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Sens Rewind: The Story of Chris Phillips and His Journey to 1000

The sun rose over the city of Ottawa on the morning of February 9, 2012 the same way it does on a lot of winter mornings. On that particular day, the sun shone brightly. It didn’t care about things in the real world or the sporting world. It didn’t care that in the previous fall, almost every expert and prognosticator picked the Ottawa Senators to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It didn’t care that by Christmas those same Sens were sitting in a playoff position. And it didn’t care that on this February morning, the team had been riding a seven-game losing skid.

The sun simply rose.

That evening in the city of Ottawa, the Nashville Predators were coming into town to take on the struggling Senators. Almost one year before to the day, a guy who had been a big part of this Ottawa team, Mike Fisher, had been traded away to those Preds. In exchange, Ottawa had received a couple of draft picks.

Fisher had been one of those players in Ottawa. A homegrown talent. A glue guy. One of those players who had done the little things game after game to help his team win. The season before the trade, Fisher had scored twenty goals for the fourth time in his career. His 53 points that year had been his highest total as a Senator as well.

His trade to Nashville had hurt a lot of people but Fisher still had his fans in Ottawa and there was no doubt that there would be a good number of folks heading to Scotiabank Place to see him play and cheer him on that night.

But there was another man who was going to be celebrated before, during and after the game. A man for whom this was not just another chance to play hockey. A man who had put his own body on the line night after night and game after game.

Chris Phillips never played the type of game that drew the glory. He didn’t have gaudy offensive numbers over the course of his career. His role was that of the shutdown defenceman. He could break up the other team’s rush, regain the puck and move it out of his own zone. He could move guys out from in front of the net and play the physical game. He played the game that allowed other people to stand in the limelight. And he was happy playing that type of game.

Phillips’ time as a Senator began back in the summer of 1996. Ottawa made him the first overall selection in the draft that year. The overriding word that summed up Phillips in that period was ‘character’. Chris Phillips was a character guy. He chose to forego a season playing in the Western Hockey League in order to stay close to home and look after his parents. His mother, Carol, had multiple sclerosis and suffered a virus that was so severe that she required a wheelchair. His father, Garth, had suffered from blindness in one eye because of the effects of diabetes.

When he got to the ‘Dub’, he became the stud defenceman he was meant to be. As a 17-year-old in 1995-96, he played his first year with the Prince Albert Raiders. He scored 10 goals and assisted on 30 more. In 18 playoff games, he scored twice and added 12 assists. That summer, the Senators selected him first overall in the NHL draft. Not one to sit on his laurels, he notched 3 goals, 23 assists and 26 points in his 32 games with the Raiders in 1996-97. Then he was traded to the Lethbridge Hurricanes and added another 4 goals and 18 assists in 26 games there. Lethbridge finished first in the WHL’s Central Division and eventually won the league and the right to go to the Memorial Cup that was held in Hull, Quebec in the spring of 1997.

Phillips was a force in that Memorial Cup. Maybe it was the fact that he was playing just across the river from the NHL team that had drafted him. Maybe it was an inner drive, but whatever it was, he showed that he was deserving of that number one pick the Senators had used for him. He showed that he could play the solid defensive role but he also displayed an ability to read the play and jump into the offense if needed as well.

In one of the wildest Memorial Cup round robin games ever played, the Hurricanes played the Hull Olympiques on May 13. After two periods, Lethbridge trailed by a score of 6-1. But then Byron Ritchie scored on the ‘Canes first shift in that third period. Shane Willis got another Lethbridge goal 43 seconds later. Ritchie scored a power play goal later in the period and shortly after that, Mark Smith potted one to make it 6-5. Willis scored again with two minutes left in regulation to tie the score. The Olympiques and their home crowd were in shock. Mike Josephson of the Hurricanes scored the winning goal in overtime to complete the greatest comeback in Memorial Cup history. If you look at the video, you’ll see that Chris Phillips (wearing number 77) is on the ice for a bunch of those goals even if he doesn’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet.

The Hurricanes got into the championship game of that Memorial Cup but lost the rematch to Hull by a 5-1 score. But because of the work he did during the week, Phillips was named to the tournament all-star team as one of the two defensemen.

Phillips joined the Senators for the beginning of the 1997-98 season. As a 19-year-old, it was a difficult transition, as anyone can imagine. The jump from Junior hockey to the pros is a tough one. The jump from Juniors to the NHL is a massive undertaking. It took a couple of years for him to adjust, especially given the fact that there were a bunch of nights when he wasn’t just playing on defense but playing up front as well.

