'They've made this place home,' Phillips salutes fans ahead of jersey retirement
OTTAWA -- It could be just another game – the Ottawa Senators hosting the Buffalo Sabres on a Tuesday evening in mid-February – in a season long lost for Ottawa.
Instead fans will be taken back to a much more exciting time for the Ottawa Senators – a time when February meant building to the playoffs, and a real shot at Lord Stanley – as the jersey of former Senator Chris Phillips is raised to the rafters.
He will be just the second Senators player in the modern era to receive such an honour. Former captain Daniel Alfredsson had his jersey retired in 2016.
And Phillips, always perceived as a "team guy," is the first one to see this team getting there again. In looking back over his own career ahead of his big night Tuesday, he pauses to draw similarities between his initial group of teammates and this year's crop of hungry players.
"They've got some great veteran leadership and some great young talented guys – Brady (Tkachuk), Colin White, (Thomas) Chabot – and not only talented guys, but good character guys. You see what they're starting to do in the community. Guys that you can really build a franchise around."
"I really see this team as a similar spot to where they were when I first came here. They had just made the playoffs for the first time the year before. My first year we won the first playoff series beating the top team as a number eight seed."
Passion for playoff hockey
It was the start of an incredible run in which regular season success was almost a guarantee. The Senators made the playoffs for 11 straight seasons, and if you ever saw Phillips play, you know he lived for the post-season. The steady, reliable defenceman was at his fiery best when it was all on the line.
"We always knew, in the regular season it was steady Philly and then come playoff time, it was a different Philly," Alfredsson explained. "He always stepped up his game and did that little extra in the playoffs. And it wasn't just one or two times, it was every time we were in the playoffs. He always excelled and he showed us what he could do."
Phillips played his entire career in a Senators uniform and when asked to call up the highlights says there are "hundreds, maybe thousands" of moments that spring to mind.
And then there is that one moment, that one goal, "the kind that kids dream about," says Phillips, that will stay with him forever.
It was 2003, the Eastern Conference final, the Senators, down three games to one, had surprised everyone with a Game 5 win over the mighty New Jersey Devils at home.
And they were again fighting for their lives in Game 6 against a stingy Devils squad. A 1-1 game deep into the first overtime period when stay-at-home defenceman Chris Phillips became the unlikely hero.
"You think about how you'll celebrate."
It wasn't only the biggest goal in Phillips' career; it ranks among the biggest in Senators franchise history.
"That kind of stuff was kind of the goosebumps part of the game and to be able to have a goal like that was kind of icing on the cake."
The Senators took the series back to Ottawa, where only a Game 7 in the conference final separated them from their first shot at a Stanley Cup.
But the hockey gods were not with Phillips' Senators squad. This time the glory went to the Devils' Jeff Friesen.
Senators fans were heartbroken. So was Phillips.
That President's Trophy-winning Ottawa team was comprised of talents such as Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Wade Redden, Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and goaltender Patrick Lalime, often considered the most talented Ottawa team ever assembled.
The Senators did make it to the final in 2007, only to fall to the Anaheim Ducks in five. It was a missed opportunity that had Phillips in tears in the dressing room after the loss.
Only years removed can he appreciate what they accomplished, and how close they came.
"Going to the cup final in '07, although we didn't win – looking back was just an amazing season, an amazing feat – and realizing how hard that truly is, and you know I'd already been playing for a while, and you never know when that moment's going to come again if at all – which it didn't.
"And now after it's all done you're able to appreciate what we were able to accomplish."
Entire career in Sens uniform
Life of course doesn't play out on the ice.
The other thing Phillips is able to appreciate even more deeply now is what he's built here in Ottawa, the city that welcomed this first round pick in 1996, the city this Alberta boy has made his home.
Phillips married Ottawa native Erin Hancock in 2002. They have three children.
In the final years of his career, Philly's name would often come up in trade rumours, but no Ottawa general manager ever pulled the trigger.
Phillips and his connection to this community, and these fans, perhaps had more value here than anywhere else.
He played his entire career – all 18 years – in a Sens jersey, landing him in that shrinking group of players who retire wearing the same jersey they first pulled over their head on draft day.
"I can't say too much 'cause I have to save some for the speech. But I couldn't have scripted anything better. Being drafted by this team and how I was welcomed immediately by the fan base, by the community. That relationship just grew more and more over the 20 years that I've been here.
"They've made this place home for me and I can't thank them (the people of Ottawa) enough for giving me that opportunity and making me feel welcome."
Phillips will make that speech Tuesday evening in a pre-game ceremony hosted by TSN 1200 Senators broadcasters Dean Brown and Gord Wilson. And then his jersey will be raised to the rafters, alongside that of longtime teammate Daniel Alfredsson who will be there to appreciate the moment with him.
"It's going to be pretty cool. I think that with the history we have together, I'm really looking forward to the night," Alfredsson told TSN 1200. "It's going to be special for him and to see his No. 4 up next to mine will be pretty cool."
For both retired players and for fans, a reminder of how good the good old days were. And how close they came.
Phillips says he can imagine the emotion he will be feeling Tuesday night, it's the emotion he'll feel afterwards he says he can't fathom – the first time he comes to a game with his kids and sees number 4 hanging in the rafters.
"It's going to be a goosebumps kind of feeling."
A kind of feeling that has to do with permanence and legacy, and giving everything to one team, one city, one fan base. Chris Phillips will always be a Senator. He will always be the Big Rig. He will always be number 4.
"My kids – growing up and if they have kids of their own – and they come to watch a game and to see their name up there and dad's jersey… I think it will be a special feeling for them. I hope it is."
Catch the Chris Phillips jersey retirement ceremony on TSN 5 and TSN 1200. The ceremony begins at 6:45 p.m.