Weekend Interview - Sheffield Steelers’ Jonathan Phillips ready to embrace ultimate challenge at IIHF World Championships

JONATHAN PHILLIPS could no doubt pick any number of highlights from an international career with Great Britain that first began at junior level back in 1998. Tomorrow, however, is sure to eclipse all of those.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 11th May 2019, 2:15 am
BRING IT ON: Sheffield Steelers' forward and GB captain Jonathan Phillips is relishing the opportunity to mix it with the sport's elite at the World Championships in Slovakia. Picture: Dean Woolley.
BRING IT ON: Sheffield Steelers' forward and GB captain Jonathan Phillips is relishing the opportunity to mix it with the sport's elite at the World Championships in Slovakia. Picture: Dean Woolley.

The 36-year-old Sheffield Steelers forward will captain the national team once more as they face-off against Germany in the opening game of their World Championship campaign in Slovakia.

By rights, nobody expected Phillips and his team-mates to be there. Ranked 22 in the world, GB are in many ways still punching above their weight as they take their place among the world’s top 16 nations that are gathered together in the cities of Bratislava and Kosice over the next two weeks or so.

For all the trophies that he was won with the Steelers since joining them from hometown club Cardiff Devils in the summer of 2006 – four league and four play-off titles – the last couple of years playing in the red, white and blue have provided equally memorable moments.

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Two successive gold medal promotions have brought Phillips and his team-mates to where they are now, facing a hectic schedule of seven games in 11 days, tackling an endless procession of the world’s elite players.

A little over 24 hours after today’s opener against the 2018 Olympic silver medallists – placed 14 places above them in the world rankings – it gets even tougher for head coach Pete Russell’s team when they face-off against world No 1-ranked Canada who will be looking to add to their record 26 titles and desperate to reclaim the crown won by Sweden last year in Denmark.

SAME AGAIN PLEASE: Jonathan Phillips in action during last year's 1A tournament in Hungary, which saw Gb promoted to the top tier.

Similarly daunting encounters against the likes of Finland and the USA follow, both, like Canada, packed with NHL superstars and also among those contenders for gold.

There are a number of similarities for the GB roster heading into the competition, one being – like 12 months ago in Budapest – they are everyone’s favourites to go back down. But Phillips, who made his senior international debut back in 2003, hopes to prove those doubters wrong.

“That is a big part of the excitement for me, I think, seeing how we match up against these teams and these players who are all earning millions and have such phenomenal talent,” said Phillips.

“It’s about us being able to showcase ourselves as a team. We feel like we’ve made huge strides over the last few years and it is great that we now have an opportunity to see how we fare against the best in the world on the biggest possible stage.

PARTY TIME: Jonathan Phillips celebrates gold in Hungary with his GB team-mates, including Ben O'Connor and Robert Farmer. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“The one thing we’ve spoken about as a team quite a lot is the ‘buy-in’ and that is something that has always been so strong in this group. Everybody understands their role and everybody carries out that role to the best of their ability.

“One thing we’ve found in the last few years is that we’ve always been able to raise our level when needed and what a story it would be just to stay in this group.”

The last time GB found themselves at this level was back in 1994.

Due to a lack of preparation time being afforded to Alex Dampier’s team – a situation very much of its era as the domestic season took precedence in the UK – an instant return to the second tier followed, GB heading home from Bolzano, Italy, having failed to win a single point.

And while the level of expectation is again low, preparations have been the most extensive for any GB team to leave these shores since that last experience of mixing it with the world’s elite.

The GB roster is realistic to acknowledge that their Group A encounters against the heavyweight nations are only likely to go one way but, given their ability to surprise in recent years, there is a belief that points can be picked up elsewhere in order to ensure another year at the top level.

For Phillips, mixing it with the likes of Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Leon Draisatl and the many other star names present in Slovakia, has been a long time in the making, his dreams of playing for his country fuelled by memories of 1994 as a 12-year-old who had not long taken up the sport.

“It’s the ultimate goal,” explained Phillips. “When you’re younger and you’re lucky enough to play for GB at junior level, the natural aim is to try and get signed by a club and then hopefully go on to make the GB senior team.

“I always used to keep track of the GB team through reading Powerplay and Hockey News Review back in the day and I can remember when they were last in Pool A and keeping a close watch on that. It was just so great that they had got to that level and thinking how cool it was to be playing the likes of Canada.”

For Phillips, watching those games back home in Cardiff on the TV, it was the added inspiration he needed having only recently taken up the sport.

“I’d just started playing myself just before that tournament, I suppose I was quite late coming to the sport,” he added. “I’d skated before on public sessions but I didn’t pick up a stick on the ice until I was gone 12, prior to that I just used to play roller hockey out in the street on my own.

“I was never a big sports man. I’d played a bit of rugby in school but I wasn’t that keen on it, I was never into football but as soon as I watched hockey in Cardiff for the first time, I knew straight away that it was something I really wanted to do.”

And so, 25 years on, Phillips finds himself in the same position as his heroes from 1994, faced with the daunting task of trying to keep pace with the game’s very best talent.

But, come 3.15pm, as the national anthems are being belted out at Kosice’s Steel Arena, there will be no nerves from Phillips.

“Making it to that same level myself is the ultimate dream of what you can achieve as a player. To say it is an honour is an understatement really,” he said.

“I’ve lost count of all the wonderful experiences that I’ve had over the years, visiting all these different countries that otherwise I’d never dream of going to and doing it with 20 or so best friends.

“There’s no doubt about it. I’m proud every time I pull on that GB shirt – we all are – but when we’re lining up across the ice from Germany it’s going to be that bit more special because of where we are and how we got there.

“I don’t see nerves coming into play. Why would you be nervous when you’ve worked so hard for something your whole life and you’re finally there?

“It’s just a case of embracing it, working your nuts off and making sure we enjoy every single moment.”