INSIDER: Hat Tricks building roster with ‘high character’ players despite obstacles

by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

The Danbury Hat Tricks don’t know yet who all will be on their roster when they open the season Friday at home against the Port Huron Prowlers, but general manager Billy McCreary said he has a clear vision for what type players he wants on the team.

“Really the two things we look for are high character and high compete,” McCreary said. “Obviously, it’s great if we have guys that think the game at a high level, but Danbury is all about playing a tough and fast brand of hockey. So, to do that we need guys that are willing to stand up for one another. We have to have a tight-knit locker room.”

The Hat Tricks open training camp this weekend, but still have vacancies to fill on the roster. Strict government restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have made it more difficult for players from Canada and Europe to obtain working visas in the United States.

A shortage of players has caused a trickle-down effect in the minor leagues. Players who typically would play for teams like Danbury in the Federal Prospects Hockey League are now getting opportunities in leagues further up the ladder, like the ECHL and Southern Professional Hockey League.

“We’re not back starting from square one, but we’re pretty close because we’ve got 19 players whose rights we own currently in the [ECHL] or Southern Pro, so we need to be patient throughout our process, see what happens with those players,” McCreary explained. “We want them to be successful in their journey and reaching their dreams and playing at the highest level possible, ideally in the NHL. But ultimately, we have a job to do here as well, and we have to continue to backfill.”

McCreary admitted it’s been “difficult” to build the team this season, but said he believes that the Hat Tricks are in a “better spot” than some other teams in the FPHL because of the type players they target.

“We’re looking for more the North American style of player,” he said. “We certainly have European players but it’s harder to get those guys over here. There are some teams that really rely on relationships with the Czech Hockey Federation, the Russian Hockey Federation … it’s not our model.”

The Hat Tricks’ model worked quite well in 2019-20 when they were 31-12-0-3 (94 points) before the rest of the season was cancelled because of the pandemic. McCreary was the first-year GM and coach that season. Now he’s handed the coaching reigns to Dave MacIsaac, who played 13 minor league seasons, including two with the Danbury Trashers, and coached the Danbury Mad Hatters to a 30-18-2 record in 2008-09.

“Billy’s done a great job building a culture here and I’m going to try and continue that,” MacIsaac said. “I want guys that are committed to the team and guys that work extremely hard.”

One player who fits that description is forward Jonny Ruiz, who returns this season after leading the Hat Tricks and tying for 10th in the league with 25 goals in 43 games as a rookie in 2019-20.

“Jonny really embodies everything we try to be as a team and as an organization,” McCreary said. “He’s a great personality, an emotional kid, and a lot of our guys are drawn to that and support that. He’s a special young man for us.”

Veteran forward Steve Mele is also back in Danbury after scoring 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 20 games two seasons ago. This time he’s bringing his older brother Tom, also a forward, with him. The Mele brothers have combined to play 741 minor league hockey games and will be expected to be leaders on and off the ice.

“It's absolutely invaluable to have those guys to reinforce what our philosophies are, reinforce the culture we want to build,” McCreary said. “It goes a long way.”