Hat Tricks reflect on 2020-21 season, ‘one to remember’

by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

The 2021-22 season ended in tears and disappointment for the Danbury Hat Tricks but in many ways it was still a rousing success.

“It’s one to remember,” captain Jonny Ruiz said. “I thought we did a great job building that family culture. Sure, it’s disappointing when you don’t reach your team goal at the end, it hurts. But I sure was proud of everyone.”

The Hat Tricks (36-22-3) were third in the FPHL with a .574 points percentage. They qualified for the playoffs and rallied to defeat the Binghamton Black Bears in the best-of-3 quarterfinals after losing the opener on the road. But their quest for the Commissioner’s Cup ended when they were swept in two straight by the Columbus River Dragons in the semifinals.

“I’m not going to lie, there were tears in that dressing room in Columbus (after the Hat Tricks were eliminated),” defenseman Aaron Atwell said. “It was emotional for a lot of us. We were itching to finish it off, but it didn’t go according to plan.”

The plan had been in place since the 2019-20 season was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. Playing the best hockey of their inaugural season, the Hat Tricks seemed poised to make a championship run.

Then the pandemic took away that opportunity and wiped out the 2020-21 season as well. But Ruiz, Atwell and a group of others from that original team -- Cory Anderson, Gordy Bonnel, Steve Brown, Steve Mele, Nicola Levesque and eventually Phil Bronner -- pledged to give it another go.

And the plan was on point much of the regular season with the Hat Tricks among the league’s best right from the first drop of the puck in October. Injuries sidelined Bonnel, Atwell and Anderson for long stretches, Ruiz played through multiple physical issues and the Hat Tricks weren’t quite themselves come playoff time.

“We just ran out of steam,” general manager Billy McCreary said. “Not to make excuses, but the injuries were too much for us to overcome. I’m so proud of these guys.”

Ruiz had a breakout season. He was fourth in the FPHL with 49 goals, sixth with 85 points and tied for second with 13 power-play goals.

As important, Ruiz grew to be a respected leader in his first season as Hat Tricks captain

“It was a huge honor to be selected to wear the C this year … it was very humbling for me to be given that responsibility,” Ruiz said.

Rookie forward Dmitry Kuznetsov tied for 10th in the league with 34 goals. Anderson scored 32 goals despite being limited to 49 games because of injury. Forward Dustin Jesseau had 21 goals and 44 points in 30 games. Brown and Ruiz were named FPHL First Team All Stars.

McCreary is most proud of how the Hat Tricks reconnected with the fans in Danbury after a nearly 20-month hiatus. They treated the faithful to a 24-6-0 record at Danbury Arena and off the ice reestablished themselves as a big part of the fabric of the community.

“That was really special for me, to give back to the fans,” McCreary said. “Opening night (Oct. 29 against the Port Huron Prowlers) was an incredibly special night, to be playing hockey again and to see Danbury Arena filled with our fans.”

In a season full of highlights, perhaps none sticks out more on home ice than Game 2 of the quarterfinal series. Facing elimination, Mele scored the tying goal with 13.1 seconds remaining in regulation. The Hat Tricks then prolonged their season when Levesque scored on the power play 3:48 into overtime for an emotional 5-4 win.

“It was exciting, I kind of blacked out it was so exciting,” Mele recalled. “I actually wasn’t playing too well that game, but was fortunate to come through, which was kind of the way things were this season. Guys stepping up. It was a great group of guys.”

Anderson echoed that sentiment about the 2021-22 Hat Tricks.

“I think it started with us older guys establishing what kind of culture we want in that locker room every single day,” Anderson said. “We preached a certain mentality within the locker room, this is how we play Danbury hockey. Having good character guys goes a long way. And we had that.”

Seven months of success and great memories were not taken away by a semifinal playoff defeat. There was much for the Hat Tricks and their fans to be proud of this past season.

“Putting on the jersey, making that long walk down the tunnel to the rink, especially during the playoffs, and seeing that group of fans there cheering us on,” Ruiz said. “The community, the fans in Danbury, that’s what sticks out to me.”