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Undersized Phillips appreciates big challenges ahead

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

I’ve dreamed my whole life of wearing this jersey. That’s my goal. And this is my first step.Matthew Phillips

CALGARY, AB -- The sound is universal to wherever games are played, scores are kept.

An instantly recognizable audible gasp-squeal; a heart-leaping involuntary eruption of equal parts delight, disbelief and awed appreciation.

It’s the sound of something special happening.

A sound Johnny Gaudreau has heard often enough over his two winters in this town.

The volume is undeniably louder at Scotiabank Saddledome, where the stakes are larger and the scale grander, but the tone of that sound, its timbre, is identical anywhere: Be it unleashed in front of 19,000 onlookers or the few hundred clustered into WinSport for the Calgary Flames’ development camp scrimmage game.

“Johnny-like?’’ ponders Matthew Phillips of his talking-point shootout goal during the scrimmage. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, exactly …

Johnny Gaudreau does some pretty amazing things.

“Most of the guys were shooting so I just decided to do something different.”

Different, of course, is what Gaudreau does on a regular basis at the game’s highest level.

What Phillips one day hopes to do on the very same canvas.

His home canvas.

“This is a dream come true for me, as I’m sure everyone knows,’’ says the Calgary born sixth-round selection in the recent NHL Draft at Buffalo. “I felt comfortable here ... It’s been great. A lot of fun.

“There are a lot of really good players here and I got to see how I stack up.

“But I also know it’s a process. First you have to excel at the Western League level, then the AHL is a great league to develop your skills; a place to learn to be a pro. And then, hopefully, one day you’re good enough to play in the NHL.

“You’re a little nervous, of course. And I can’t even imagine what it’d be like at an NHL camp, with all those guys everyone knows.

“But I’ve dreamed my whole life of wearing this jersey. That’s my goal. And this is my first step.”

At 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, of course, even such apple-cheeked developmental company as this out at WinSport, Phillips could pass for an escapee from Hobbiton caught in a forest of rampaging orcs.

The wall chart and scale never lie, but neither do the numbers -- 37 goals and 76 points in Phillips’ first season of top-drawer junior hockey.

In his media scrum following the scrimmage, Flames’ coach Glen Gulutzan deflected questions involving initial impressions of Phillips, or any of the other prospects here determined to get noticed, for that matter.

“We had a chat last night about standing out but I try not to evaluate at this time of year,” Gulutzan said. “You look at skating, puck skills and conditioning. But it can be dangerous for a coach to evaluate now. But it’s good to get a look at the kids.”

Given the hometown on his birth certificate and size, the parallels drawn to this organization’s crown jewel are not fading away anytime soon.

“Of course the Johnny comparisons are going to start,’’ acknowledges Flames’ assistant GM Craig Conroy. “But this guy isn’t Johnny. He’s Matthew.

“They’re different players, different people.

“Matthew’s skilled, too, obviously. You saw that shootout move. Everybody here saw it. And you heard the reaction.

“But he’s got some bite, too. Some jam. He goes to tough places.”

When Phillips talks of pushing past that initial tendency to gape, Conroy can relate. Any young player who carved out any sort of a career for himself can.

“We all go through those feelings of awe,’’ he remembers.

“I remember my first camp. Montreal had just won a Stanley Cup. Kirk Muller was captain. Patrick Roy was one of the best goalies in the world at the time.

“To be in the locker room with those guys bordered on surreal.

“You’re sitting in that locker room, afraid to speak. Maybe even breathe … but in Montreal, it wasn’t just in the locker room. The Rocket, Beliveau, all those guys were at games. And these guys were -- are -- legends. My first shift against Gretzky, I remember, he puts the puck between my legs, makes a pass to (Adam) Graves and they score.

“And I’m like ‘Whaaaaaaaa ….’

“When I got to St. Louis, Brett Hull let me use his gloves my first game there. Al MacInnis was there. Grant Fuhr.

“But pretty quick you learn you’ve got a job to do.”

That job for Phillips at the moment is to return to Victoria and build on that Western Hockey League Rookie of the Year season. To pack on additional muscle and add strength that will allow him to not only survive, but thrive.

“Size,’’ says Conroy, “is unchangeable. We can’t wave a wand and magically turn a guy 5-foot-8 into a guy that’s 6-foot-4. How Matthew develops as a player is up to him. We really don’t ultimately decide about players. People always say: ‘Well, you guys make the decisions.’ Nope. Players make the decisions. You play so well that we can’t keep you off the team, then you’re on the team.

“And vice-versa.

“What you’re looking for, in any player, any size, is someone who makes a difference. All I know is that when I leave the rink after watching Matthew play, I just say: ‘He’s small, but he was one of the top three players on the ice. He was a difference maker.’

“Does that translate into NHL?

“We don’t decide.

“He’s going to tell us.”

That universal sound, the instantly recognizable gasp-squeal of equal parts delight, disbelief and awed appreciation Matthew Phillips triggered Thursday at WinSport, is an encouraging start.

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