Tommy “Nibs” Phillips was one of hockey’s earliest stars. Having played for the Vancouver Millionaires and the Montreal Shamrocks (and several places in between), he was one of the first stars to play across the continent.
Born on May 22, 1883 in Rat Portage, Ontario, he first learned to play as a schoolboy. He quickly built a reputation in western Ontario hockey with his play on Rat Portage’s intermediate team.
He then went east to Montreal to attend McGill University and play more hockey. There too he established himself as a “speed merchant” and premier backchecker. His play attracted the notice of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association and they offered him a spot on the team, which he quickly accepted.
It was an excellent decision for both sides, as Phillips scored the Cup-winning goal in the challenge between the MAAA and the Winnipeg Victorias. He was still three months shy of his 20th birthday.
Phillips returned home to Rat Portage (renamed Kenora in 1905) for the next season and led the Manitoba Pro League with 18 goals in a six game season in 1906-07. The Kenora Thistles then challenged the legendary Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup in March of 1905, but lost. Phillips scored an amazing 5 goals in the opening game, a 9-3 win for Kenora, but Ottawa stormed back to games 2 and 3.
Phillips didn’t give up, and neither did the rest of his team. With future Hall of Fame teammates Billy McGimsie, Tom Hooper, Si Griffis, and Art Ross, they again challenged for the Cup, this time against the Montreal Wanderers. They were victorious, thanks to an early start in the series. The explosive Phillips scored all of his team's four goals in a 4-2 victory against the Wanderers in the opener en route to winning the Cup. Just two months later the Wanderers would successfully reclaim it in another challenge series.
Ottawa must have liked what they saw in Phillips’ play, because they lured him back east for the impressive sum of $1,900 in fall 1907. Because Alf Smith was the starting left wing, Phillips played right wing, becoming one of the first players to routinely cut towards the goal from his off-wing.
After just a season with Ottawa, Phillips headed west, playing for Edmonton in the Alberta Amateur Hockey Association, where they made an unsuccessful Cup challenge. Phillips broke his ankle in the first game of the challenge. He did not finish the series and it has been said he was never the same player afterwards.
Ever restless, he moved farther west to Nelson, B.C. for the 1909-10 season, and finally played for the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association while also working in the lumber business. 1911-12 was his one and only season in the PCHA, where he scored 17 goals in 17 games.
His life after the 1911-1912 season is unclear, except that he died at the relatively young age of 40. Tommy Phillips was inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the Hall’s first class in 1945.
Sadly, Tommy Phillips only lived to the age of 40, having passed on due to complications from the pulling of a rotten tooth.
- by Jennifer Conway
Joe's Note: None other than the great Lester Patrick considered Tommy Phillips to be one of the top greats in hockey's earliest era.
In a 1925 article Patrick was asked to select his all-time all-star team. Here's what he said:
"My opinion is based on consistency of players over a period of years, and the fact that men selected possessed nearly all the fundamentals of an ideal player - physique, stamina, courage, speed, stick-handling, goal-getting ability, skill in passing, proper temperament and, above all, hockey brains."
Patrick selected Hughie Lehman in goal, Sprague Cleghorn and Hod Stuart on defence, and up front he chose Tom Phillips, Arthur Farrell and Fred "Cyclone" Taylor.