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Phillips makes good decisions on and off the ice

by Bill Hoppe
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- Zack Phillips wanted no part of Canadian junior hockey. So at 14 years old, the scrawny 5-foot-2 center left his Fredericton, N.B., home for Massachusetts. He believed a few years in prep school would prepare him for NCAA hockey, which he felt would be a better path for his development.
"I wasn't mature enough for (junior) yet, I think," said Phillips, whose Saint John Sea Dogs will play for their first MasterCard Memorial Cup championship Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, Sportsnet) against the host Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. "I thought college was going to be the better route for me because I was small and I had a couple more years before I could play college if I was in junior."
Phillips played two years at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Mass., and one at the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass. He eventually committed to the University of Massachusetts.
But Phillips' college plans quickly began to change.
First, he grew about six inches in one year, he said. Then the Lewiston MAINEiacs, who had taken him with the 34th pick of the 2008 QMJHL Entry Draft, traded him in 2009 to Saint John, just an hour from his home.
"I thought I was going to play college hockey, but then when I grew and got traded close to home I thought I'd just come here," said Phillips, who now stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 178 pounds.
Almost two years later, Phillips' decision has worked out splendidly.
Fresh off a scintillating 38-goal, 95-point season with the Sea Dogs, Phillips is ranked 15th by NHL Central Scouting in its final listing of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft, and it's likely he'll be chosen in the first round of next month's draft.
Before all that, however, Phillips has one final game. The 6-year-old Sea Dogs, who clinched a berth in the final Monday, haven't played since Tuesday's 5-4 overtime loss to Kootenay.
"We're getting antsy," Phillips said Saturday inside the Hershey Centre. "We want to play. It's been a long time off."
The Sea Dogs won the round-robin matchup between the teams 4-3 last Friday, the first game of the tournament. Phillips went pointless in that contest, and he has just 3 assists in the tournament. Still, the 18-year-old, who had 9 goals and 24 points in 17 QMJHL playoff games, possesses the rare talent to score every time he's on the ice.
Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant often has compared Phillips to Adam Oates, his old Detroit Red Wings teammates, who compiled 1,420 points in 19 NHL seasons. The coach sees similar vision and passing abilities in the two.
"Zack's the type of guy, he finds the open ice," Gallant said. "He'll be a guy that goes in there, and the play will be on the other side. He just finds that quiet area. People get the puck to him. He's got a great shot, he's a great passer. He's just a guy that finds the open ice and makes great plays."
Phillips couldn't make as many great plays last season, when his rookie status and some talented veterans relegated him to fourth-line duty.
However, he made the most of his opportunities, developing some chemistry with slick left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, Central Scouting's No. 3-ranked North American skater. Despite limited ice time, Phillips still had 16 goals and 44 points.
Phillips and Huberdeau have comprised a lethal No. 1 line with several right wings this season. The two say they know each other's spot on the ice at all time.
"It was a big jump, but I was ready to make it," Phillips said of the move to the QMJHL. "He's helped me a lot. I feel like I've helped him."
Huberdeau added: "When I pass him the puck, I know it's going to come back to me or he's going to score."
The limited action last season helped Phillips transform into an elite talent. He came to the Sea Dogs with a reputation for taking end-to-end rushes and having limited defensive skill.
As a rookie, Phillips realized quickly he had to lose his prep-school habits.
"It helped me adjust to the league a lot, and it taught me a lot about playing all over the ice," Phillips said of his first season. "It's an important role that I think everyone has to go through at some point in their life, I think, to become a more complete player."
But he's still not complete enough to play in the NHL next season, Gallant said. Obviously, Phillips wants to make the giant leap.

"It's a cool life down there (in the U.S.). I like it a lot and it's a big part of me, but I'm definitely happy with the decision I made."
-- Zack Phillips

He's one of the few players at the Memorial Cup who acknowledges that the Draft is on his mind. He even said he looks at the teams around his slot. The 15th slot currently is held by the New York Rangers.
"I think about it quite a bit," Phillips said. "It's nerve-racking. You're thinking about what team's going to take you. That's the biggest thing, you think about what round and stuff, but mostly it's about where, what organization."
Phillips has no regrets about picking the Sea Dogs' organization over college.
"It's a cool life down there (in the U.S.)," Phillips said. "I like it a lot and it's a big part of me, but I'm definitely happy with the decision I made."

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