Truth is, Chris Phillips nearly didn’t play a single game for the Ottawa Senators, let alone one thousand.
On draft day, June 22, 1996, Senators general manager Pierre Gauthier was up at 5 a.m. entertaining offers for his first overall draft pick. None was enticing enough, and Gauthier selected the Calgary-born Phillips, the consensus No. 1 pick out of WHL Lethbridge, a 6-2 (soon to be 6-3), 200-pound defenceman.
“Big defencemen,” Gauthier said. “Everybody looks for big defencemen. He’s the total package. This kid is going to play for us for 10 to 12 years.”
How about 16? Phillips, who will be honoured for game No. 1,000 tonight at Scotiabank Place when his old pal Mike Fisher and the Nashville Predators visit, signed a three-year extension last February for $9.25 million that will carry him through 2013-14. That would be his 16th NHL season in Ottawa.
Phillips is still just 33, until next month’s birthday cake, relatively young for the 1,000-plateau, a testament to his health and durability. Five times Phillips has played in all 82 games of a season and only once, in 1998-99, when he suffered ankle and eye injuries, has he appeared in fewer than 60 games.
“It’s a lot of games,” Phillips says of the milestone, typically understated. “I’m proud of it, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Phillips is especially proud to have played all 1,000 games with the same organization. The loyalty cuts both ways, No. 4 says.
“I saw my name in the media a lot, especially early in my career, about being trade bait . . . and there were times when I thought it was a real possibility. For the team to believe in me and hang onto me, and over the last couple of years, me wanting to stay here – both sides take ownership in it.
“It’s been a great relationship my entire career.”
Not that the road has always been smooth. As a young defenceman trying to make the leap from major junior, Phillips was not always in the good graces of head coach Jacques Martin, a stickler for defensive hockey, who experimented with Phillips as a forward.
“I tried to keep my mouth shut, and just go up and do what was asked,” Phillips recalls. “Do it the best I knew how, work hard, and here I am.”
Shifting from defence to forward and back represents just part of the Phillips transformation. At times, he’s been projected as an offensive defenceman, a shutdown specialist, and some variation in between.
When Phillips and Wade Redden, second overall pick of the New York Islanders in 1995, joined forces in Ottawa in 1997, the sense was that the Senators had their top defensive pairing in place for the next decade or so.
In pro sport, things rarely work out as planned and defencemen are more difficult to project than forwards. The same summer that Phillips was picked first overall, a gangly fellow by the name of Zdeno Chara went 56th overall to the Islanders and Ottawa selected Sami Salo 239th.
Redden, after several years in the Senators top pairing, was retained ahead of Chara here in 2006, to the future regret of all in the organization and its fan clubs. As for Phillips, he came into his own not alongside Redden, but as a shutdown tandem, first with Chara and then Anton Volchenkov, especially in the 2006-07 season that saw Ottawa reach the Stanley Cup final.
Known for his calm demeanour, “I have a long fuse,” he once told me, Phillips nevertheless had the ability to elevate his game in the playoffs, where he could be a fierce and physical competitor.
Volchenkov left for a free agency contract with the New Jersey Devils in 2010 and neither Phillips nor Volchenkov has been quite the same player since. In fact, on a rebuilding club under new head coach Paul MacLean, Phillips role has morphed into that of a mentor in the third pairing with tough guy Matt Carkner, while Erik Karlsson, Philip Kuba, Sergei Gonchar and rookie Jared Cowen eat up ice time. Averaging about 18 and a half minutes per game, Phillips is en route to his first sub-20 minute season since 2001-02 when he averaged 19:31 per game.
Like any competitor, he would love to play more.
“You’re right, it is a little different right now,” Phillips says. “And that’s the reality of this guy coming up (points to Karlsson’s stall) and being as good as he is. You’ve got to give him minutes. Kuba and Gonchar and Cowie are doing a great job, playing together.
“I step in and fill minutes, kill penalties and at times they’ve thrown me on the power play. I feel comfortable if they have to throw me out there in certain situations. Obviously it’s in our nature to want to be out there as much as possible . . . if they tap you on the shoulder you go out and do the best you can, come off and wait for them to tap you on the shoulder again.”
Ottawa’s growing stable of young defencemen know they can lean on the ‘Big Rig,’ or “Ice” as he was nicknamed in junior for his poise.
“Sometimes you forget how long he’s been around,” says Cowen, a fellow westerner and WHL grad. “It’s pretty awesome when you think about what kind of person you’re talking to or is sitting beside you (on the bench). They’re just regular guys – Philly, Alfie, Gonch, . . . but you realize when they tell you something it’s probably the right thing because they’ve been around and they know what they’re talking about. It’s pretty special.”
One thing that has changed is Phillips himself. When he was drafted, the Senators knew they were getting a young man of character, a teenager who played junior hockey close to home so he could help care for his ailing mother and father, a player whose dream splurge upon signing an NHL contract was not a fancy car but a new home for his parents.
When GM Bryan Murray opted to extend Phillips contract last year, he did it partly because he wanted to keep a veteran player of Phillips stature and character in the organization, one of the best known Senators in the community thanks to the charity efforts of Chris and his wife, Erin.
Seeing that No. 4 painted behind the goal nets in his honour, Phillips might take a moment Thursday night to chuckle about his fleeting career as a forward, or those trade rumours then and as recently as last year. Who would have thought . . .
“I still remember him coming into his first camp as an 18-year-old,” says captain Daniel Alfredsson, the only other Senators player to have played at least 1,000 games with this organization. “He played really well and he’s been building on it since. Like everybody, we all go through ups and downs, but he’s been a constant stability for us on the back end through all the years, he’s a fantastic guy to have here in the locker room, and he’s one of those guys who always seems to get better as more is on the line in a game.”
Appropriately, Fisher will be here to be part of the 1,000 game ceremony. The popular centre put in 675 games in a Senators sweater before being dealt to Nashville a year ago.
“Of those 1,000, I’ve lined up with him for a lot of them so it’s pretty cool he’s going to be here,” Phillips says of Fisher.
Now if only Phillips and the Senators could end a couple of droughts – a seven-game losing skid – “it’s been an ugly streak,” Phillips says — and the defenceman’s season long goal scoring slump.
Someone asked Phillips if we might see his trademark goal celebration, a one-handed stick salute.
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”