SATURDAY night may mark a landmark occasion for Sheffield Steelers’ captain Jonathan Phillips, but he is determined not to be distracted from the task in hand.
Fife Flyers’ arrival at Sheffield Arena this weekend will be notable for three things. Firstly, the Steelers will celebrate last year’s Elite League title success through the time-honoured tradition of raising their championship banner to the rafters before face-off.
Secondly, Saturday night will mark Phillips’s 627th appearance in a Steelers’ jersey, taking him above club legend Ron Shudra and up to second in the all-time list with only his close friend and team-mate for 10 years, Jason Hewitt, ahead of him.
But for the 34-year-old Welshman, convinced to make the switch from hometown Cardiff Devils to South Yorkshire by former coach Dave Matsos back in 2006, Saturday night is all about the simple fact that there is a hockey game to be won against the Flyers that will concern him the most.
The banner-raising along with a deserved and no-doubt prominent acknowledgement of his own personal achievement will all go down very well, but Phillips and his team-mates are purely focused on doing what is required in order for them to return next year to raise another championship banner which, if achieved, would be their third in a row.
“It’s definitely an achievement I’m proud of,” said Phillips.
“To play for a club like Sheffield for so long is fantastic. It’s the biggest club in the country so to have the chance to play as many games as I have for them is a massive honour.
“To be honest, we don’t see all the banner-raising as being a distraction. Obviously it will be great to see it raised and have our achievements from the previous season recognised. But we all know that that particular trophy is done and dusted now and the focus is all about this season and trying to make sure we can raise another banner next year.
“It won’t distract us at all.”
Hewitt, who after a short retirement is back in the game with Hull Pirates in the English Premier League, attributes Phillips’s longevity at the Steelers – and in the sport generally – to him being the “ultimate professional.”
He acknowledges and is happy for his place at the top of the Steelers’ appearance list to go to his former team-mate, something that will happen in all likelihood sometime early next season.
“I don’t see any reason why he won’t break my record and if he does there’s nobody I would rather it be than him,” said Hewitt.
“He just looks after himself so well and is the ultimate professional. He does all the little things right. He’s had a lot of injuries but because he looks after himself so well he gets back to playing quicker than most people.
“Last season he had to have hernia surgery but he was back after something like two weeks – not everybody can do that.”
As for Phillips – who has been handed a testimonial season by the club – the only number that will concern him this weekend are the four on offer in terms of points in a double-header against the Flyers which sees the Steelers head to Scotland for an immediate rematch on Sunday.
His Steelers career has seen a number of low points, but it is the numerous highs – most notably lifting four league titles – that help convince him that there is no need to think of hanging up his skates anytime soon.
“I’ve never once thought about leaving the game and packing up,” he added. “I’ve always said that I’ll play for as long as I possibly can.
“For me, a big part of my game is my speed and as long as I’ve got my speed I don’t see any reason why I can’t play and right now I feel just as quick as I was when I first came up here all those years ago.
“When I first came here, I never planned anything out. Under Dave Matsos, Sheffield were kind of rebuilding at the time and I just instantly loved the city, the club –everything about it really.
“Everything had the right feeling about it and you had that sense that they wanted to get back to winning trophies which was exactly what I wanted to do, so it was a good fit.”
Todd Dutiaume’s Fife will arrive in South Yorkshire facing a Steelers team looking to rebound from their first league defeat last Sunday against Cardiff – who they had beaten the previous evening in the Challenge Cup to confirm their progression from the group phase.
The Flyers themselves are looking to bounce back after losing out twice to Braehead Clan last weekend, the first defeat ending their already-slim hopes of qualifying from Group A in the Challenge Cup.
The Steelers have waited until Saturday night to raise their championship banner so they can share the special occasion with defenceman Russ Moyer, part of the title-winning team last season before moving to Kirkcaldy in the summer.
It was in Fife back in March when a 3-1 win for the Steelers sealed their fifth championship in the EIHL era.