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Loyal soldier Phillips set to savour 'fun milestone'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Veteran defenceman Chris Phillips hits the 1,000-game milestone tonight at Scotiabank Place, and he's only the second player in modern franchise to play every one of them in a Senators uniform. Captain Daniel Alfredsson was the first, in April 2010 (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images).
There are many words and ways to describe what Chris Phillips has brought to the only National Hockey League franchise he has ever known.

Steady, dependable, ironman, team player, leader ... all of them aptly describe the veteran blueliner and what he has meant to the Ottawa Senators since they made the Calgary native the first overall pick of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.

But ask the 33-year-old Phillips — who will play his 1,000th NHL game tonight, when the Senators take on the Nashville Predators at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) — what has brought him to this point, and he settles on one key word.

Loyalty. And it's something, Phillips suggests, that very much runs two ways.

"That's a great word and both sides have shown it," said Phillips, just the 46th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 mark with one team. "It would be hard to see myself in another uniform. I’d like to think the team feels the same way. They’ve shown that (loyalty to me) and they want me to be a part of it, and it’s been a great relationship my entire career."

Not that there haven't been moments of doubt. Early in his career, when Phillips wasn't quite the established figure on the Senators blue line that he is today, the 6-3, 221-pound defenceman often heard his name tossed about in trade rumours. At one point, he was so sure it might happen that he told his wife, Ottawa native Erin, to be prepared to make a move.

Phillips is ever grateful to the franchise that he's never had to leave the city that has become a second home to him, a place where he and Erin have become community fixtures for their charitable works — most notably with Candlelighters and the 24h of Tremblant skiing event.

"Both sides can take some ownership in it," said Phillips of the 14 seasons he has toiled in a Senators uniform. "I saw my name in the media lots of times, especially early in my career, about being trade bait or whatever you want to call it, or being mentioned in lots of trades. There were times when I thought it was a real possibility.

"For the team to believe in me and hang on to me and, the last couple of years, for me wanting to stay here and wanting to still be a part of it ... I’m still happy that I am here."

Perhaps no greater test of Phillips' loyalty to the franchise came a year ago, when the Senators were struggling and management made the painful decision to deal away several key veterans and turn the page into a new era. With his contract expiring, Phillips had the opportunity to ask for a trade himself, but instead chose to ink a new three-year deal and lend a veteran hand to the rebuild.

"I had some options out there," he said. "But I thought it was best for myself and my family and everything to stay here."

Senators head coach Paul MacLean suggests that kind of mentality speaks volumes about the character Phillips brings to the rink and to the team every day.

"It’s a tremendous thing to play 1,000 games any way, but to play it for one organization is a testament to him not only a player but as a man," said MacLean. "(Phillips) is well-respected by the community and by the organization. It’s also a great testament to the scouting ability of the organization to recognize good people and to reward them by sticking with them and being consistent with people throughout the years."

Now Phillips is set to become only the second player in Senators modern franchise history to suit up for 1,000 games in an Ottawa uniform. The guy who did it first says there is no understating what Phillips has meant to the team over the years.

"We’ve been together for a long time and to do that with one organization is pretty special, said captain Daniel Alfredsson, who hit the 1,000-game plateau in April 2010. "I think we’ve both grown attached to the team, to the city and to the community as well ... He’s been a huge part (of the team) since he was drafted. I still remember his first camp, he came in as an 18-year-old and played really well. He’s been building on that ever since.

"Like everybody, we all go through our ups and downs and he’s been a constant stability for us on the back end through all the years. (Phillips) is a fantastic guy to have around you in the locker room and one of those guys who always seems to get better as more is on the line in the game."

Indeed, Phillips has a reputation as someone who elevates his game in the playoffs when the stakes are highest. His biggest moment as a Senator will always be the overtime goal he scored in 2003 against the New Jersey Devils to force the Eastern Conference final to a Game 7.

While the Senators do have an uncanny ability to produce wins when Phillips scores goals — they're 42-9-6 all-time when he finds the back of the net — his most impressive statistic lies in the Cal Ripken-esque way in which he shows up for work every day. Phillips has played all 82 games in four of the last six seasons, and his missed a mere three games since the start of the 2006-07 campaign.

"I don’t know what the secret is," Phillips said when asked about his ironman run. "Good luck as much as anything, I guess. So many injuries are bad luck."
In true team fashion, Phillips says nothing would best cap off the night he marks a "fun milestone" than with a victory to snap the Senators' current seven-game winless streak.

"It’ll be a special night, but that’ll definitely make it a lot better, to get a win," he said. "Not just for the win, but to start being a little more positive around here and feeling more positive here."

A special pre-game tribute honouring Phillips' 1,000th game achievement is set for Saturday, just prior to the Senators' game against the Edmonton Oilers (2 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) on Hockey Day in Canada.

Around the boards

As luck would have it, Phillips' 1,000th game happens to coincide with the return of Mike Fisher for the first time since he was dealt to the Predators a year ago. "It’s pretty cool that he’s able to be here," said Phillips. "I suited up for a lot of games with him and for him to be back here … it’s be a special night for him as well. He spent a lot of time here and meant a lot to this community." ... Alfredsson believes Fisher, a fan favourite and community icon during his time in Ottawa, will be most deserving of the warm reception he figures to get tonight from the crowd at Scotiabank Place. "He’s going to get a great reception, I believe, for everything he did for the team," said Alfredsson. "He’s a guy who always played hard, always played his best in the playoffs and a guy who made sure everyone around him felt good, including everybody in the community as well." ... For the first time since Dec. 30, somebody other than Craig Anderson will make the start in goal. "I almost played the whole game the last game, so it’s nice to get right back in there," said Alex Auld, who played 55 minutes in relief of Anderson in Tuesday's 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues. "I haven’t had that opportunity too much this year, so I’m looking forward to it." ... Forward Bobby Butler and blueliner Brian Lee, who's been sidelined Jan. 12 with a lower-body injury, return to the lineup tonight, with Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner being the healthy scratches.

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