If Chris Phillips allowed himself time to reflect on his elite hockey career that spanned more than half of his 40-plus years, he might be overwhelmed by his awesome journey.
And he certainly never thought that one day his overall success as a nerves-of-steel defenceman with enviable junior, professional and Team Canada teams would land him a berth in the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame on May 31.
“It’s a huge honour to be recognized among the people of Ottawa,” Phillips, 40, (DOB March 9, 1978), “It’s not where I’m from, but being with the (Ottawa) Senators’ organization for more than 20 years and calling Ottawa home, it’s a huge honour. It’s very exciting.”
From his first taste of tier 2 junior in his hometown of Fort McMurray, AB with the Oil Barons, to playing major junior with the Prince Albert Raiders and Lethbridge Hurricanes to his record-breaking assignment with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and to his numerous Team Canada journeys, Phillips has proudly and diligently crafted a profession that has taken him around the world as an amateur and a pro and rewarded him with envious treasures.
A mind-the-store defenceman who once had his small share of offensive perks, Phillips was a key contributor on all his various teams that reached championship games or series. When he wasn’t a grand champion, he was quite often a silver medallist.
After helping Canada capture the gold medal at the 1996 and 1997 World Junior Championships, Phillips had to learn how to deal with life when it dealt him a silver lining.
He was part of the Ottawa Senators’ 20-game magical run in the 2006-07 NHL playoffs, which abruptly ended as runners-up to the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals. Despite scoring two goals and adding three assists in five games, his Lethbridge Hurricanes (acquired as part of a nine-player team with Prince Albert Raiders) fell to the host Hull Olympiques in the 1997 Memorial Cup.
At the 2005 and 2009 World Senior Men’s Championships, Phillips picked up silver medals, as Canada lost respective finals to Czech Republic and Russia. At his only other Worlds in 2000, Phillips and Canada missed the medals, placing fourth.
As captain of the Alberta team at the 1995 Canada Winter Games, he had his first silver-medal moment, after losing to Saskatchewan in the final. That tournament earned him his first Team Canada assignment as he travelled to Japan for a four-country U17 tournament and lost the final to Russia.
“I sure wish we could have brought the Stanley Cup here. We came awfully close. But if you look at the large majority of games, we had great teams, success, and competitive teams that were exciting to watch.
“The teams were fun to be a part of and something I value to be a part of for a long time.”
The Senators made a logical choice in selecting Phillips as their first-round pick in 1996 and No. 1 overall. He would play 17 NHL seasons (1997-98 to 2014-15) and miss the entire 2015-16 campaign because of a back injury.
His list of junior accomplishments was amazing: top defenceman in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, 1994-95, playing for Fort McMurray; Western Hockey League rookie of the year and WHL and Canadian Hockey League rookie all-star team member as well as player of the game at the CHL Top Prospects Game, 1995-96, playing for Prince Albert; and selected top WHL defenceman and named to the Memorial Cup all-star team, 1996-97, playing for Prince Albert and Lethbridge.
“It was never a guarantee I’d be No. 1,” admitted Phillips, who was a top Central Scouting pick along with Barrie Colts’ forward Alex Volchkov, who only played three NHL games with Washington Capitals. “If Ottawa didn’t pick me, San Jose would have taken me.
“I knew where I was on the radar. But I went through hockey with my blinders on and I focused on playing the game. I wasn’t overthinking anything too much or question what could happen. I just let things fall into place, worked hard, played my best and helped Prince Albert win games.”
After spending his first post-draft season (1996-97) in junior, which was filled with rich rewards, Phillips became an active and contributing member of the Senators along with blueliners like Wade Redden, Jason York, Janne Laukkenen and Lance Pitlick.
The Senators would be his only team for 17 years of action, which didn’t include his final season, 2015-16, when he sat out because of a back injury. During that marathon span, he posted some phenomenal numbers from a team perspective.
He played 1,179 regular season NHL games, which is the most in Senators’ history and one of only three Senators’ players to skate in more than 1,000 games, along with Daniel Alfredsson (1,178) and Chris Neil (1,026). In the middle of his career, he was nearly indestructible, stringing together a 311-game consecutive playing streak, playing five, complete 82-game regular seasons and patrolling the blue line for 638 of 656 games from 2002-03 through 2011-12 (the 2004-05 season was cancelled because of an unresolved, owner-player lockout).
And during his stellar career, where he scored 71 goals and had 288 points in the regular season, and stepped up for six goals and 15 points in 114 playoff games. He even got to experience being a forward, playing left-wing, early in his career.
“It was pretty strange, starting at a morning skate in Pittsburgh,” Phillips recalled. “Coach (Jacques Martin) asked me if I had ever played forward. I said not really, but he said you will be tonight. Go out there and figure it out.
“Certainly, there was some frustration at times as I tried to figure it out. It’s one thing to not play forward and another thing to start playing it in the NHL.”
During that time skating on a line with Alexei Yashin and Shawn MacEachern or Radek Bonk and Marian Hossa, he remembered scoring one goal. There was that game he sent a wrist shot over the shoulder of Andy Moog to give Ottawa an overtime victory.
Top three NHL career highlights as an Ottawa Senator Defenceman
If you were to ask Phillips to select three highlights from a career that probably had 300, his third pick was another goal. In the 2003 Eastern Conference final against the New Jersey Devils, he scored the overtime goal to force a Game 7.
His second highlight was playing in the Stanley Cup final, despite the disappointment of the end result, which almost could be balanced by the herculean effort it took for the team to reach that point.
But his favourite moment was obvious, at least to Phillips: being able to play as long as he did and setting the record for most games played by a Senator.
“When I came into the league, I thought if I could play 10 years that would be a long career. To be able to stick around as long as I did, I didn’t think that was possible.
“Being a defensive defenceman, what my role was what I was proud of. Lots of nights I had various injuries and when I look back, it’s almost stupid the things I did just to play the game. There were a large number of games I played when I wasn’t 100 per cent, but I went out to battle and did the best I could to try to help the team.”
Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images
Celebrate Chris Phillips’ induction into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame on Friday, May 31 at the Horticulture Building—it’s going to be a remarkable night of entertainment and networking. Buy your tickets online before they sell out.