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Items on the offensively-gifted wingers to-do list this year: shore up his defensive game and push for a spot on Canada's WJC roster

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

On their official site, the Victoria Royals are advertising a 7-Game Fan Pack priced at $119, $140 or $189.

All sorts of perks involved. But maybe best of all, your selected seat at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre comes with a limited edition Matthew Phillips 50-goal commemorative bobblehead.

"I don't,'' confesses a bemused Phillips, "think it looks much like me, to be honest. I dunno, maybe the shape of the hair.

"But the likeness stops there.

"It's a total surprise that I'm getting a bobblehead. Kinda funny.

"But pretty cool, too."

The will-o-wisp local kid is making heads turn, not bobble.

Sure, at 5-foot-6 and 140-pounds, Phillips looks as if should be setting off on adventure from a Tolkien shire rather than to his second Flames training camp mid-September.

But since being drafted with the 166th pick at the 2016 NHL Draft, the Calgary teenager has fast-tracked through his first NHL camp to a star-making 50-goal (tied for second in the Western Hockey League), 90-point (tied for 10th) junior campaign and then on to an invite to the World Junior Summer Showcase, putting him very much on Hockey Canada's radar for the annual Christmas holiday hockey feast in Buffalo, N.Y., opening on Boxing Day.

"It's been crazy,'' he acknowledges. "So much to take in. These are busy times, not just for me but other players my age. Shorts summers, in and out of camps. But it's been amazing. About two years ago I was just hoping to make the WHL teams.

"Things have happened pretty quick."

The whole dizzying whirl began with an opportunity to spend three days last September post-Young Stars Classic Tournament in Penticton, B.C., involved in the Flames' main camp, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, and Dougie Hamilton.

"Last year was pretty surreal. Just being at the Saddledome with those guys you mentioned was kind of: "Whoa! I've been dreaming of this my whole life. And here I am.'

"You feel like pinching yourself.

"This year hopefully I can take a more business-like approach to it, give a good account of myself and maybe get a chance to play in the pre-season.

"Going back a second time I'll be a lot more comfortable, I'm sure. This summer, I've been able to train knowing what to expect."

Then following Victoria's playoff exit in the springtime, Phillips hooked up with the Flames' top minor-league affiliate in Stockton, picking up one point in one regular season games and taking part in two postseason tilts.

"I wasn't sure what it was going to be like until I got there but I'm happy I got the chance.

"Now I have an understanding about what I can expect in the coming years. I played in only three games but I was there for about a month, practicing and being around the team.

"I understood how I can play my game but still modify it to suit the pro style."

As a 16-year, 1,000-game, NHL defenceman in his day, Royals' second-year assistant coach Doug Bodger reckons young Phillips has the goods.

"Matthew's one of those guys you really do not like to defend,'' says Bodger. "He's so quick and can turn so fast … if you kind of let your guard down, even a bit, he can beat you.

"You see this small guy coming down on you and you figure: 'OK. Good. Got him.' Not necessarily. He takes one step one way and two another and he's behind you.

"Not everyone has that ability, believe me. Matthew does. And he's a worker.

"He reminds me of Cliff Ronning. Cliffy wasn't a big guy and playing in the Western League back in the day, it was a lot rougher, tougher to get through traffic to make plays, score goals.

"Cliffy got hit, got beat on, but he kept going.

"That's my message to Matthew: You're going to get it but it's how you take it that counts.

"I think he has the right attitude. He knows he's going to take some shots but he's got a bit of grit, a little feistiness, to him, which I like.

"It's just a matter of believing in himself. If he does that, he'll be there."

On the junior level this coming year, after sniping 50, what on earth does a fella do for an encore?

"Numbers, the more you think about them, the more you struggle,'' Phillips replies. "I try not to pay attention to goals and points so much.

"This year, the thing I want is to be an overall go-to guy - in the defensive zone as well as offensive zone. I'll be one of the older guys on the team which is gonna be weird but a leadership role is something I want to grow into more this year.

"Junior hockey is a really good level but it's not the AHL or the NHL. I have a big advantage in that I spend my summers here in Calgary with RvA (strength and conditioning guru Ryan van Asten) and the training staff, that I'm on the ice with all the guys.

"I know it's a process.

"I know I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and be in the NHL.

"But one day, I hope to wake up and be there."

Until then, there are goals to score, tweaks to be made, leadership skills to be honed and hopefully a World Junior tournament to be waged.

The kid with the new bobblehead aims to keep right on turning heads.

"I think I've got a box of those bobbleheads waiting for me in Victoria,'' admits Phillips, somewhat sheepishly. "Family and friends have been asking.

"Like I said, kinda funny but pretty cool. Doesn't happen every day. I don't know if I'll ever have a bobblehead of my own again.

"So I imagine I'll be keeping a couple."

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