In 1996, things weren’t exactly rosy for the Ottawa Senators. After finishing dead last for each of their inaugural four seasons, the novelty was beginning to wear off, and a passionate fanbase started to hunger for even the slightest bit of success.
To make matters worse, the team had failed to take advantage of two first overall picks. 1993’s Alexandre Daigle was coming off of a meagre 17-point season, on his way to becoming the biggest draft bust in NHL history, while 1995’s Bryan Berard was traded to the New York Islanders by request, before having even played a game with the Sens. This made 1996 a crucial draft year for Ottawa. Once again with the number one pick, and the team staring down the barrel of failing to make the playoffs for a fifth straight year, missing on another selection would have been a disaster.
With the first pick in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, Ottawa selected a big kid from Calgary, named Chris Phillips.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Phillips debuted in the 1997-1998 season, tallying 16 points in 72 games, and helping the team to their first postseason series win, upsetting the first-place New Jersey Devils. On a blueline that had historically been among the weaker in the league, he added to a core that now boasted the likes of Wade Redden, Jason York, Igor Kravchuk, and Janne Laukannen to name a few. The Sens made the playoffs for the next nine straight years, with Chris Phillips being a key part of every appearance.
More often than not, his impact was understated. Never known for his offensive numbers, “Big Rig” was your prototypical stay-at-home defenceman. Going toe-to-toe with the opposing teams’ star players, always staying in the right position, and doling out some punishing body checks.
But of course, Phillips had his moments in the spotlight, too.
His steady presence would be a vital component of Ottawa’s prime years of contention, from 2003-2008. Phillips was there for the President’s Trophy, the Stanley Cup Final, and everything in between. He had his miscues (if you know, you know), but the Senators likely would have never reached the heights that they did without Phillips’ influence on the back end.
That says a lot about a guy who averaged just 21 points per season during that span.
“The impact of a guy like Chris Phillips can’t be measured with stats or numbers”, said TSN’s Ian Mendes, who covered the team for much of Phillips’ career, to go with a brief stint in a front office role.
It’s hard to state it better than that. We touched on Phillips’ on-ice performance, he only ended four of his 17 NHL seasons with a +/- rating below zero, but it is impossible to overstate his dedication to the community. The story of Elgin Fraser during the 2007 playoff run captured the hearts of hockey fans everywhere, and the impact that Phillips made on a young boy and his family is an immeasurable one.
The Fraser’s are just one example of Chris Phillips giving back to his adopted home, and lend credence to the notion that his biggest impact was likely felt off the ice. Phillips never made more than $3.5M in a season, and even when the organizational downturn truly began in 2009, he made it clear that his priority was to stay in Ottawa. The Senators missed the postseason for the first time in Phillips’ career, and would only make it three more times in his last six campaigns, getting past the first round just once.
With a cap hit that was far from exorbitant, and still tremendous value as a defensive defencemen, it seems likely that there were plenty of teams that would have doled out a nice package to acquire Chris Phillips. Hell, the writing was pretty much on the wall after Daniel Alfreddson and Jason Spezza left in consecutive years, but Phillips remained loyal to his team, and to his community.
“For a franchise that has had a hard time retaining their ‘legacy’ players, Phillips was the one guy who made it abundantly clear that finishing his career with the Senators was a top priority”, said Mendes, “And I think he should be applauded for that. He wasn’t just one of those guys who paid lip service by saying ‘Ottawa is my home’ — he actually lived it by becoming engrained in the community”.
Of course, this isn’t meant to denigrate the legacies of guys like Alfredsson and Spezza. Their reasons for leaving were valid, and they are still remembered fondly in Ottawa, but the fact that Phillips is the all-time leader in games played shouldn’t count for nothing. Chris Phillips likely could have gone anywhere, but he didn’t. He stayed, and helped further the development of guys like Erik Karlsson, knowing that in the twilight of his career, he likely wouldn’t be an on-ice factor in any future success.
So for all the reasons listed above, and many more that I couldn’t do justice with a novel’s worth of articles, Chris Phillips deserves to see his #4 ascend to the rafters, never to be worn again. He didn’t light up the scoresheet, he wasn’t a brash personality. He never wore the ‘C’, won any major awards, or participated in an NHL All-Star Game, but accolades aren’t what set Phillips apart.
For the greatest, most successful years in Ottawa Senators history, Chris Phillips was a linchpin on the back end and in the city. He matched up against the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin night in and night out, then immediately turned around to do his part for the likes of CHEO, and the Sens Foundation.
The point of retiring a jersey is to recognize someone as one of the greatest players in franchise history. The Senators have been around for 28 seasons now, and have only retired one number that has played for them in that time. If Phillips is not worthy of this honour, then I ask you, who is? For 1179 games, he gave both the team, and his community, everything that he had.
It just so happened that what he “had” were elite performances, leadership, and a devotion to the people around him. Both on and off the ice.
As usual, Ian can put it far better than I can:
“While he didn’t reach any significant scoring milestones, Chris Phillips is a terrific reminder that sometimes a player’s impact in a city can go far beyond a scoresheet”.