“I had a tough start, certainly not one I expected, with playing forward for a couple of years”, he told The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch in an interview from October of 2019. But after moving up and down the lineup for his first two seasons, he established himself on the blue line and developed into that shutdown guy that most people remember.

Phillips’ presence on the Senators coincided with the team’s rise in the standings. His first season with the club was also the year of their first playoff appearance. Postseason berths became the norm for Ottawa and the Senators.

From 1997-98 to the 2007-08 season, they were in the playoff tournament every year. In the 1997-98 season, the Senators finished 8th in the Eastern Conference and their reward was to play the top-seeded New Jersey Devils. Coach Jacques Martin’s defensive trap system, Damian Rhodes’ strong and sometimes stellar goaltending and trust in the youngsters like Wade Redden and Phillips all helped Ottawa to a strong showing in their series with the Devils. But it was Igor Kravchuk’s empty netter in Game 6 that sealed the deal and allowed the upstart Sens to move on to the second round. The Senators lost that second-round set to the Washington Capitals in five games, but a new culture was taking shape in the nation’s capital and it would usher in a decade of success on the ice.

There were some setbacks. Notably against the blue team from down Highway 401, but the wheels were in motion. The acquisition of Zdeno Chara from the New York Islanders in the summer of 2001 helped. He and Phillips would form one of the best shutdown pairs in the league for a while. The spring of 2003 gave Ottawa fans of a taste of what could be if things might just fall their team’s way.

That year, the Senators won 52 games and finished first in the Northeast Division. With Jacques Martin still at the helm, the team played a strong defence-first style but they still had some firepower in the lineup. Marian Hossa scored 45 goals and had 35 helpers to lead the team in scoring. Daniel Alfredsson put up 78 points in 80 games. Todd White was a player to be reckoned with as well with his 60 points. Wade Redden and Chara paced the blueliners with 45 and 39 points respectively. Allowing those players to do what they did were stay-at-home defensemen Phillips and Anton Volchenkov.

In the first round, the Sens made easy work of Chara’s former team, the Islanders, dispatching them in five games. They then faced Ken Hitchcock, Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi and the Philadelphia Flyers. This was a tougher test, but Ottawa came out on top winning in six games. That brought them to the Eastern Conference Final Series.

Their opposition was to be Martin Brodeur and the Pat Burns-led Devils. The first two games were played in Ottawa at the Corel Centre.

In Game 1, Shaun Van Allen got one past Brodeur in overtime to give the home side a 3-2 win. The Devils got a bit of revenge in Game 2 taking a 4-1 decision as the series shifted over to East Rutherford, New Jersey for Games 3 and 4.

The Devils controlled the flow of the game and made Sergei Brylin’s first period goal stand up as they took Game 3 by a score of 1-0. They took a stranglehold on the series in the next game as they overcame a 2-1 second-period Senators’ lead and scored four unanswered goals to win 5-2.

Back in Ottawa, it was do-or-die time for the Sens. They answered.

Patrick Lalime stopped 21 of 22 Devils’ shots and Todd White, Martin Havlat and Jason Spezza scored to give Ottawa a 3-1 win and some life. They faced elimination one more time though as they went back to Jersey.

Game 6 in the swamp was a hard fought defensive struggle. The International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers might have described it as “tight like a tiger”. Radek Bonk got Ottawa on the board late in the second period with a power play marker. Early in the third, Joe Nieuwendyk answered for the Devils with a power play goal of his own. And so it went, back and forth, through the rest of regulation time. The third period ended with the score 1-1. The Senators were a goal away from elimination. They had to keep fighting to keep their season from ending.

That first overtime frame went back and forth. Rushes went one way and then the other. Until late in the period when Marian Hossa led a rush up the right wing and was forced wide, but he got the puck in front to Vaclav Varada who got a shot on Brodeur that was stopped. Varada couldn’t get the rebound but a strong read on the play by Chris Phillips allowed him to move up with the play and as he followed up on Varada’s rebound, the puck came to him and he fired it past Brodeur for the game winning goal. The stay-at-home shutdown defenceman jumped up into the play at the right time to score the biggest goal of his career and permit his team to play one more day. No Senator fan will ever forget Bob Cole’s call of that play and that goal.

