All told, it could’ve been worse.
Matthew Phillips hadn’t missed a game to injury since his pee wee days, but a collision with the boards at Bakersfield last December would put an end to that remarkable ironman streak for the 5-foot-7, 155-pound forward.
Another couple of times that game, the Calgary native hopped over the boards. Each time, his concern grew over his knee. At first in his head, it was just a run-in with the wall. Then maybe a bone bruise. Then it became an issue.
Ever the optimist, Phillips’ mind immediately moves to the bright side.
“It was in the second period, and my shift was in the offensive zone,” said Phillips with a light-hearted chuckle. “Luckily I didn’t have to go too far to change. If I was in the ‘d zone,’ I don’t know if I would’ve been able to make it back to the bench.”
A fractured knee cap did more than break his remarkable run of games played for a player whose stature is better described as bite size than Big Mac. It put a stellar second professional season on ice, a campaign in which he had notched 30 points and 14 goals in Stockton’s first 28 contests.
His strong start also earned him his first NHL call-up and an AHL All-Star Game nod.
“Missing the All-Star Game was disappointing, especially when my roommate Glenn (Gawdin) was going there,” said Phillips. “That would’ve been a cool thing for both of us to do. It’s disappointing, especially when I got back to playing and the season gets paused. But everyone had different sacrifices and the pause affected everyone differently.”
The frustration with the circumstances that conspired to hamstring his sophomore season is understandable. After six weeks of time away from his teammates, who were in the thick of a playoff race in what was a tight Pacific Division, Phillips got to compete in just 10 more games before COVID-19 overtook the sporting landscape and forced an early end to the 2019-20 season.
Still, the sixth-round selection from the 2016 NHL Draft has managed to make the best of a bad situation. An extended offseason has been difficult on everyone in the hockey world, and with uncertainty around the 2020-21 season lasting into the fall, it could’ve become difficult to stay on course with training.
For Phillips, it’s the longest he’s gone without playing a game since he learned to skate.
He’s leaned on lessons learned from last season to keep pace.
“I’m not the kind of guy to just sit around and hang out all day, so to be forced to do that was tough on me mentally,” said Phillips on his six-week absence while recovering from injury last year. “Then sure enough, everyone has had to do that lately. It’s been tough, you get into routines that you never thought you’d get into, and you get pretty bored sometimes. But having been through it, having that time off, I wish it never happened but now I have some positives to take out of it.”
He made the most of his last pause in play, taking a management course, and he’s spent this extended offseason planning his next academic venture during the upcoming campaign. He’s also capitalized on the time off with a chance to keep building strength and continue fine-tuning his skills.
Slowly, but surely, the reward of the hard work – just getting back out there and playing games – is becoming more and more real.
The season will be different in many ways, with safety protocols in place to keep players healthy and on the ice amidst the pandemic. Even with the changes, though, another season means more of the same. It’s another chance to add to his already impressive, and steadily improving, resume. It’s another shot at earning a trip to join the big club, another opportunity to share the exciting news via text to his girlfriend and late night phone calls to his parents, though he’s pretty sure his dad did not mind being woken up to that news.
“That’s my main focus,” Phillips says on earning his way back to the Flames. “That’s what I’ve been working towards ever since the pause. I’ve been trying to get myself to that level, and that’s what I’m trying to do this year.
Hopefully we can get the games going soon and we can show what we can do.”