Chris Phillips had one of the most memorable careers in Ottawa Senators history. After playing for almost two decades with Ottawa, Phillips retired in 2016, and joined Daniel Alfredsson as the only two players in modern Senators history to be honoured by having their jersey retired by the franchise.
Chris worked hard to build a legacy both off and on the ice. He recognized the important opportunity that professional athletes had to bring awareness to causes in their community. In his rookie year, he was invited by Sens veteran Lance Pitlick to attend an event with the Candlelighters of Ottawa, a local non-profit dedicated to supporting patients and families diagnosed with childhood cancer. There, he saw first-hand the tremendous efforts of the Ottawa community in supporting families in need, and since then, he has never looked back. Chris and his family continued to be avid supporters of local organizations like Candlelighters, CHEO, Ronald McDonald House, and Ottawa Boys and Girls Club, for the next 20 years.
After a back injury in his last year of playing slowed down his ice time, Chris found that there were still many ways to contribute to the Senators organization, and to the community and fanbase that supports it. Making the transition to retirement is difficult for any player, but Chris found many avenues to continue working with the team as a community ambassador.
Amid seismic shifts in the world of professional sports, and to the Senators organization as a whole, the new Senators Community Foundation was founded in 2020. The new foundation is a chance for the team to renew their commitment to supporting youth and recreation in the community.
Chris was named the Executive Director of the Senators Community Foundation in late 2020. With the challenges that COVID-19, a young and ambitious team on the upswing of a rebuild, and a fanbase that is ready for change present, Chris has his work cut out for him. But, after 17 seasons leading the Senators both on and off the ice, he is a natural fit for the role, and is determined to continue his work as a community leader in the years to come.
We sat down with Chris to discuss his early years as an ambassador for the Senators, his new role with the organization, and his best advice for young and aspiring hockey players.
In a few short months, it will be 5 years since you officially announced your retirement from the NHL. Looking back, was it a smooth transition for you after leaving the game?
I think it was. The biggest reason for that was really my back injury. My last year that I was with the team, I never ended up playing a game. I had surgery the previous year, tried to rehab and get back, and just wasn’t able to do that. So I basically had a year of going into the rink in the morning, getting treatment, hanging out with the guys, but not travelling on the road. Not even being at the games at night. Once I was done at the rink in the morning, I was back home, going to my kids sports, watching them do their thing. Just being able to be a dad. As much as I would not have wanted to go through that back injury and ending that way, in hindsight, it probably made for an easier transition.
Tell me about Feb 18th of last year, when your number was retired, and you had your entire family with you in front of a crowd for that special moment. Knowing now that that was soon to be one of the last full arenas due to COVID, what do you remember from that night?
It was incredible. The team did an amazing job of taking care of my family and me. The fan support we had out, and former teammates, made it a really special night.
That was one of the last home games in front of fans, with media and TV. But to see that number and banner hanging in the arena is pretty special. It will be even more so when we can go back in there.
And it’s also about the legacy for my family. When they go to a game, to see that hanging there, is so special.
You spent your entire career in Ottawa, and have always been deeply involved in the community. How did you first start to give back to the community as a pro athlete?
I was a new guy on the team, and Lance Pitlick, had formed a relationship with Jocelyn Lamont of Candlelighters, and basically said “I’m going to this fundraiser at Local Heroes at 7, and you’re coming with me”. When you’re that young and a veteran says you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it. I’m really thankful for that introduction to that part of the game, for what feels like a responsibility as a pro athlete in a community to be able to help bring attention to, and raise awareness or money for any organization.
That’s really how it started, and I was with Candlelighters for my entire career. Along with my wife, who ended up being a chair of the board for a while. We became really close with them.
What has been the Ottawa communities response to the work you and your wife have done over the past two decades?
It really is an amazing city that way. We’ve said it many times, it seems like every night you turn on the news, there is always a story about a local fundraiser or organization raising money and how well they’re supported by the community.
I was just really taken aback to see how supportive this city is. I think that’s why it makes Ottawa, even though it’s a city of over a million people and the Nation’s Capital, feel like a small town and a community, because of the closeness.
Who are some of the guys you played with over the years, or coaches you worked with that had the biggest impact on you both on and off-ice?
I think everyone I had as a teammate or coach helped in little ways. But really the veterans we had on the team when I first came in as a 19-year-old, Lance Pitlick, Randy Cunneyworth as the captain, the defence for me was Jason York, Igor Kravchuk, Sean Hill, you know, those guys really just took me under their wing and made me feel like a part of the team right away.
