If ever there was someone you would want to show to the world what epitomises a Great Britain player, it’s Jonathan Phillips. The leader, the heartbeat, the example-setter of the national team for two decades.
Phillips started this World Championship Division I Group A in Nottingham as Great Britain’s most-capped player of all-time with 111 appearances and he moves onto a remarkable total of 116 tonight against Italy.
He has played every one of those games in the same manner that has made him one of the most respected people in UK ice hockey.
Head Coach Pete Russell sums up the contribution of Phillips to the national team, saying: “Jonathan has been an outstanding player for GB for nearly 20 years. He leads by example and is a leader in the locker room. Jono is the heartbeat of the room and is consistently at the top of his game.”
He made his GB debut at the age of just 20 at the 2003 World Championship Division I Group B in Zagreb and there began an outstanding career for his country.
His first goal came in a 5-4 defeat by Belarus in Norway a year later and he also scored in the final game of that tournament as GB demolished Belgium 6-0 in Oslo.
Phillips was made captain for the 2008 Olympic Qualifiers in Sanok and led the team for the first time in the opening game of the tournament against Poland.
He missed GB’s bronze-medal success in the Worlds the following year because of injury but was part of the 2011 side that came so close to promotion in Ukraine, scoring on the opening day in a 5-3 victory over the hosts.
Phillips was also on target in a 7-0 rout of Estonia as Great Britain won four of their five matches. GB needed Ukraine to beat Kazakhstan on the final evening for Paul Thompson’s side to secure the gold and with 10 minutes remaining that was on the cards, but Kazakhstan hit back to win the game and claim promotion.
A silver medal was a superb achievement and much better was to come for Phillips and GB, although it did take some heartbreak along the way.
GB advanced through to Final Qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics after winning the preliminary round in Japan. Despite three defeats in Latvia in February 2013, GB had stuck with with some of the best teams in the world at the final qualifying stage.
Before the up came a down as Britain were relegated from the second tier of the World Championship two months later and so began an incredible journey that may never be repeated in world ice hockey.
A season of consolidation in Lithuania saw a fourth-placed finish in Division I Group B in 2014 and this was followed by a silver medal final-day heartbreak in Eindhoven in 2015.
A year later in Croatia, Phillips scored in GB’s wins over Lithuania (8-0) and Romania (6-1) and then gave his side the lead in their final-day winner-takes-all showdown with Ukraine. But history was to repeat itself and Ukraine came back to win 2-1 and Britain had to settle for another silver medal.
On home ice in Belfast in 2017, there was to be no repeat. GB were like a train, unstoppable throughout the week, winning five out of five with Phillips on target in victories over Lithuania (5-2) and Netherlands (15-0).
Promotion was assured but reflecting on it some years later, Philips, as modest as ever, pondered whether his career may have ended if GB had missed out for a third successive time.
“Who knows what would’ve happened after Belfast,” he said. “If we hadn’t have got promoted, maybe the programme would have got rid of us older guys and go with something younger and try and rebuild.
“There was a lot of pressure on us in that tournament and a lot of eyes on us. We felt the pressure but I know we felt confident right from the first day of training camp.”
In Budapest the following year the Dare to Dream slogan became a reality. Every GB fan knows the story as three wins in four matches set-up a chance for gold, with Phillips scoring an empty-netter in a 5-3 victory over Poland in game three.
Phillips reflected on the mindset of the team going into the tournament, saying: “I always thought in my head and I had spoken with the boys about this, but we knew we had as much chance as promotion as we did relegation.”
And, of course, promotion it was as Robert Farmer’s goal with 15 seconds remaining secured the point needed for the promised land – the top flight of world ice hockey.
GB had been 2-0 down and Phillips describes how the comeback started, saying: “ They scored at the beginning of the third to go two ahead and the bench did deflate a little, but that soon changed.
“I think it was Dowdy’s (Robert Dowd) line that went out and had a big shift and that momentum just started. It went through the whole team and we had some great sustained pressure.
“Dowdy’s line then did what they did all tournament and put pucks to the net and Dowdy got the goal. You felt the bench just rise again and it was ‘right we’re on and here we come’.
“Bownsy saved the penalty shot and we always had faith in him – that was probably the biggest save in GB history and then there was Farmer’s goal. It was one of those moments where you scream on the bench.
“I went so dizzy I thought I was going to fall over. I looked to one side and Matthew (Myers) has tears in his eyes and it was just out of this world – just the best feeling ever.”
GB were in the top flight and Phillips was to captain his country on the biggest of stages. Six defeats to the best nations in the world followed – including Canada and the USA – but in reality it was always going to come down to the final day against France.
Again, the script is well known. It’s written in GB ice hockey history. From 3-0 down to 3-3 and into overtime – then follows one of the biggest set-plays in GB history.
Moments before the face-off in GB’s defensive zone, Phillips chats to Ben Davies and the play he describes is the play that wins GB the game and keeps them at the top level of the World Championship for another season.
He tells Davies to push the puck forwards from the face-off and he will chase it down. Phillips does this just as he said he would and despite a slip, he manages to get the puck to Davies who buries the winner.
After a year of no international ice hockey because of the pandemic, Phillips won his 100th cap in a 4-3 regulation-time victory over Belarus in the 2021 World Championship played behind closed doors in Latvia.
Last year in Finland, Phillips passed Ashley Tait to move into the all-time lead of 111 appearance for Great Britain and create a record that may never be broken.
There are so many words that can be said about Phillips and will be said before he retires. GB’s General Manager Andy Buxton has been with Phillips for the majority of his GB journey and he sums up his impact perfectly.
Buxton said: “I have been fortunate over the years to work with a lot of people with great leadership qualities, both in hockey and in the wider business world, and I can honestly say that Jonathan is up there with the very best.”