OTTAWA — For 23 years, Chris Phillips has been known for his role in the community, his place in fan hearts, and even for a ‘Big Rig’ beer on fridge shelves.
As of Feb. 18, the Phillips legacy has assumed a new place, high in the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre, where jersey No. 4 is perched next to the iconic No. 11 of Daniel Alfredsson, the retired Senators captain.
Phillips joins Alfredsson as the only modern-day Senators players to have their numbers retired. The late Frank Finnigan’s No. 8 was the first number retired. Finnigan played for the original Senators and had a role in bringing the NHL back to Ottawa in the late 1980s.
"I’ve always considered myself to be a team first guy and I am really happy to be honoured in this way," Phillips said, fans cheering as he spoke, and waving #4Ever signs. "I am humbled beyond words for this incredible honour of having No. 4 retired beside Alfredsson and Finnigan."
Phillips shared emotional moments with more than 200 personal guests and was joined on the ice by his family — wife Erin, his partner in so many community and business endeavours, and children Ben, Zoe and Niomi. Alongside them were Phillips’ mother, Carol and his sister, Jennifer.
Phillips thanked them all for their love and patience.
It was a recurring theme. This was a grateful Phillips thanking all his former teammates, including more than a dozen on hand for the occasion — Alfredsson (in a rare CTC appearance), Chris Neil, Shawn McEachern, Todd White, Shaun Van Allen, Ron Tugnutt, Radek Bonk among others. And of course, his best friend and the lone teammate to speak — Wade Redden.
Also cited were trainers, scouts, GMs and the owners of Phillips’ era, Rod Bryden and Eugene Melnyk. Phillips gave a special nod to the late Bryan Murray, the coach and GM who thought so highly of No. 4.
Those who drafted Phillips — Marshall Johnston and Pierre Gauthier, knew early on that they were acquiring a young man of principle.
At 16, Phillips had the courage and maturity to delay his career in major junior hockey to stay home in Fort McMurray and help care for his parents so sister Jennifer could go to college.
Phillips’ father, Garth, was legally blind from diabetes. His mother suffered from multiple sclerosis and contracted a virus so severe it left her confined to a wheelchair.
On Tuesday, only Garth, who died in 2012, was missing. Or was he?
Afterwards, Phillips said he was wearing a new dress shirt, and on the cuff, he discovered, were the initials GP. It was as though the spirit of Garth Phillips himself put the initials there to be part of the event. And Chris had no idea until he put the shirt on for the occasion.
"I don’t know if that was accidental, or divine intervention," Phillips said after the ceremony. "But it was kind of cool I was carrying his name out there."
Redden told the crowd that a comment by Garth at the 1996 draft was telling of Phillips.
Garth had been asked how proud he was of his son getting drafted first overall by Ottawa.
"And Garth said, when you have a son and daughter like we have, hockey is just the icing on the cake," Redden said. "That statement speaks so loud to me about Chris, about his roots, about his character. He will always be a great hockey player but above all he is a family man."
They were two Western Canada boys in Ottawa together in 1997, Redden then 20 and Phillips 19, the former world junior teammates now instant roommates. As the "second-year veteran," Redden said he got the larger room, Phillips got the "pink one."
Redden and Phillips cooked together, took guitar lessons together.
"We were like brothers," Redden said.
Looking on during the ceremony was another former housemate — the lone player on the Buffalo Sabres bench, Curtis Lazar.
Lazar was a raw rookie with the Senators in 2014 when he moved in with the Phillips family and occasionally baby-sat the three Phillips’ children.
"Seeing you as a father figure was pretty cool and eye-opening to me," Lazar said via video, earlier in the day. "I owe a lot to you for helping me mature and be a man of my own. Congratulations."
Other players who sent in tributes included ex-Sens Zdeno Chara, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Patrick Lalime and Mike Fisher.
Mark Borowiecki, a defensive-minded defenceman on the current Senators, says he had a blue-collar blueprint in the selfless play of Anton Volchenkov and Phillips. A Kanata native, Borowiecki watched them first as a fan, then later became a Phillips teammate.
"He gave me something to aspire to," Borowiecki said. "To play my first NHL game with him as a D-partner made it that much more special. I’m thankful for everything he has done for me and for this organization."
"The accolades tend to go to the flashy guys," Borowiecki added. "The guys who are winning awards and putting up points and goals. To see a guy who was a soldier in this league for this long get honoured this way I think is important. It’s inspiring to a lot of guys in this league who try to play that type of game."
Though he wasn’t an offensive defenceman typical of a first overall draft pick, at six-foot-three, 219 pounds, Phillips deftly carved out a niche as a shutdown player, often alongside his brother-in-bruises, Volchenkov, a shot-blocking machine. Phillips also played alongside Karlsson and Chara.
"As time moved on, I found my way as a shutdown defenceman, as I wasn’t a very good goal scorer." Phillips deadpanned.
When Phillips did score, the Senators usually won the game. Of his 71 career goals, nearly 20 per cent were game-winners. None was bigger than Phillips’ overtime goal in Game 6 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Final against the Devils. That forced a Game 7 back in Ottawa, which the Senators lost on a late goal by Jeff Friesen — whose name still stings for longtime Senators fans.
Phillips and a core of players that included Alfredsson, Fisher, Redden, Neil and Spezza stayed together through a period of franchise excellence from the late 1990s to 2007. Of his 17 seasons, the Senators only missed the playoffs three times and reached the Cup Final in 2007.
Phillips played his last game on Feb. 5, 2015. Today’s Senators organization longs to return to the days of winning hockey, led by such humble heroes.
Known for his steady play in the regular season, Phillips had the ability to elevate for the post-season.
"For me, it’s what it’s all about, trying to win a Stanley Cup," says Phillips, a longtime alternate captain. More of a gentle giant during the regular season, Phillips became rugged in the playoffs, bordering on nasty.
Staying healthy and staying with one team were the cornerstones to him setting the franchise games-played record and ultimately having his number retired.
Erin once asked Chris while they were dating how long an NHL career usually lasts. Phillips answered: "About four years."
Phillips made a mockery of that prediction — he lasted 23 NHL seasons and played a franchise-record 1,179 games, one more than Alfredsson.
"I certainly didn’t think I would play 1,179 games," Phillips said in his address. "It still feels like just a dream for a kid from Fort McMurray."
When it was over, Phillips said he was struck by the "finality" of seeing his number raised to the rafters, as he and his family looked up, way up.
"Incredible," Phillips said, of the moment the banner was raised. "There’s a finality, if you will, with my hockey career. And maybe that’s the most emotional part about it. It’s done now, for sure."
As sure as the No. 4 is forever Phillips’ in Ottawa.
Quick hits with Phillips over the years
Why No. 4?
"I started with five, but when Sean Hill was traded after my first year, I switched to four. I didn’t really have any connection to five and four was a number I wore at the world juniors."
Only three Ottawa players have worn No. 4: Brad Shaw, Hill and Phillips. Now no one will.
On the one-armed goal celly
"It wasn’t something where I came in and said, this is going to be my thing, or what I do. I scored one or two goals and did that and one of our trainers, Andy Playter, mentioned that that was a pretty good celebration. I also remember when the team first came to Ottawa, I was at home watching the games on TV and remember Mike Peluso doing that same kind of Senator Salute… and it reminded me of that, so thought I’d pay a little tribute to him as well."
On playing forward as a rookie in 1997-98
"I scored an OT winner on Dec. 23 against Andy Moog."
His NHL debut at the Bell Centre, Oct 1, 1997
"I just remember being in Montreal, and hearing O Canada and thinking, ‘this is really happening!’"