CALGARY — The smile on Matthew Phillips’ face was as priceless as the moment unfolding in front of him.
Standing four feet away, in front of his Saddledome locker stall, was his 84-year-old grandfather, who suddenly found himself in the midst of an impromptu media scrum, speaking proudly as Phillips’ No. 1 supporter.
A survivor of three open-heart surgeries, cancer and diabetes, Don Winsor knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles — something Phillips clearly learned from him as a five-foot-seven, 155-pound mini-mite.
“It’s unbelievable how far he’s come and how proud I am,” said Winsor, visiting from tiny Happy Adventure, Nfld.
“Matthew has had a lot of disappointments. He wasn’t picked for the under-16, under-17 and world junior teams, but all those setbacks didn’t set him back at all. He just accepted it and moved forward.
“He’s done it with grit and determination. From the first time he hit the ice at age five, I watched how much he wanted that black piece of rubber and he still wants it today.”
An athlete himself who competed at the national level in soccer, basketball and fast pitch, Winsor was Newfoundland’s first parks and recreation director who wrote a sports column for 25 years for the province’s 14 community papers.
Long before his 21-year-old grandson was born, he reached out to Flames PR director Rick Skaggs to ask if he could have media access at the Dome for his annual family visits to Calgary where Phillips grew up. The team obliged annually, and for the bulk of two decades they’ve heard plenty about the talents of young Matthew, who the Flames drafted in the sixth round in 2016.
“I predicted it way back when he was a child — I knew that Calgary would one day draft him,” smiled Winsor, fondly recalling how he watched Phillips win honours as MVP, top scorer and most gentlemanly player at Calgary’s famed Mac’s midget tourney with the Calgary Buffaloes.
“I told the boys upstairs, ‘There’s a future Flame.’ I can’t put into words how proud I am of him. I’m so glad he’s here.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s been around the rink and has been coming to these Flames camps for a lot of years and for him to be here to experience this, as he has before, I’m lucky to be part of it,” said the beaming winger, whose solid camp earned him another break as he drew into Wednesday’s lineup for the Flames’ 6-4 win over San Jose only because Austin Czarnik came up injured after blocking a shot with his ankle Monday.
“He loves sports more than anyone I ever talked to. He’s been really encouraging for me and has always been so positive, ever since I started playing hockey he’s been there for me, watching and following.
“He really believes in me and that means the world to me. He’s kind of a backbone for me and my whole family, for that matter. Never really hard on me after things don’t go too well, just supportive.”
He’s had plenty to cheer about as Phillips overcame his size to slice up the WHL, becoming captain of the Victoria Royals, scoring 48 goals and 112 points his last year. One year earlier he scored 50 as part of a brilliant junior stint that included 135 goals and 281 points in 215 WHL games.
On Wednesday the kid who would be the NHL’s smallest player, played a chunk of time alongside one of its biggest, Milan Lucic, and Derek Ryan.
Despite some power play time he was one of five Flames held off the score sheet as Alan Quine, Sean Monahan, Dillon Dube, Adam Ruzicka and Dube scored in a game that saw goalie Jon Gillies allow four goals on 19 shots.
In a league getting smaller and faster all the time, he was fortunate to be drafted by a team employing Johnny Gaudreau, believing he too had a chance.
It took time for him to adjust to the AHL last year, but as the year rolled on he got better, going on a 14-point binge over eights games at Christmas, en route to a 38-point rookie season.
He continued that momentum in the Flames prospect camp last week, leading up to Monday’s split-squad game in Victoria where a sold out crowd of 7,000 at the Memorial Centre chanted his name, roared following a video tribute and exploded when he set up a Dube goal.
“That was really special – a night that will be at the top of my list for a long time,” smiled Phillips, who will undoubtedly start the season back in Stockton due to the Flames depth up front.
“I feel really fortunate to have had that. I think I’ve taken big steps since this time last year and I want to make the decision as tough as possible for them to send me back.”