In the sports world, fans often have the best connection with athletes who serve as a perfect reflection of the city they call home.
In Los Angeles, for example, they embrace flashy, highlight-reel superstars who thrive with the Hollywood sign as a backdrop. Pittsburgh fans seem to identify with hard-working, blue-collar athletes who mirror the work ethic of their steel city.
Viewers in the Senators region can watch the game LIVE on TSN5 at 6:30pm ET.
Ottawa, of course, has the reputation of being a quiet and modest city – neither flashy nor flamboyant. It’s a government town that appreciates low-key people who don’t draw attention to themselves. Perhaps that’s why Chris Phillips perfectly aligned with this city over the course of his 17-year NHL career.
When they play the video montage for Phillips on the big screen Tuesday night at Canadian Tire Centre, there won’t be any of the end-to-end rushes or spectacular individual efforts that are often displayed on nights when an iconic player has his jersey retired.
The career of Phillips in Ottawa can’t be adequately boiled down to a three-minute highlight pack or conveyed with gaudy statistical comparisons to Hall of Famers.
Instead, the best way to convey the understated class and professionalism of Phillips is to go back to the morning of Oct. 2, 2014.
In a splashy press conference, the Senators simultaneously announced two major pieces of news: Bobby Ryan had agreed to a seven-year contract extension and Erik Karlsson had been chosen as the club’s new captain.
For a second consecutive season, Phillips had been passed over for the role of captain after the departure of Daniel Alfredsson – despite his public declaration that he would embrace the role.
“I would love nothing more than the opportunity to lead these guys,” Phillips had said a few weeks earlier.
But instead of pouting that he was overlooked yet again on that Thursday morning, Phillips and long-time teammate Chris Neil were at the press conference to show support for Karlsson in his new role.
Phillips decided that he didn’t require a letter on the front of his jersey to embrace a leadership role and decided to invite teenage rookie Curtis Lazar to live with his family. Phillips and Lazar formed a unique bond that generated a significant amount of father-son jokes and even a social media parody account that highlighted their significant age gap.
That Lazar – now a member of the Buffalo Sabres – will have a front-row seat for Phillips’ jersey retirement on Tuesday night is a subtle reminder that the hockey gods pay attention to these sorts of things.
Though he was never the captain, Phillips was often the calm in the centre of a Senators’ storm that was constantly swirling with playoff heartbreaks, coaching changes and off-ice issues like the club filing for bankruptcy.
Through it all, Phillips was steady, reliable and unwavering in his professionalism – his demeanour providing the perfect contrast to the instability that often surrounded him.
Consider when he experienced the unfortunate mishap of inadvertently scoring into his own goal in the deciding game of the 2007 Stanley Cup Final against the Anaheim Ducks. Many athletes who suffered an embarrassing gaffe like that on such a large stage would avoid the cameras and spotlight afterwards. But when the doors to the Senators dressing room inside the Honda Centre opened up, Phillips was at his stall – ready to answer questions about his devastating misplay.
“Now I know how Steve Smith felt,” he famously uttered.
In other markets, they might snicker at the fact that a player who scored only 71 career goals will see his jersey number raised to the rafters. Phillips never scored 10 goals in any single season, nor did he even finish in the Top 10 of the Norris Trophy voting in any campaign.
But consider that Phillips is on a very short list – one that only includes Alex Ovechkin, Gilbert Perreault and Denis Potvin – of players to be taken No. 1 overall in an NHL Draft and play more than 1,000 games in their careers, all for just one franchise.
While he didn’t score at the rate of the players listed above, Phillips did have a penchant for making his goals matter. The team’s record in the 67 regular-season games in which he scored a goal was an impressive 52-9-2, with four ties added to the mix as well.
His goal to keep the Senators season alive in overtime of Game 6 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Final against New Jersey is arguably the second-most important goal in franchise history – trailing only Daniel Alfredsson’s marker to put the team into the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. The image of his teammates piling on top of Phillips near the Ottawa bench is one of the most iconic moments in team history.
Many of the players who piled onto Phillips that night in New Jersey – Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson – ended up leaving the Senators franchise under less-than-ideal circumstances. But Phillips was the ultimate stay-at-home defenceman, never testing unrestricted free agency and never expressing a true desire to leave this city.
The closest he came was near the trade deadline in 2014, when he was rumored to be the trade target of several teams who wanted his veteran leadership. But Phillips and then-general manager Bryan Murray hammered out a contract extension themselves – a deal completed by the two old-school hockey men inside Murray’s hotel room in Calgary.
That Phillips is the first player in team history to start and finish his career with the Senators is a significant fact when you measure it against the current state of the franchise, where some fans are bitter and jaded about the departure of so many iconic players over the years. That feeling is still palpable in the city, with empty seats inside the Canadian Tire Centre serving as concrete evidence of their residual anger.
The hope is that disgruntled fans take a hiatus from that cynicism on Tuesday to celebrate the impact Phillips had on this team and community. The Senators are a young franchise that needs to celebrate every little piece of history they can – and for almost two decades, Phillips provided stability in a sea of uncertainty.
And perhaps the biggest reason to celebrate Phillips is that he is the example skittish Ottawa fans have always longed for – that it is possible to start and finish your career in this city without a messy divorce from the Senators organization.