Sadly, Game 7 back in Ottawa did not provide the same result, although it did have its share of drama. The Senators got on the board in the first period on a goal from Magnus Arvedson. Jamie Langenbrunner scored a pair in the second period to give the Devils a one-goal lead coming home, but the Sens would not go down lightly. A minute and 53 seconds into the third, Radek Bonk scored to tie it up. The period went on like this, tied 2-2, for what seemed like an eternity. Every rush came with the anticipation that the game could immediately change one way or the other. Back and forth, up and down the play went. Tension grew as the clock ticked down. Until Jeff Friesen scored for New Jersey with 2:14 left in regulation. Former Ottawa 67 Grant Marshall and John Madden got the assists on the game winner. The season was over for the Senators and for their fans. But they still had hope for what was to come.

That hope was tested for a couple of years. But ultimately, in the spring of 2007, it was answered. Somewhat.

Jacques Martin had been let go as coach of the Senators after the 2003-04 season. The team had lost a first round series to the Toronto Maple Leafs again. They lost in seven games but Ottawa’s inability to get past the Leafs in numerous playoff series was Martin’s undoing. The 2006-07 season was the second with Bryan Murray at the helm.

That year, the Sens won 48 games and finished second in the Northeast, eight points behind the Buffalo Sabres. The Ottawa attack was led by 50-goal and 100-point man Dany Heatley. Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson each had 87-point seasons. Ray Emery was the main goalie with Martin Gerber as his backup. Their first-round opponents were the Pittsburgh Penguins who were led by then 19-year-old Sidney Crosby, 20-year-old Evgeny Malkin and future Senator Sergei Gonchar. The teams split the first two games in Ottawa before the Sens won the series in five games. Phillips and Volchenkov led the team in ice time in the games against the Pens. Next up for the Sens were the Devils once again.

The two teams split the first two games, and once again, Ottawa took Games 3, 4 and 5. Yes, the Senators took the series in five games but four of the contests were decided by a single goal. Like the passenger-side mirror on your car, it was closer than the game totals may have made it appear. Redden and Phillips led the Ottawa defensemen in time on the ice. True to form, Redden was the one who had a couple of points. Phillips was content to do his job at the back end. The Sens’ reward for winning the two series was a showdown with the team that had finished ahead of them in their own division – the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres were the highest scoring team in the league at the end of the 2006-07 regular season. They were led by Daniel Briere, Tomas Vanek and Ottawa native Derek Roy. Ottawa was the second-highest scoring team. In terms of goals against, the Sens were 10th in the league. Buffalo was 13th, with Ryan Miller as their mainstay backstopper.

As close as these two teams may have appeared by looking at their regular season play, this series was tight but in the end, it was controlled by Ottawa. The Senators took each of the first three games. Buffalo staved off elimination by winning Game 4, but the hockey gods were smiling on Canada’s capital as the Sens took Game 5 in overtime by a score of 3-2. It was the second time in the series that a game had to go beyond three periods. Game 2 went to double overtime with Ottawa taking that one 4-3. Redden had a goal and two assists in the series and he, Phillips and Volchenkov led all Senators in ice time.

For the first time in their second incarnation, the Ottawa Senators were going to a Stanley Cup Final. In their quest to get to the sixteen victories that would give them a Cup, they had won their first three series in just fifteen games. The team they would be facing, the Anaheim Ducks, had taken just sixteen contests to do the same thing.

The Ducks had skill and finesse in players like Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer and they had grit and pugnacity in guys like Chris Pronger and Corey Perry. Pronger had been a Hart Trophy winner with St. Louis back in 1999-2000 and he and Niedermayer had each won a Norris Trophy in their careers. Their goalie was Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the Ducks as a team were 6th in the league in goals against.

Anaheim hosted the first two games and they held serve winning both starts. If there were any positives for the Sens, it was that both games were decided by a single goal. Ottawa now had to take the next two at home. They won Game 3 by a 5-3 score. Game 4 was tied 2-2 after two periods but Dustin Penner scored for the Ducks at 4:07 of the third period and Anaheim held on after that to take a 3-1 series lead as the two teams headed back to California for Game 5.

The loss in Game 4 was deflating for the Senators and they took their time getting engaged in the next game. The Ducks jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Andy McDonald and Rob Niedermayer and carried that margin into the second. Daniel Alfredsson answered for Ottawa in the second but Travis Moen made it 3-1 for Anaheim just after the midway point in the period. Alfredsson scored again late in the frame but less than a minute after that, Francois Beauchemin scored and, for all intents and purposes, iced it for the Ducks. Moen and Corey Perry scored in the third and gave Anaheim the Cup.

