Being invited to main training camp is the ultimate badge of honour for any aspirant who skates in an NHL rookie camp. Victoria Royals forward Matthew Phillips got the nod when the Calgary Flames invited him to play with the big boys after suiting up for the rookie Flames team in the Young Stars Classic tournament in Penticton.
But that run ended Sunday when Phillips, a sixth-round selection by his hometown Flames in the 2016 NHL draft, was reassigned by Calgary back down to junior with the Royals.
“It was three days I got in main camp to see how the pros try-out and it was really a step up. … it’s crazy the pace of hockey at that level,” said Phillips.
“You witness the consistency of the pros. Nobody can afford to take days off.”
Phillips earned the invite to main camp after playing two games for the Flames rookies in Penticton, and scoring one goal in a game against the Jets rookies.
As important as the move to main camp was to his long-term progress, the hardest thing for Phillips about being in Calgary camp over the weekend was watching on the Internet as his defending WHL regular-season champion Royals got off to a tepid 0-2 start after 3-1 and 5-1 season-opening home losses against the Prince George Cougars.
“That was tough to watch,” added Phillips.
“Maybe we didn’t display the exact same chemistry as last season. We have a few new players and I think it’s a matter of guys needing to get more comfortable. And getting all the guys back from NHL camps will be a bonus.”
Three Royals remain in NHL main camps — forward Jack Walker with the Toronto Maple Leafs, forward Tyler Soy with the Anaheim Ducks and defenceman Chaz Reddekopp with the Los Angeles Kings. They may or may not be returned in time for the Friday and Saturday set against the Kamloops Blazers at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. That’s up to the discretion of their NHL teams.
Defenceman Joe Hicketts, eligible to return as a 20-year-old to Victoria, is expected to remain in the Detroit Red Wings minor-pro system this season.
Royals blue-liner Ralph Jarratt returned from the rookie camp of the New Jersey Devils last week.
Having Phillips’ offensive dynamism back in the lineup when the Royals meet the rising Blazers this weekend, is a big boost for a team that managed only two goals against the Cougars in its opening two games.
The quick-silver Phillips scored 37 goals and amassed 76 points in being named the 2015-16 WHL rookie of the year. His stature, listed at five-foot-six, and being a hometown Calgary product, made Phillips a bit of a media curiosity in southern Alberta when he was drafted by the Flames in June. It was cool to get that kind of novelty attention, but that only lasts for a while.
“That’s kind of worn off. It was business time,” said Phillips, of Flames main camp.
“It was tough at first, but you kind of get used to being the smaller guy out there. I was pleased with the way things went in camp. The Flames told me to focus on getting stronger but not to focus too much on a [weight] number,” added the Calgarian, who has gone from 137 to 145 pounds.
As far as the Royals are concerned, Phillips’ sophomore season on Blanshard can’t begin soon enough Friday.
Phillips was among four players returned to their WHL clubs Sunday by the Flames, including Brayden Burke of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Aaron Hyman of the Calgary Hitmen and Nick Schneider of the Medicine Hat Tigers.