Sheffield Steelers captain Jonathan Phillips remains grateful to Dave Whistle as he gets set for sweet 16th season

AS Jonathan Phillips begins his preparations for a 16th season at Sheffield Steelers, before he hits the ice he is looking forward to a special reunion with the man who persuaded him to first join the club way back in the summer of 2006.

STICKING AROUND: Sheffield Steelers' captain and forward, Jonathan Phillips. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.
STICKING AROUND: Sheffield Steelers' captain and forward, Jonathan Phillips. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

Phillips never got to play under Dave Whistle in Steelers’ colours, but he will be forever grateful to the Canadian for convincing him that his hockey future belonged in South Yorkshire.

By the time Phillips arrived for pre-season preparations ahead of the 2006-07 campaign, he was aware Whistle had already taken a job back home in North America and would not be returning to renew a working relationship between the two that had begun at Cardiff Devils two years previously.

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Dave Whistle, the former Steelers' coach who signed Jonathan Phillips, but who left before Phillips arrived.

Dave Matsos took on the reins at Sheffield Arena and the rest, as they say, is history, Phillips captaining the Steelers to one league title and two-play off trophies before his former Cardiff team-mate followed Whistle back home to Canada at the end of the 2009-10 season.

Phillips has for many years now regarded Sheffield as his home and is pleased to see that his former boss Whistle will soon be back on these shores, having agreed to return to the UK as head coach of Leeds Knights in the NIHL National league.

And before their respective seasons begin, the two will be planning to get together for a reunion, possibly reminiscing over the 18 months they spent working with each other in South Wales when Whistle - previously a Superleague title winner with Bracknell Bees and Belfast Giants - returned to the UK top-flight after a brief stint coaching in Germany.

“He was unbelievable to play for,” said Phillips of his time playing under Whistle in Cardiff from December 2004. “He was the ultimate players’ coach - especially back then, things were a little looser and we had a lot of fun.

Sheffiel Steelers' head coach, Aaron Fox.

“As a player, you really did want to play your best for him, it was a case of you were really letting him down if there wasn’t 100 per cent commitment from each guy. He’s just a good, good human being.

“Some of my best hockey memories – ever – are playing for Whis’ – he was a large part of why I came to Sheffield all them years ago.

Jonathan Phillips, in action for GB in the recent IIHF World Championships

“At the end of that season (2005-06) in Cardiff, he called and told me that he wanted me up there in Sheffield with him and we spoke for a few weeks and we got a deal done.

“It was a big move for me because, this time, it was the first time where I was looking to make a permanent move, as it were. For me, it came at the perfect time. I’d been at Cardiff for a few years, was Cardiff born and bred but I wanted to leave before I got into a comfort zone.

“I knew that if I wanted a long career, I had to push myself. I wanted to go to a big club where there was pressure to play and pressure to win and where you were expected to go out and perform every single night.”

The fact Whistle was already on board at Sheffield Arena made Phillips’ decision to make the move from South Wales an easier call.

“The transition was made easier because I thought I was going up to play for a coach who I really liked playing for,” added Phillips. “So I was absolutely gutted when I heard he wasn’t coming back the following season. But then, in more or less the next sentence, I was told that Dave Matsos would be taking control.

“And Matty had played for Whis for a lot of years and they were very similar people in the way that they approached their teams, so I knew he was going to be a good coach at Sheffield.”

And while both Whistle and Matsos have spent their more recent years coaching juniors back home in Canada, Phillips has remained a constant presence in Sheffield, meaning there was little doubt when it came to deciding his future.

“My aim every summer is to 100 per cent enable myself to be in a position to make sure I can carry on playing,” added Phillips. “I’m just going about my business and doing what I did 10 years ago to get ready for the new season.

“I’ve never once woke up and thought about how old I am at the time, this is what I do, my speed is one of my big strengths. I’m still improving in the gym and getting better times still, whether that is weights or whatever and I’m just making sure that I do what I need to do to carry on playing.

“It’s tough to explain but I’ll know when I’m done and when my body can’t do it in the off-season. Because the morning I wake up in May or June and say ‘I’m not going to the gym today’ is the day when I know I’m done and I can’t motivate myself to prepare for the next season.”

Steelers’ head coach Aaron Fox said bringing Phillips back to South Yorkshire was a simple decision for him to make.

“He’s our leader on and off the ice here and as we have seen age is just a number to him - - skating is still elite and the shape he keeps himself in I would put up there with anyone in the league.”