That was the closest Ottawa would come to getting a Stanley Cup. It was a hell of a ride but it came just short of where the team had wanted to go.

For Chris Phillips, 2006-07 had been the best year of his career to that point. He received Norris Trophy votes for the first time. He was never going to put big numbers up on the scoresheet, but he averaged more ice time per game than he ever had in his career. The only season he would pass what he did in 2006-07 would be in the following year, 2007-08. Most importantly, he was doing everything he could to be healthy and on the ice every night. 2006-07 would be the first year of six straight in which he would play 80 games. He was a +36 that year as well, the highest he would post in his entire career.

In terms of team success, the Senators never had a year like 2006-07 again. They made the playoffs again the following season but it began to become hit or miss after that. In 2009-10, they made the playoffs under Cory Clouston but fell in the first round to Pittsburgh in six games. The following year, under Clouston, 2010-11, they missed the playoffs and he was gone.

Heading into the 2011-12 year, very little was expected of the Sens. I can remember TV program after TV program and expert after expert had picked Ottawa to finish last in the conference. Not the division, but the conference. Fifteenth out of fifteen.

In 2010-11, the only Senators to play all 82 games were Chris Phillips and Nick Foligno. Ottawa’s leading scorer was Jason Spezza and he finished the year with just 57 points. The team was next to last in goals for and 24th out of 30 in goals against. To say that they looked bad was an understatement. There was no reason for anyone to figure that the prognosticators were wrong.

The team had a new coach for 2011-12. Paul MacLean had been a very effective NHL player in his time with Winnipeg, Detroit and St. Louis. He had coached in the IHL with the Peoria Rivermen and the Kansas City Blades. He coached in the UHL with the Quad City Mallards winning a championship there. He had been an assistant coach with the Coyotes, the Ducks and the Red Wings, having won a Stanley Cup in Detroit as an assistant to Mike Babcock.

All that said, no one knew what to expect from the Senators and their new coach in the 2011-12 season. However, no one expected much.

When MacLean played in the QMJHL for the Hull Olympiques, his nickname was “Slapshot”. He was a goal scorer. He was an offensive player and while on a line in Winnipeg with Dale Hawerchuk, he had three seasons of 30 goals and three seasons of 40 goals. He had another 30-goal season in Detroit as well before being traded to St. Louis. It was easy to see that his philosophy was more to allow his players to play on offense as opposed to forcing his team to play the defense-first style espoused by Clouston.

2011-12 began for the Senators the way a lot of people figured it would. In their first six games, they won one and that was by a shootout. Then they won six straight. Then they lost five in a row. Then they won three, lost two, won two, lost five of six, won four of five....... It was an up and down year, a wild ride. But the thing was, that by Christmas, they were sitting in a playoff spot. That was something that no one could have foreseen.

From December 16, 2011 to January 19, 2012, the Sens went 13-2-2. Then they lost seven in a row. Going into their game on February 9 against the Nashville Predators, the team was 27-22-7. That’s a pretty decent record for a team that was supposed to finish last. But they were riding a rough losing skid and in danger of getting close to, if not falling below, the .500 mark.

That was the background going into this game. For the team and the coaches, the priority was to do everything they could to come out of this game with a win. For the fans though, yes, they wanted to see their team win but a great many of them were there to celebrate the career of a player who was more than just a member of the home team. He had proven himself to be a fixture on the blue line and in the city of Ottawa.

This was the 1,000th NHL game for Chris Phillips. He had played all 1,000 games with the Ottawa Senators and he was just the 46th NHL player in history to have participated in 1,000 games with the same team. Going into this game, Phillips had missed just one game in the previous five seasons. He had been the anchor on the blue line, having been there for all of the team’s successes of the previous fifteen years. And with respect to the way he and his family had embraced Ottawa and the way that Ottawa had embraced him and his family, it was a well deserved recognition.

Before the game, there was a video presentation of Phillips’ career highlights and accomplishments. Phillips’ mother Carol, his wife Erin and his children were there, of course. Jim Gregory was there to present him with a gift from the league. Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson gave him a silver hockey stick and a watch. Eugene Melnyk and Bryan Murray gave him a silver puck and a painting by artist Tony Harris to commemorate the 1,000 games he had played with the team. The atmosphere was incredibly positive and the love that was shown by Phillips to the crowd was returned doubly during the pre-game ceremony. Said Phillips, “To all the Senators’ fans, here and at home, you are the reason I call Ottawa home.” The place erupted with cheers and love.

