Since January, the end goal for Matthew Phillips has been close enough to touch.
But sitting 10-to-20 yards away from where the Stockton Heat set up camp for the 2020-21 season, the Calgary Flames’ dressing room was still far enough for the distance yet to travel to be felt.
Smaller in stature but big in the points column, Phillips, in his third pro season, continued his push toward the NHL with another strong campaign. He finished the 30-game schedule tied atop the roster with 21 points, often serving as Stockton’s offensive engine in an encore to a 2019-20 effort that earned him an AHL All-Star nod.
“Some days in the American League you can feel further away (from the NHL) than others,” said Phillips. “But you see first-hand, you’re one call from going up. We were using the same facilities (as the Flames). Every time we were on the ice there were extra eyes on us. It brought a lot of good work out of everybody.”
The Calgary kid grew up with season tickets to the WHL’s Hitmen, with Flames games being an added luxury. Somewhere between 15 and 20 times, he estimates, he took his seat in the Scotiabank Saddledome to watch the players in the flaming C compete, dreaming like so many others that one day it would be him on the ice.
He got his first call-up last season, getting a handful of days with the Flames in his first taste of NHL life. He didn’t factor into any games, but the experience was one he knew would fuel him until his shoulder got tapped once again.
“I was a little surprised when I got called to go up, extremely excited,” he recalled. “It motivated me to get more of it. You gain confidence from (the call-up). On the plane ride back to Stockton, you just think of ways to keep that momentum going to get another chance.”
If developmental inertia was what he was hoping for, safe to say he achieved that this season. Phillips skated in all 30 games with the Flames’ farm club, led the team in points and assists, tied for second on the club in power play scoring and helped lead the Heat to a club-record, eight-game win streak that featured four consecutive multi-point efforts from the third-year pro.
In a shortened season, there was less opportunity to showcase his year-over-year growth. Yet there’s no doubt he made an impression.
“(Phillips is) an exciting player,” said Flames Assistant General Manager and Heat General Manager Brad Pascall. “He continues to be a player that provides production. He’s a competitive player that is always in a battle. This year, with his game, every time he gets on the ice he has that level of creativity where he can make offensive plays happen. He possesses the puck extremely well and can make plays.
“We understand this player is smart, competitive and skilled. He’s a player we continue to like.”
For players, coaches and fans alike, it’s been a difficult season. From empty arenas to necessary safety protocols to games stacked on top of games, the challenges have mounted. The opportunity ahead for Phillips is a hard-earned reward.
He expects the nerves and the excitement that most would imagine with a NHL debut. Still, it’s the unknown that he’s most looking forward to.
With his number called for the second time in his young career, Phillips will look to make an impact with the big club. There are only 60 minutes left in the season, but it’s an opportunity to complete the trek of those 10-to-20 yards into new territory.
“Growing up in Calgary, I always saw how much everyone cares about the Flames,” Phillips said about getting the opportunity to compete with the team he’s long envisioned himself with. “Everybody cares here. Everybody loves hockey here. The Saddledome is sold out like every night.
“It’s definitely a dream to get to play for the Flames.”