Flames cap season with feel-good moment as Phillips makes NHL debut

Matthew Tkachuk had two goals for the Flames as they beat the Canucks 6-2 in their final game of the season.

Outside of Happy Adventure, N.L., there couldn’t have been many who tuned in to watch the Calgary Flames finale on Wednesday afternoon.

However, you can bet the majority in that tiny village of 200 were anxious to see one of the franchise’s few feel-good stories of the year.

It is there where Don Winsor, the 86-year-old grandfather of Flames prospect Matthew Phillips, has spent the bulk of the last decade insisting a day like Wednesday would come.

A day when his five-foot-seven, 155-pound pride and joy would defy the odds by skating in his first NHL game.

For his hometown team, nonetheless.

“I gave him a call this morning and he’s got to be the happiest guy in the world today,” beamed Phillips minutes after realizing his lifelong dream.

“I guarantee he was watching and he probably had everyone he could contact watching the game as well. Pretty cool.”

Following three years in the minors, wondering if he’d ever be rewarded with a big-league call-up, the sixth-round pick finally got the nod on the flight home from Vancouver on Tuesday night. It was then the 23-year-old winger started getting nervous about the reality he’d take a few of those coveted rookie laps in the rink he grew up dreaming in.

“The lap by myself was just so cool,” Phillips said after the Flames' 6-2 win.

“You see that all the time on TV and everything – it’s hard to put into words. Especially at the Saddledome, it makes it just that much better.”

Following in the footsteps of Calgarians like Mike Vernon and Tim Hunter, who were drafted by their local NHL team, the sublimely skilled Phillips was selected 166th overall by the Flames in 2016.

It marked the latest in a fascinating trio of undersized Flames selected 166th, including Theo Fleury and Andrew Mangiapane, who is now on the verge of being a team star.

“It was awesome to see him play his first game – it brought back memories of my first game,” Mangiapane said.

“I think he probably had a few more scoring chances than me. It would have been nice to see him bury one. Hard-working player. Obviously a little smaller guy like myself, so has to get through a lot of adversity to get here. It’s great for him and I’m happy [with] how he played.”

A former MVP of Calgary’s famed Mac’s Midget tourney, where he led the tourney in points and was named Most Gentlemanly Player with the Calgary Buffaloes, Phillips was forever reminded that his tiny frame would hinder any chances of playing much past minor hockey.

However, shortly after the Flames took a chance on him, he posted 50 and 48-goal seasons for the Victoria Royals before jumping to the Flames’ AHL affiliate.

Overlooked by national U-18 teams and Canada’s world junior entry, it was Winsor and Phillips’ family who forever backed him as he overcame obstacles.

Winsor led by example, overcoming three open heart surgeries, diabetes and cancer, not to mention keeping his dreams alive of seeing Matthew take that next step.

Sure there was doubt along the way, but there was also an awful lot of focus and dedication, which he was rewarded for Wednesday.

“It’s a challenge to get to this level,” said Phillips, an AHL all-star who shared the team lead in points this season.

“It’s the NHL, it’s the best league in the world. It shouldn’t be easy to reach this point. I’ve had to work extremely hard to make it to this point and I’ve been so lucky to have so many people that have just supported me and always empowered me and helped me believe in myself. I have a lot of people to thank for sure. It’s something I’ve been working for all my life, so for it to happen is pretty cool.”

Playing on a line with AHL teammate Adam Ruzicka and Milan Lucic, Phillips had a good chance in the first that was stopped by Braden Holtby. An even better one came along midway through the third when he had an empty net to shoot at, but he couldn’t quite corral a hard pass across the crease by Mikael Backlund.

“I hope I won’t remember missing a half empty net — I’m going to try wiping that from my brain pretty quick,” he laughed when asked what he’d remember most about the game.

“Great pass by Backs. I knew it was coming but it just kind of handcuffed me a little bit and bounced off my stick. That’s the way it goes sometimes. I guess I just have to keep working for the first one I guess.”

Given his size, many believe his pro future lies in Europe, where he could be a star. However, his taste of the bigs gives him even more confidence to continue battling for another NHL shot.

Owner of one of the league’s best and most genuine grins, Phillips shared his infectious joy with Sportsnet’s Ryan Leslie during the intermission.

“It’s been a crazy 24 hours and I’m just so happy, so excited to be here — the guys have been so good to me,” he said before being asked about how special he figured this was for grandpa Don, whose annual visits to Calgary included Saddledome press box visits for several decades.

“That goes for all four of my grandparents for that matter. The pandemic has been difficult for a lot of people, especially them. I know they’re so happy.”

Aside from a goal, what was obviously missing from his magical day was having family members in attendance due to obvious COVID-19 crowd restrictions. However, the bulk of his family watched a short drive away and then got an emotional visit from Phillips afterwards to celebrate and reflect.

“I know a lot of guys haven’t seen their family in a long time, so the way that it all kind of fell into place and I get to celebrate and reflect on it a bit with them is pretty special,” he said.

“I know they were pretty anxious and nervous watching. It’s just so cool and such a special opportunity. I’m so happy.”

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