OTTAWA -- Defenseman Chris Phillips is poised to set the Ottawa Senators record for games played against the Washington Capitals at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday.
Phillips, who turns 37 on March 9, will play in his 1,179th NHL game, all with the Senators. That's one more than retired captain Daniel Alfredsson.
While reflecting on his career Wednesday, Phillips was asked if somewhere in his longevity there was a message for the young defensemen on the Senators; five of the eight are 25 or younger.
"Yeah, I'm not ready for them to take over," he said with a straight face and then broke into a laugh.
Defenseman Chris Phillips is poised to set the Ottawa Senators record for games played against the Washington Capitals at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday. (Photo: Getty Images)
Turning serious, Phillips said, "I just try and lead by example. Do what I do and let them see that if you quietly go about what's asked of you this is possible of anyone. I was a high draft pick, but never a superstar or anything like that, just a journeyman guy who put in hard work and time. Good, long stories can come of that."
That pretty much sums up Phillips' career. He was the first pick in the 1996 NHL Draft, a time when the Senators were struggling to shake off the challenges of being an expansion franchise. He was sent back to junior after his first NHL training camp but made the Senators as a 19-year-old. He played a few games on the wing in 1997-98 and scored an overtime goal while playing forward against the Montreal Canadiens, he remembered Wednesday.
Phillips' arrival coincided with a change in the Senators' fortunes, and the team and the player grew and improved. During Phillips' first 10 seasons with the Senators, they became a League power and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of those seasons, culminating with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. The Senators lost to the Anaheim Ducks in five games.
Partnered with Anton Volchenkov during the Senators' rise in the early 2000s, they formed a steady, reliable shutdown duo and Phillips earned the nickname "The Big Rig."
For a young Senators fan like Mark Borowiecki, who grew up in Stittsville, Ontario, in the shadow of Canadian Tire Centre and is now a Senators defenseman, Phillips was a role model. Borowiecki looked up to Phillips, Alfredsson, former captain Jason Spezza and wing Chris Neil.
"I think for my generation growing up, when you think of Sens players, I think [Phillips] is always one of the names that pops into your head. Him, [Alfredsson], Spezza, [Neil]. In the glory years, they kind of put our franchise on the map. It's nice to see him get rewarded," Borowiecki said.
"It's pretty cool. The thing that sticks out for me the most was him and [Volchenkov] in that playoff run, what a solid, reliable pair they were. They were two guys that I kind of modeled my game after. To get a chance to see this milestone happen for him is pretty special."
Phillips has been steady and unspectacular, the definition of a stay-at-home defenseman who saved his best hockey for the playoffs.
"For me, that's certainly what it's all about," he said. "It's why we play the game, to try and win the Stanley Cup. I guess in saying that, there's a lot of people saying, 'Why don't you play like that all the time?' My answer would be there's NHL and then there's the playoffs. It's a whole other level of play. You see how grueling it is. We've been to the Final. We know how grueling it is to go that far. Obviously [we] didn't win it, but you know how exhausted you are at the end of it. I don't think you could demand that of yourself for 82 games."
With the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline at 3 p.m. ET on March 2, there has been some speculation about Phillips' future with the Senators and whether he will play his entire career for them. He has one more year on his contract.
Phillips spoke with Senators general manager Bryan Murray a couple of weeks ago to "see where we're at, what's in the future, what plans are. Just to see where it's going to go from there," he said.
"Things are always subject to change and we'll continue to talk, but there's definitely nothing going on right now."
Thursday will be an evening for reflection. One Phillips' highlights was his overtime winner in Game 6 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Final, when the Senators tied the series against the New Jersey Devils after trailing 3-1.
As often happened, the Senators came up short and lost Game 7 at home.
Ottawa was in New Jersey on Tuesday and Phillips was a healthy scratch for the ninth time since Dave Cameron took over as coach Dec. 8. Phillips said a lot of memories of that 2003 series against the Devils came to mind.
"[I] wasn't in the lineup and had lots of time with the trainers," Phillips said. "We were talking about our playoff series, scoring in overtime in Game 6 and who was on the team, things that happened in Game 7. The shoulda, coulda, woulda.'"
With those experiences good and bad, Phillips has become a mentor. He had Senators rookie forward Curtis Lazar move in with him, his wife, Erin, and their children.
Lazar knows first-hand how Phillips has handled the challenges of this season.
"I see what he goes through. He's such a professional on a day-to-day basis … and what he means to the community too," Lazar said. "He's just such a great, all-round person. I'm excited to see the reception he gets [Thursday] night. [The record] is going to be standing for quite a while. To be so loyal to the organization and be here since Day One for himself, it's cool."
The milestone will represent a significant moment for the Senators and a great personal achievement for Phillips. With the Senators rebuilding and a long shot to make the playoffs this season, Phillips represents a link to a great time for the franchise.
"It means a lot. The type of player I am, I'm not going to be breaking any other records, let's put it that way," Phillips said.
"It's something that gives me an opportunity, and my kids and people that know me down the road, to look at the record books for a few years, anyway, until this one gets broken. It's a bit of a lasting mark … to play a long time here and play a lot of games. It's something I'm very proud of."