by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

Billy McCreary has much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

The Danbury Hat Tricks are back, playing for the first time since shutting down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And Danbury Arena once again is flush with its rabid fans.

That alone is much to appreciate for McCreary, the Hat Tricks general manager. But there is an even bigger reason for the 39-year-old to be thankful.

This will be the first Thanksgiving since his daughter Aila Rose was born March 27. And that Aila, born eight weeks premature, is happy and healthy right now is the greatest blessing for McCreary and his fiancée Lee.

“We’re 100 percent thankful she’s doing well and headed in the right direction,” McCreary said. “She obviously reminds us of what’s important in this life, and that’s love and family. So, I couldn’t be any more thankful for her and my fiancée, and the people at Danbury Hospital who made sure Aila had everything she needed to get through and find success. It’s a moment we’ll certainly reflect on.”

McCreary sat down for this special Thanksgiving Q&A with the Hat Tricks Insider earlier this week to discuss his daughter’s struggle, being a first-time father and the return of professional hockey to Danbury.

What happened right after Aila was born?

“Everything happened so quick. I remember the doctors as soon as she came out working on her responses and everything seemed to take a while; but she started to check off all the boxes, crying, moving her limbs, things like that. They wrapped her up, brought her over to my fiancée, who got to hold her for like five seconds, and then they took her away and hooked her up to a machine. She was on oxygen; they hooked her up to a feeding tube so they had a tube in her nose, a tube down her throat. All the monitors are going off, monitoring her heart rate, her oxygen levels. So, as soon as I saw that everything kind of hit me and I knew we were going to have little bit of a battle on our hands. I knew we weren’t going to be those parents who get to walk right out of the hospital after a few days with their baby.”

You’ve told me previously that Aila’s situation really put a lot things in perspective for you. Can you elaborate on that?

“We’re a tight-knit family and certainly not afraid to grind through things and that’s something the game presents us every day. Sometimes we can get a little wrapped up in how hard that grind is. But when you take a step back and not only see what my daughter had to go through but what other people go through in their lives, hockey really just becomes secondary. You really look at it and understand that it really is just a game and it’s not life and death. As much as we say we’re going to battle, nobody’s going to war out there, no one’s dying out there. We all have our battles in our normal lives and one of the best things about the game is that it provides an outlet from those moments of trial and tribulation. I know when I played I was always trying to play for a cause and give hope to people who maybe couldn’t find it outside the rink. To me that’s what it’s all about. Ila is a constant reminder of that.”

Now that Aila is a healthy, how are you enjoying being a dad?

“I love it! As soon as I get home the first thing I do is shower and get all the germs off from being around the boys all day, then every moment with her is just amazing. I love coming home and trying help her, she’s trying solid foods now, that’s the latest. I love cooking in general, but preparing her meals is something I really enjoy. Just trying to embrace everything, enjoy these moments while they last.”

After 601 days between games, what was it like when the Hat Tricks opened this season at home October 29th?

“It’s almost indescribable, the buzz in the building was great, the players were extremely excited after having taken a year off, they came back with something to prove and I think we did that on opening night (a 7-5 win against the Port Huron Prowlers). It was a great atmosphere. We really embrace our fans and our city, and they are an extension of us. We’re extremely proud of the body of work we put in and we want to make sure our fans are proud every night. I think that opening night was a good example of what’s to come here in the near future and the long term as well.”

How has it been getting back into your normal hockey routine again?

“It’s funny, I was talking with my coaches after practice last week and just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Holy cow, this is a dream come true.’ I’m on the ice with the [Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks] in the morning from 9-11 then do video, have meetings and get back on the ice with the pro guys from noon to 2. You get a little bit of everything as far as the level is concerned with the junior guys and the pro guys from the FPHL. We are extremely fortunate to be able to do what we do, especially here at Danbury Ice Arena.”

What’s the Thanksgiving plan in the McCreary household this year?

(laughs) “True to McCreary form, we’re actually on the road. We’ll be on the bus down to Maryland (with the Jr. Hat Tricks), so we’ll probably have Thanksgiving the day before. My fiancée doesn’t eat meat so I’ll probably make some beer can chicken, some mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole -- I love my sweet potatoes! We’ll keep it simple but we’ll certainly enjoy our time.”

Do you have a holiday message for Hat Tricks fans?

“Thank you for sticking with us through COVID. We’re really excited about this year; and working through the pandemic our goal for the last two years has been bringing a championship back to Danbury. We’re going to focus on doing that this year; and we want everyone to have a safe and happy holiday and enjoy some hockey moving forward.”

Photo credit for Billy and Aila Rose McCreary: Dan Stockfield