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An Ode to the Big Rig

By Sylvain Godin | SWP Journal Staff


As I prepared to write this article, I struggled to remember a lot of ‘big moments’ that Chris Phillips, number 4, was a part of in Senators' franchise history.


Defensemen of Phillips’ ilk are never showered with praise. It's not a real glorious job: ensuring there's always someone back there ready to defend when s*** hits the fan. You never see them rush the puck; they’re always a pass-first type of player. I remember his 1000th game, being absolutely flabbergasted but happy about his two goals. More on that later.

Tonight, Phillips will have his jersey retired. His #4 will be the second number retired by the Senators; his banner to hang forever alongside Daniel Alfredsson's famous #11. But a part of me has always been a bit of a skeptic about this decision. You’re talking about a player that never really popped to mind as a gamechanger or game-breaker or anything that would really stand out as being worthy of jersey retirement. In truth, I generally think that jersey retirements should be kept for players that have either been the face of the franchise for a long time, or a truly fantastic player who was one of the best players in the game in their era.


While Phillips has always been a stalwart Senator; playing his whole time in Ottawa, I never saw him as jersey retirement material. And that is a part of the reason why I would like to dedicate this article to Phillips and, in the process, see if I can change my own mind.


I certainly believe he deserves a place in the Ring of Honor, like Bryan Murray. When the time comes, I would personally do the same for Neil. I'd add Karlsson and Spezza as worthy candidates for retirement. But, again, this comes from my belief that productive goal scorers and game-changers should be the only ones considered.


Statistics:

First, let’s touch upon the usual statistical value that I feel should represent who has their numbers retired: how were his numbers in the time he’s played for the Senators? The number 1 overall draft pick in 1996, he was twice chosen to represent Canada in the World Juniors, having one point in that whole time and 4 PIMs. I’ll be honest with you and tell you that I don’t really recall those two events. But a quick search indicates to me that Canada won both times.


So, you have a two-time gold medal player in Phillips which is impressive on its own. Even looking at his total points during his WHL years, you were not seeing a player that was going to score you a ton of goals. But what you saw in Phillips was a player who knew how to read the game extremely well and played some beautiful defensive hockey. He had a leadership role no matter where he was, including in Ottawa, where he carried the A for much of his career.


Let’s break down the numbers:

Games played: 1179 (Current holder of longest games played for the Ottawa Senators, one over Daniel Alfredsson) Goals: 71 Assists: 217 Total points: 288 PIMs: 756 (average of 42 PIM per season) Career +/-: 71!


At first glance, the amount of games is about the biggest number you can see in the career. If you do an average of all 18 years, you’re looking at around 14.3 years-worth of injury-free play for the Big Rig. I would say that’s a pretty sturdy player for what he played as: A shutdown defenseman. He’s nowhere near the top 25 in career NHL games. Offensively, let's just say that on the merits of point production, we would be holding our breath a long time to ever see Phillips in the Hall of Fame.


So, if we look at statistical value, there are a lot more players that probably would get the nod over Phillips in terms of number retirement. So let’s see where he fits in other criteria: his worth to the team.


I think the biggest thing that Phillips has ever done for the team was just who he was and how he acted as a member of the team. He was a solid, stay-at-home defenseman and performed his role very well. Averaging 42 Penalty minutes a year also shows he was smart, never one to cost his team stupid penalties. By comparison, Zdeno Chara, who's played just four more seasons than Phillips, has 1945 career penalty minutes. That’s nearly triple Phillips’ number! With a career of +71, Phillips was never a liability and would ensure you always had at least one player on the back end that would allow your offence to go all out.


Part of me can really appreciate someone like that. We put a lot of pressure on defensemen to be point producers these days and we tend to overlook that many of them actually don't know how to play defence. Phillips had the kind of role where you could activate his D partner and know that Phillips will keep the mess to a minimum should things fall apart. Phillips was a part of a now dying breed of defensemen and I would argue that there is not a whole lot of players who played the game as he did, so well, without being noticed in any way regarding taking penalties.


Off the Ice:

Phillips was always a great ambassador to the Senators team. Still with the team in an ambassador and community role, he is part of the Alumni group with the Ottawa Senators, promoting the team and being at team events and celebrations. It is a testament to Phillips’ character and determination to stay with the one team he has always been with and to represent the colours. No person can represent what it means to be an Ottawa Senator like Chris Phillips. On that alone, he deserves to be credited.


Some final notes and conclusions:

There are things that I think we never saw from Phillips that would have been great to see. For this, I go to Ian Mendes' TSN article, featuring Daniel Alfredsson:


While Phillips carved out a niche as a reliable, stay-at-home defenceman, Alfredsson says he had an underrated offensive element to his game. Selected first overall by the Senators in the 1996 draft, the club struggled to find a home for him – even experimenting with him as a forward in the early part of his career. But Alfredsson believes Phillips made a conscious decision to temper his offensive game in order to focus on becoming an elite defender.


He had it in him, but he took so much pride in being that shutdown guy that he put that to the side a bit,” Alfredsson explained. “It couldn’t have been easy for a lot of guys in that position, being drafted first overall – and just getting chances here and there. But then he said, ‘Okay, this is what I am now,’ and he became the absolute best at it and became one hell of a team player.”


The important thing is that the longest-serving Ottawa Senator is going to have his number retired beside the Captain he played with for so long, a strong nod to the greatest years in franchise history. This is far more about celebrating that generation that Chris Phillips symbolizes.


Enjoy your night, Big Rig. While it feels like I was arguing for your jersey to not be retired, I think I talked myself into it because of who you are and what you represent to the team. Congratulations on a well-deserved honour.

#BigRig


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