It isn't uncommon to see minor-league players make the jump to European leagues in the final years of their career.
What is uncommon is to see American players make that jump to Europe first as a way to kickstart their professional careers. That's just what Nailers forward Michael Phillips did, though.
For Phillips, 26, professional hockey was never a guarantee. He's a product of Division III Babson College, a program which isn't exactly known for sending players to the pro ranks after college. When Phillips got an offer to play in France following his senior season, he jumped on the opportunity.
"I knew I wanted to try to play pro hockey," Phillips told me of his journey. "I had never been to Europe, I never got the opportunity to go abroad or anything like that. So I thought, you know what? Why not. I've heard great things from people that I went to school with and close friends who said if you really think you want to do it, to go over there and try. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
5-feet-11, 185-pound Phillips spent the 2017-18 season with Les Remparts de Tours of the France2 league, where he recorded 10 goals and 13 assists in 25 games.
While most European rinks use the bigger Olympic-sized ice surface, the Tours home rink wasn't regulation Olympic-sized. Other rinks in the league did use the larger ice surface, however. The bigger ice surfaces come with much more open ice, and therefore a less physical brand of hockey. The play in France is more skill-based and reliant on skating and positioning.
"It's just a lot more puck-possession, it's not as much dump-and-chase, banging bodies," Phillips said of the league in which he played. "It's more about strategic positioning because you're not really hitting too much. ... You have to make sure you're in great position because one little mistake in a bigger rink can cost you. You get out of position in just one little thing and the puck is already at your net."
While Phillips' stint in France did help prepare him for the professional ranks in North America, one aspect of the game France didn't prepare him for was the frequency of games. In the ECHL and AHL it's common to play four games in a week, including sets of three games in three days (with travel!). In France, the schedule of games is more similar to college hockey, with maybe only one or two games a week. Phillips has enjoyed the grind of the minor-league schedules this season.
"It would be a long week of practice, especially if you lost a couple games in a row," he said. "The frequency of games is a little different here, I like it though. You're playing, and not just practicing, practicing, practicing. You're actually playing and working on those things at game-like speeds."
Playing across France allowed Phillips to not only experience a different brand of hockey, but an entirely different culture as well.
"It was awesome, it's totally different over there just how the world works, the way people act," said Phillips. "It just has a totally different vibe to it."
Even though he was only in France for one season, Phillips was able to pick up the language semi-fluently by the end of his time there. He can speak with the Quebecois Nailers Kevin Spinozzi and Cedric Lacroix, although not quite as fast.
When Phillips was looking to return to North America this past summer, Wheeling was an easy choice. New Nailers head coach Mike Bavis was an assistant coach at Babson College during Phillips' senior season. Phillips also knew former Nailers Mike Driscoll and Chris Ciotti, and current Nailer Cam Brown. A native of Cleveland, playing in Wheeling also allows Phillips' family to make the trip to see him more often.
21 games into his ECHL career, Phillips has recorded five goals and eight assists for the Nailers. Nine of his points have come on the power play, giving him the team lead in power play points. He was heating up this week with a two-goal performance in Toledo, and added another tally at home against Indy:
"I think my versatility and my work ethic are probably my biggest strengths as a player," Phillips said. "I always try to work as hard as I can while I'm out there, and I've been able to play a bunch of different roles this year anywhere from the third line to the first line to PK, power play, 6-on-5, end of the games, things like that."
For the remainder of his rookie season, Phillips is looking to first and foremost help the Nailers return to the Kelly Cup playoffs, and grow as a player.
"There's always room for improvement, but I'm pretty happy with that as my first year as a Nailer," said Phillips. "Pretty happy with my production, and it can only hopefully go up from here. It's a credit to the people I've been playing with, I've been playing with some great players."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Dec. 7: vs. Fort Wayne, 5-4 loss
• Dec. 8: at Toledo, 5-2 win
• Dec. 9: vs. Indy, 5-1 win
• The Nailers dug themselves into an 0-4 hole in the first period on Friday and were unable to complete their comeback attempt. Zac Lynch, Alex Rauter, and Nick Saracino scored in the second period to come within one goal, but the Komets extended their lead with another goal in the second period. Brown scored the lone goal in the third period. Danny Tirone made seven saves on 11 shots in the first period, and Jordan Ruby took the loss with 16 saves on 17 shots in relief.
• Phillips scored first for Wheeling on Saturday, but Toledo answered with two goals to take the lead. Wheeling rallied with goals from Brown, Phillips, Saracino, and Winston Day Chief for the win. Ruby made 28 saves on 30 shots for the win.
• Sunday was one of Wheeling's best games of the season. Wheeling carried a 5-0 lead through the second period with goals from Saracino (2), Phillips, Yushiroh Hirano, Craig Skudalski, and Saracino. Ruby's shutout bid was broken with a single goal in the latter half of the third period. He made 29 saves for his second win in as many days. Brown recorded four assists, and Saracino recorded three in addition to his two goals.
•Even though he has been in Wilkes-Barre for two weeks, Troy Josephs‘ 12 goals in 13 games still leads the team. Brown leads the Nailers with 14 assists in 21 games. Saracino leads in points with 22 in 20 games.
• Lines and defense pairings from Sunday:
Mike Fazio -- Zac Lynch -- Winston Day Chief
Nick Saracino -- Cam Brown -- Yushiroh Hirano
Brad Drobot -- Cedric Lacroix -- Michael Phillips
Kevin Spinozzi -- Brien Diffley
Josh Couturier -- Danny Fick
Craig Skudalski -- Dane Birks
• After this week, the Nailers rank fifth in the six-team Central Division with a record of 9-11-1. The Nailers’ power play was catapulted to No. 1 in the league at 22.4 percent, and the penalty kill dropped to 19th in the league at 82.5 percent.
• The Nailers have quite a busy week ahead. They'll host the Allen Americans (6-18-0-2) on Wednesday, visit the Kalamazoo Wings (9-11-0-1) on Friday, host the Norfolk Admirals (12-10-1-1) on Saturday, and host the Fort Wayne Komets (12-10) on Sunday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Lynch's goal on Friday was shorthanded. Note Brown's work to force the turnover:
Rauter didn't let up in this sequence:
Brown continued his dominance with this goal:
Saracino's redirect came off of a great feed from Brown:
Hirano's goal was his second ECHL goal, and first that wasn't an empty netter. The goal was set up by (who else?) Cam Brown:
Skudalski's goal was his first in the ECHL:
SAVE OF THE WEEK
Ruby made this glove stop against Indy:
WHEELING FUN THING
The Nailers skated with fans this week:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) December 9, 2018
Spinozzi read to some local children:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) December 4, 2018
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