Wade Redden, who was only a year older than me, but had a year of playing under his belt playing. We had a relationship already—we had played World Juniors and, had had a very similar upbringings playing Junior Hockey both in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and then the Western Hockey League. So I had that comfort level with him. We actually lived together for my first year.
Pierre Gauthier, along with Jacques Martin, Perry Pearn, Craig Ramsay, that coaching staff when I first came in were very patient with me, even though I was in and out of the line up at the start, and played a bunch of games at forward which was very new to me and I’d never done. But they really allowed me to take my time, cut my teeth, and learn the game at that level.
Moving forward, Bryan Murray’s trust in me and the relationship I had with him as both a coach and general manager. He just made it fun to come to the rink and we had a great relationship. The fact that I was able to negotiate my last deal as just the two of us, speaks to that fact. He was a huge part of the team and the success that we had going to the Cup final, but also for me personally as well.
Do you have any aspirations to become an NHL coach or General Manager one day?
(Laughs) Not at this time, no. Maybe at some point some coaching or helping out. But, stepping out of the game and being able to be home, and with the ages of my kids right now… if I don’t have to get on an airplane and travel around right now, I am fine with that.
What is the best thing about being a Dad?
Just watching my kids become the people they are. Supporting and following their ambitions for whatever they want to do or want to be. Just being around the characters that they are, their personalities, and watching that develop is a lot of fun.
Would you say that you are a cool dad? Or a dad who has some embarrassing ‘dad jokes’?
Probably both. I think it’s a dad’s rite of passage to embarrass your kids when you can and where you can. At the same time, you want to be a dad that they want to be around and have their friends around, and build good relationships with them.
You are now the Executive Director of the Senators Community Foundation. How did you get involved with the Foundation and what attracted you to that role?
Post-retirement, I went into an ambassador role with the team, which was great. Just to keep a connection with the team and be involved. I was able to go to the rink and hang out there, and there were still guys in the dressing room that I’d played with at that time. During COVID, things obviously came to a pretty big halt in terms of doing that stuff, but I was still in talks with the team. Then this opportunity came along. Coming from the experiences that my wife and I have had with the community, and being able to get back into a role that allows me to have a relationship with the city and the team, just felt like a natural fit.
Looking back on this last year, with all of the changes that COVID has brought to Canadians, Ottawans, and hockey players and fans alike, what is one thing that you appreciate now more than before?
I think maybe just the down time. I’m sure that’s everybody’s answer. I think it was March 14th that everything got shut down. We had plans to go away for March Break, and had booked them on the 12th when the hockey was getting canceled and had the time, and then literally canceled the next day. We moved up to the cottage and were there right until school started. Just to have that family time with nothing going on, playing games and reconnecting and slowing down our lives altogether was, in hindsight, something I appreciate now.
We have to ask you about the current edition of the Ottawa Senators. Do you think the team is going in the right direction?
I’m really excited about this team. It’s been a tough couple of years going through the rebuild. I’d say that with the age of the team, they’re coming out of that. They’re on the upswing.
Between the guys that are in Ottawa right now, the kids they have in Belleville, and the kids they have drafted that are in Junior and University right now that look like great prospects, I’m excited for this team to do some great things in the next couple of years.
I’m in awe of the talent that they have there, but I also think they’ve drafted some great character guys. The community is going to be able to relate and have relationships with them. They are guys that want to give back, that are big names with the team. Seeing how guys like Chabot, Tkachuk, and Colin White are growing into being young leaders makes me really excited about this team.
What is your best advice for any young hockey player looking to follow in your footsteps?
It sounds so cliche, but honestly, it’s to enjoy the game. It’s a luxury to have a dream come true and play in the NHL, but at that level, you’re also in the business of winning. Every night. No matter what. There’s no excuses, there’s no ‘I wasn’t feeling good’. You have to fight through it. Most nights, you’re not feeling great and fans don’t know it, and you’re still expected to be at your best. And that is a grind, and I think that is what separates a lot of guys from making it and not making it.
But, at the end of the day, it’s a game, and you have to enjoy it. I think if you love it, and you’re having fun, there are so many aspects of the game that are able to help you out in life, no matter what level you get to.
It’s a great goal and dream to get there, but you have to enjoy the process of trying to make that happen and enjoying all the steps along the way. From when you’re young and just putting on skates, to wherever you end up getting to. Enjoy it. If you do enjoy it, then you’re willing to put in the extra work that’s needed to get to the next level.
If you’re not enjoying it, then there’s probably no point in doing it.