Then the game started.

To continue with the mode of celebration, a highlight video was shown on the scoreboard in the first period to honour Mike Fisher. This was his first visit back to the city where his NHL career had started.Ottawa fans gave Fisher standing ovation as the video was playing.

"It brought back a lot of good memories," said Fisher, whose wife, singer Carrie Underwood, was on hand for the game. "It was a neat moment for me, for sure. It was definitely emotional and I had a lot of good memories and great times in this building. The fans have been great and it was definitely a fun moment for me."

Oh.....and there was actually a game played too.

Jason Spezza opened the scoring for Ottawa 4:16 into the first. Gabriel Bourque tied it up for Nashville before the end of the period.

Before the eight minute mark of the second, it was time for the man of the hour to shine. Chris Phillips scored his first goal of the season – and his first goal in 75 games -- to restore the lead for the Senators. Phillips beat Pekka Rinne with a hard shot from the slot. Once again, the fans, who seemed to come to party, stood and cheered a little longer than for a normal goal.

Later in the period, with the Preds on a power play, Patric Hornqvist tied the game back up again. But Ottawa got the lead back before the period was done. Jason Spezza got the goal while the Sens enjoyed the man-advantage with 1:05 remaining in the second.

There was more fun for the fans, and the Senators, in the third when Phillips scored a power play marker – his second goal of the game and of the season. He laid on his back on the ice after the goal looking up at the ceiling while the cheers rained down from the standing hordes above.

Martin Erat scored a goal for the Predators with ten seconds remaining in the game but it was all over but the shouting by then.

The win ended the Senators’ seven-game losing streak. Alex Auld, who was giving Craig Anderson a rest for a night, got the victory for Ottawa. For the Predators, it was their third loss in four games.

"We didn't play well at all," Mike Fisher said. "Give Ottawa credit, they had a good game. Other than the loss, it was a special night for sure, and to see Phillips have a game like that, I was happy for him."

Spezza was happy the team got the win and, after the game, he was doing his stand-up routine.

"It took him (Phillips) a thousand games to figure out he's an offensive defenseman," said Spezza, who also assisted on Phillips' first goal.

Spezza immediately showed his serious side though, after that. "It's tough to stop losing streaks and we did that tonight," Spezza said. "When you're winning games it seems like it's easy to win them, and when you're losing games it seems like you keep finding a way to lose. So to dig ourselves out of that hole tonight, hopefully we can springboard it and have a good one on Saturday (against Edmonton)."

As far as Chris Phillips was concerned, what did he have to say? "What can you say? It's just an unbelievable night to begin with and it just kept getting better and better," Phillips said. "Everything turned out great tonight. A hard-fought game against a top team and we played the way that we have to play, night in and night out, so just a great game for our team to be able to feed off of."

For the man they called “Big Rig”, it truly was an unbelievable night. He would go on to play 1,179 NHL games. All of those games were played in a Senators uniform. After his hockey days were over, his number 4 was retired by the team. He started a successful brewery and restaurant chain. And he has been as concerned with giving back to the community as he was about playing hockey. In May of 2020, TSN went through the histories of each of the Canadian franchises and made up “All-Time” teams of their best players. It was fitting that Phillips and his long-time defense partner, Anton Volchenkov, were named to Ottawa’s “All-Time” team.

To quote the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch, from that October, 2019 interview, “Phillips joked when he suited up for Game 1,179 on February 5, 2015, that he couldn’t let Alfredsson (1,178 career games in Ottawa) have all the records. Phillips had no idea at the time it would be the last game of his career, and perhaps that was a fitting way to end it.”

I will borrow a quote from Jeff Morris, who covered the Senators at the time for ESPN, when he got a response after the game from Jason Spezza, “(Phillips) scoring two goals just proves that there are hockey gods, and they rewarded a good person” said Spezza.

Oh, and just so you know, that 2011-12 Ottawa Senators team did make the playoffs that year. They finished in second place in the Northeast Division with 92 points – ten points behind the Boston Bruins. They played the New York Rangers in the first round. The Rangers had finished in first place in the Atlantic Division with 109 points. The underdog Sens took the Rangers to seven games before succumbing. But it was a great way to finish the season for a team that was expected to be a doormat.

Cheers, folks. Have fun and stay safe!

By Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey


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