Veteran Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips first put on skates when he was three years old and skated on the backyard rink his father Garth made at their Fort McMurray home. He remembers the isolated northern Alberta town where he and his sister Jennifer learned the importance of hard work and courage.
His mother Carol had multiple sclerosis and when Chris was 10, she contracted a virus that left her in a wheelchair. Two years later, his father became legally blind from diabetes, developed complications and eventually had both legs amputated. Chris never heard them complain, and their positive outlook and sense of humour while facing tremendous adversity influenced his character and behaviour.
When Jennifer went to college, Chris postponed the start of his Western Hockey League career to stay home and care for his parents. He was uncertain if this decision would affect his development as a hockey player, but he knew that if he had to leave they would support him.
Chris was the WHL rookie of the year and the NHL top draft choice. At just 18, he was drafted to the Ottawa Senators as the first player pick in the 1996 NHL entry draft. He remembers scoring the overtime winning goal in the 2003 Stanley Cup eastern conference final, extending it to game seven against the New Jersey Devils.
In 2012, family and friends celebrated his 1,000th game in Ottawa against the Nashville Predators, and in February last year he shattered Daniel Alfredsson’s franchise games record of 1,179. But during rehabilitation from a successful surgery to repair a bulging disc in the spring, Chris suffered cracked vertebrae. This has kept him off the ice but hasn’t stopped his entrepreneurial spirit.
His wife Erin introduced him to Pierre Cleroux, founding partner of the Clocktower Brew Pub. Collaborating with Pierre, Jimmy Zourntos (Baton Rouge, Denny’s) and restaurateur Angelis Koutsos, the group’s initial idea was to open a Brazilian steakhouse, but the real estate deal fell through. Two days later they met brewmaster Lon Ladell from Victoria, B.C., and the microbrew pub Big Rig Brewery was born. Three years on, they have two popular restaurant sites and a Kanata brewery production facility.
Chris is anticipating a future when he can look back on his business success as his other legacy. He learned how to be strong and humble like his father who was his first coach, biggest fan and his hero. Chris hopes he has made him proud.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE A HOCKEY PLAYER? I was determined and focused on achieving this dream, even though my teachers cautioned me about the odds. Everything fell into place and just worked out. I was lucky.
WILL IT BE DIFFICULT TO RETIRE FROM THE GAME? This happens to every player as it is in our blood to compete and we are in the business of winning. I would miss the camaraderie with my teammates, as we are a family. I currently don’t travel with the team, but I am at the rink when they are home and keep them upbeat and positive even when they are having tough games. Whatever is needed, I’m there to help out in any way that I can.
HOW DID YOU MEET YOUR WIFE ERIN? I had sprained my ankle and was in a walking cast and she was working in the suites, at the then Corel Centre, where I would watch the games. We have been married 13 years and have three children Ben (12), Zoë (11) and Niomi (8). Ben and Zoë play hockey and Zoë and Niomi figure skate. Ben plays baseball in the summer like I did. They like the fact that their dad plays for the Ottawa Senators, but I tell them my job doesn’t make us any different, more special or better than anyone else.
HAS THE RESPONSE BEEN POSITIVE FOR YOUR BEER? We have accolades from the Ontario Craft Brewers and won gold at the Canadian Brewing Awards ( in 2014). Our talented master brewer Lon experiments with exciting new flavours. Today’s generation is exploring their tastebuds. It’s not their dad’s Bud anymore.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOU? I have played through a lot of injuries but my body is not allowing me to play through this one. I have no plans on anything ending right now. I am grateful that when that day comes I have Big Rig, so I will be able to wake up the next day and come to work. I won’t be sitting at home trying to figure out what I am going to do in my next phase of life. Who knows what other opportunities might present themselves. Possibly doing things with the Senators in some capacity. We will see what happens.