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Senators' Phillips announces retirement

Ottawa's all-time leader in games played missed this season because of injury

by Chris Stevenson / Correspondent

OTTAWA -- A back injury forced defenseman Chris Phillips, who played all of his 1,179 NHL games for the Ottawa Senators, to announce his retirement Thursday.

But Phillips, 38, said having the decision to retire made for him might be a blessing in disguise. He missed this season after having back surgery last spring.

"It's tough to not have that choice [to continue playing], to be told that your back's not good enough," Phillips said. "But at the same time, in hindsight, it's probably the best thing, to be honest with you. 

"It's frustrating not to be able to be out there. The way hockey players are, if I was healthy enough, I'd be fighting and screaming for a contract and wanting to play.

"I don't know if that would be on the table. That's the reality of the game. Guys get older and slower and the young guys come in and that's the nature of the game. It's hard to take. It's hard to hear you're not fast enough, you're not good enough to play in the League. I think in a way I'm kind of fortunate I didn't have to have those conversations with these guys."

Phillips, the No. 1 pick in the 1996 NHL Draft, was flanked on a podium at Canadian Tire Centre by Senators senior adviser Bryan Murray and general manager Pierre Dorion.

Dorion announced Phillips has been hired to work in the Senators front office in the areas of community and alumni relations and business development.

Phillips and his wife, Erin, have been active on behalf of more than 20 charities and not-for-profit organizations in the national capital region and recently has been spearheading fundraising efforts on behalf of Fort McMurray, Alberta, the community where he grew up that has been ravaged by wildfires.

"What impressed me so much about Chris is Chris was so underrated when he played as probably one of the best matchup, shutdown defensemen the League has ever had," Dorion said. "Chris was always a smart player. He brought great intangibles to the game and he was a key contributor for many years to the Ottawa Senators. As late as 2014-15, he was playing 26 minutes a night.

"For those who know Chris, Chris is a great guy's guy. You want to be around him. He represents loyalty. He represents what an Ottawa Senator is."

With defense partners Zdeno Chara and Anton Volchenkov, Phillips, nicknamed "The Big Rig," played against opponents' top forwards and helped the Senators rise from a struggling expansion franchise to a team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his first 10 seasons starting in 1997-98.

Phillips and the Senators reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and lost to the Anaheim Ducks in five games.

Phillips was a stay-at-home defenseman in every sense of the phrase. He scored 71 goals in his 17-year career, but made them count: 13 of his goals were game-winners, accompanied by his one-armed salute, his stick raised in the air.

"For not having a lot of practice, it was one of the best goal celebrations ever," former teammate and Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said on Ottawa radio station TSN 1200.

"When you watch the highlights of Chris Phillips, did you ever see anybody more excited about scoring a goal? He could have scored a few more, maybe," Murray said. "Every time he scored it was like the biggest play of the game, and on many occasions it was."

Phillips' biggest goal came in the 2003 playoffs when he scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils, forcing Game 7, which the Senators lost on home ice. Senators assistant coach Roger Neilson was battling cancer and Phillips said trying to win for Neilson was a big motivating factor.

"We wanted to win so bad," Phillips said. "A lot of our inspiration there was for Rog. He had some really great speeches for us there and that one, honestly, losing that Game 7 probably stung worse than losing in the Final just because of not being able to do it for Rog. That's what made that goal so big for me and the team, because of what was going on in the dressing room."

Phillips said he was most proud of the 1,179 games played, one more than Alfredsson for most in Senators history. Phillips battled through his back injury to play his last game on Feb.15, 2015.

"I was dealing with a lot to beat the record, but it was something that was important to me," Phillips said. "I have to leave room open to come back one day in case Alfie decides to play two games and beat the record again. I'm not going to let that happen. It's going to keep going up by twos here for a few years. I told him he's got enough records."

Among Phillips' teammates who turned out for his announcement was Nashville Predators center Mike Fisher (Fisher's wife, Carrie Underwood, is performing at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday).

"He just worked and got the job done and probably didn't get enough credit for some of the things he did here," Fisher said. "He was one of my favorites, for sure, that I played with. I'm obviously happy to be here. I don't think he got enough credit for what he's done in the community, the teammate that he was and the type of person he is, a humble guy who probably didn't get enough credit for how good he was."

Phillips said, "I will miss everything the game had to offer, and I am grateful for everything it has done for me."

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