When Jonathan Phillips arrived from Cardiff over eight years ago, I don’t think anyone would have foreseen the impact the fresh-faced Welshman was to have on the Steelers.
A young, talented, outstanding skater, Phillips had promise... ‘the star of the next generation’, then head coach Dave Whistle told the club when announcing his signing.
Eight years later, Phillips will play his 500th game as a Steeler on Saturday night in Nottingham.
That venue, of course, is familiar to him... he has lifted three play off championships inside that building, two of them as captain.
Phillips is in his second spell as the Steelers’ on-ice leader; last year he was assistant to Steven Goertzen. He, alongside fellow veteran Brits Mark Thomas and Jason Hewitt, have become not only the Steelers’ core over the past few years, but also the strongest core in any team inside the Elite League.
As a captain Phillips isn’t a Vial or a Wilson in terms of his vocal rants. That isn’t Jonathan Phillips. He leads in a quieter way, in a ‘look at how hard I am working’ kind of way. If you follow the work ethic of Jonathan Phillips, then you will be successful in your chosen field.
Only three players have ever reached the 500-game milestone: Thomas, Hewitt and now Phillips. The Steelers captain would have reached that figure a while ago but two horrific knee injuries, both requiring reconstructive surgery, almost finished his career. Not only did he return, he returned a lot sooner than anyone thought and he returned bigger, faster and stronger.
Walk into the Steelers dressing room and you are walking into Phillips’ second home. I have dealt with all of the Steelers captains, some good, some bad. Some vocal, some quiet. Some selfish, some team-focused and its the latter for Jonathan Phillips. When he speaks to you, he is speaking for his team mates first and foremost.
His concerns aren’t selfish; they are for those he sits alongside. Does Jonathan Phillips like the play hard after working hard? Absoutely.
But when it comes to work time, when it comes to preparation, practice and game time, Jonathan Phillips stands at the front of the line.
On Sunday, Phillips will play his 501st Steelers game at home to Fife Flyers (at iceSheffield, face off 6pm) and by then, a sold-out building will stand to congratulate a player they have come to not only recognise but appreciate as one that history will show has been as decorated and committed as any who went before him.
Jonathan Phillips has been known to roll his eyes at me a few hundred times when I go on about the ‘days of the past’, or the ‘players of the good old days’.
I don’t think he quite realises that, in five or ten years time, I will be telling the present-day players of the commitment and heroics of Jonathan Phillips in those days gone by.
The North Americans would call Phillips a “shoo-in” for a Hall of Fame nomination. I guess the way we decorate over here is by shirt retirement, and I certainly can’t think of a day when another player wears #20 - not after his achievements on and off the ice for this club as player and captain.
Don’t get me wrong, his playing days aren’t close to being finished... he has two more years on his contract and a testimonial season in 2016/17, after all.
No, there is a lot more to come from a special player and top class bloke.
What we call a proper Steeler.