The Senators’ 60th game of the season came on a chilly Tuesday night in February. Ottawa is out of playoff contention, as expected. They won that night 7-4 over a Buffalo Sabres team that was faring better but was also comfortably out of a playoff spot. The game came and went and was largely inconsequential – save for the night’s pre-game festivities when Chris Phillips’ number four was officially retired by the Senators, never to be worn again. It was a rather non-descript night, which was pretty fitting for a rather non-descript (yet special) Senator.
The #4 banner was raised to the rafters as Phillips, his former teammates, and family looked on, as well as more than 12,000 of his ‘extended family’ – members of Sens Army in attendance at the Canadian Tire Centre to celebrate the man and his career. The ‘Big Rig’ became the second modern-day Ottawa Senator to have his number retired, alongside Daniel Alfredsson.
You can’t tell the story of the Ottawa Senators without Phillips. The reliable defenceman and former number one overall pick played 17 seasons in O-town, suiting up for the most games by any player in Senators’ history in the process.
He wasn’t a star. He wasn’t an Alfredsson or a Spezza or a Redden or a Chara. He was the quintessential ‘stay-at-home’ defenceman who knew his role, played it well, and played it well for a very long time. Phillips was a professional player without ego in a hockey market that appreciates that sort of thing. He rewarded the fans’ admiration with hard work on and off the ice, which included using his platform to make a significant impact in the Ottawa community. Phillips even played fourth-line forward when called upon in his rookie season before taking a full-time role on the blue line, which speaks to his unselfish commitment to put team above all else.
“I was not the guy typically scoring big goals, but believe me I would have loved to give a Ottawa a few more one-arm salutes,” said Phillips during the ceremony, referencing his famous but not often seen goal celebration. “But it was feeling great about blocking a shot, stopping a two-on-one or helping to kill a penalty that gave me a great sense of pride.”
Phillips prided himself on taking care of business in his own end. Sure he had his critics who liked to highlight his lack of offensive production – he never scored double-digit goals or 20 points in a single season – but Phillips was seemingly always in the right position and sometimes that even benefited him offensively (see: his overtime goal in game six of the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals).
A Senator through and through, he was committed to the franchise in a way few others have been and was a leader on an off the ice for a team that was always in the hunt. Phillips made the playoffs in each of his first seven seasons as a Senator and 13 times overall. No, those Senators never won a Stanley Cup, but Phillips helped get them to the 2007 Cup Final and reach a sustained level of relevancy that was unmatched by any other Canadian team during his time in the league. Phillips remained in Ottawa with his family following his retirement.
He represented his hometown of Fort McMurray as well as Ottawa on the international stage too. Phillips was chosen to play for Team Canada at two World Junior Hockey Championships, winning two gold medals, and three IIHF World Championships, where he contributed to two silvers.
Phillips was often overlooked across the NHL but he was crucially important to the Senators and appreciated by the city of Ottawa for his contributions over the course of nearly 20 years. Not only did Phillips understand better than most what it meant to be an Ottawa Senator, he did his part in establishing a standard that any future Sen would do well to follow.
By Liam Fox