Victoria Royals' Phillips chases world junior dream

Matthew Phillips of the Victoria Royals wasn’t part of the shootout loss to the U.S. in the final of this year’s world junior hockey championship.

But he watched it, of course. Now that loss hangs over the Canadian summer camp like the haze over the Island. It is taking place in Plymouth, Michigan, this week and is part of the selection process that will decide Canada’s team for the 2018 world juniors over the winter in Buffalo, New York.

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“That tournament result last year adds just that much more to this camp, especially because of the [Canada versus U.S.] angle.”

Phillips was on the third line for Team Red for Canada’s split-squad scrimmage games Tuesday against the U.S. split-squad teams. Canada plays Finland today and Sweden on Friday in friendlies before closing out against the U.S. on Saturday. With injuries to Nolan Patrick, Tyler Benson, Tyson Jost, Gabe Vilardi and Adam Mascherin, there are 39 players in the Canadian camp.

Phillips, whose rise has startled hockey experts, makes his Canada debut at the U-20 level after never before having been offered U-17 or U-18 national team invites. It’s an unusual path. But Phillips has not had a cookie-cutter career.

Dismissed by many as too small at five-foot-six and 140 pounds, Phillips made people sit up and take notice of him. He must continue to do that if he hopes to crack the Canadian junior team roster this year.

“This is my first time to wear a Canada jersey and it’s pretty special and exciting,” said Phillips, by phone from Michigan.

These opportunities are not given lightly.

“I am here for a reason and I have to be confident in that,” he said. “Hopefully, I can stand out by playing my style.”

As any Royals fan knows, that includes darting speed and an uncanny internal radar that helps him change direction in a blink and avoid hits to find the net. Phillips was named Western Hockey League rookie of the year in 2015-16 with his 37 goals and 76 points. He followed that up last season by becoming the first player since the Royals relocated to Victoria in 2011-12 to score 50 goals and added 40 assists for a 90-point season.

Phillips now attempts to become the first Royals player to compete at the world juniors since defenceman Joe Hicketts won gold for Canada in 2015 in Toronto and placed sixth in 2016 in Helsinki.

The similarities between Phillips and Hicketts hardly go unnoticed. Both are undersized and originally unheralded. While the Detroit Red Wings signed the undrafted Hicketts — who won the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup this spring in his rookie pro season with Grand Rapids — the hometown Calgary Flames took a flyer on Phillips in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL draft.

The latter led to a call-up to Stockton of the AHL this spring in which Phillips appeared in one regular season game and recorded his first pro assist and two playoff games with no points.

“That was a big jump and I noticed a big difference in the pace of play,” said Phillips.

That is holding him in good stead at the Canadian junior camp against a starry elite of future pros such as Vancouver Canucks second-round pick and current Kelowna Rockets forward Kole Lind.

“Each day in camp has been pretty intense,” said Phillips.

“Every guy here does something well. I know I have to play my game and compete hard.”

Players of note likely to make the Canadian team include Jost (Colorado Avalanche via the Penticton Vees), Patrick (Brandon Wheat Kings), Cody Glass (Portland Winterhawks), Sam Steel (Regina Pats), Dillon Dube (Kelowna Rockets) and Cale Makar (Brooks Bandits). The final Canadian selection camp will be held in December.

The 2018 world junior championship is Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Buffalo. The 2019 world juniors will be hosted by Victoria and Vancouver.

The 19-year-old Phillips will return to play his third WHL season in Victoria this fall.

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