It is the most coveted spot in any National Hockey League draft.
There’s only one No. 1, after all.
Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips
still fondly remembers that June day all those years ago at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, when his name was the first one called at the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.
“It was a great time,” said Phillips, 30. “I knew, from talking to the teams, that I was going to go pretty high. Fortunately, I didn’t have to sit there too long.
“A lot of guys are in the stands for a long time waiting to hear their name called. To hear mine go first was certainly something special.”
Phillips found out soon enough just how much cachet that distinction carried with it.
“From the time I got called, it was a circus,” he said. “It was a lot of interviews and running around and photo things and hockey card things. It was a really busy time but I definitely tried to enjoy it as much as I could, before and after… along with family and some friends who were there, we made the most of it.”
His selection at the top of the draft wasn’t exactly a surprise. After a standout rookie season with the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders, Phillips was widely acknowledged to be the top talent available in the 1996 draft.
“Maybe I was in a little bit of a unique situation where I knew I was going early and didn’t have to worry or be stressed out about how far down I was going to go or where I was going to go,” he said. “It was narrowed down to a couple of teams for me.”
His arrival in Ottawa couldn’t have been better timed. Phillips played one more year of junior hockey and, after a mid-season trade, led the Lethbridge Hurricanes to the 1997 Memorial Cup – played, coincidently enough, across the river from Ottawa in Hull, Que. It was also the same season the Senators made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.
Phillips has been a post-season participant every season he’s worn an Ottawa jersey.
“To go to Ottawa, a team that was just starting to really come around with previous (high) draft picks and making the playoffs before and every year since (has worked out well),” said Phillips, now a Senators assistant captain and a fixture in the community with Erin, the wife he met and married in Ottawa, and their three young children.
The next generation of hockey stars will gather in Ottawa next month for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, which is set for June 20-21 at Scotiabank Place. Phillips has some rather simple advice for this crop of players – and not just the lucky one who goes No. 1.
“Go and enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. There’s a lot of hype and it’s a big time for kids starting their NHL careers. Try to have as much fun with it as you can and enjoy it and take in as much of it as you can to remember… the little things and (everything) that happens.”