliffe has two game-winning goals in the playoffs, tops in the FPHL. Teammate Lucas DeBenedet is +9, tied for best in the playoffs with Panacek.

*Carolina forward Gus Ford led the FPHL in scoring this season. He had 114 points (46 goals, 68 assists) in 54 games. Ford has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in the playoffs.

*Hat Tricks goalie Brian Wilson set an FPHL record with 31 wins this season. The co-goalie of the year in the FPHL is 4-1 in the playoffs with a 2.40 GAA and .921 save percentage.

*Games 1 and 2 will be played in Winston Salem this Friday and Saturday. Game 3 will be at Danbury Ice Arena on Friday, May 12. If needed, Games 4 and 5 will be played in Danbury May 13 and 14.

Photos: Chris Rutsch