|Out of the Mists of the Past||The Kenora Thistles: 1907 Stanley Cup Champions|
Thomas Neil Phillips, the son of a 60 year-old Scottish immigrant, was born in Toronto, Ontario on May 22, 1883, and reared in the northwestern Ontario town of Rat Portage. "Nibs", as he was nicknamed, grew up playing pick-up games of hockey in the little lakeside boom-town with other Rat Portage youngsters. The winter past-time was taken seriously by the townsfolk, some of whom had formed a senior league team called the Thistles by time little Tommy was 10 years old. It was in this fertile environment that Phillips grew into a formidable hockey talent.
While not as impressive in physical stature as his boyhood friend Silas "Sox" Griffis, Tommy soon showed superior talent in puckhandling and on-ice decision making that made him an unpredictable force to be reckoned with. Tommy could play both Left Wing and Right Wing, and had an unusually powerful shot to go along with pinpoint accuracy. His backchecking skills were exceptional as well. As the obvious superior in natural talent, Phillips became the leader of a special group of close knit players that would be destined for hockey greatness.
Around 1895, Phillips and Griffis, along with some other friends, formed a junior Thistles squad and began to play exhibitions around the area. It soon became apparent that this group of youngsters, most only 12 years old, were good enough to rival their senior league counterparts. An exhibition between the two teams was arranged in the beginning of 1896. The younger Thistles routed the older team and quickly populated the demoralized senior league roster.
By the turn of the century, the Thistles' quick, precision-style play was gaining momentum, catapulting them into the intermediate division of the Manitoba and Northwestern Hockey League (M.N.H.A.). By this time, the lads were of college age. In 1902 Phillips went east to attend school at McGill University, a Montreal, Quebec institution already renowned for its hockey program. While at McGill, Tommy began to play with local senior league squads. He is rumored to have played with the Montreal Shamrocks, though more reliable records indicate he joined up with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, who were at the time in possession of the fabled Stanley Cup. In four regular season games, Phillips scored six goals, but his real worth was proven during the four game Stanley Cup challenge match versus the Winnipeg Victorias that took place halfway through the season. At first the best of three looked like it was going to be a blow-out, with Montreal taking the first match 8-1. The next game was considerably closer however, and the two teams skated to a 2-2 tie. The next game saw the Vics take the momentum with a 4-2 win. This set up a fourth, "sudden death" match to be held on February 4th. Montreal pulled it out in deciding fashion, 5-1 and retained their hold on Lord Stanley. Nibs chipped in three goals for the series, making himself a Stanley Cup champion just three months shy of his twentieth birthday.
Phillip's Stanley Cup stweardship would prove to be fleeting. The AAA finished the season at 4-3, which was good only for third place in the hard-fought Canadian Amateur Hockey League (C.A.H.L.). By virtue of having the best league record, both the Ottawa "Silver Seven" and the Montreal Victorias played a two-game total goals series to decide the new winner of the hallowed trophy. On March 10th, the Cup left the possession of Phillips and the AAA and went into the hands of the newly crowned champion, the Silver Seven. On hand during the playoff, Phillips greeted several of his former teammates from Rat Portage, who had made the trek east to play the Silver Seven in a Stanley Cup challenge match, to be held only two days after the Ottawa squad had won it.
For the 1903-04 season, Tommy switched leagues to play for the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Senior League (O.H.A.). During the four games of the regular season, Phillips smacked in 5 goals, leading the Marlboros to a league title and a chance to challenge the Silver Seven to a Cup challenge match. The two game, total-goals series, held that February, saw the Marlboros outmatched by the powerful Ottawa club, who took both games, 6-3 and 11-2, respectively. Nibs scored all but two of Toronto's goals.
During the summer, Tommy returned to Rat Portage and was persuaded to stay on to bring the Stanley Cup to the small town of less than 5,000. Joining him that offseason was his former Marlboro teammate, goaltender Eddie Giroux. Whether Phillips was paid to stay with the Thistles is not known. With Nibs back in the line-up, the 1904-05 Thistles soared, posting a league-leading 7-1 record. Phillips scored 26 goals in 8 games, playing on a front line that featured centerman Billy McGimsie, who tallied 28 goals to edge Phillips out for the league scoring title.,br>
In March, the Thistles again challenged Ottawa for the Stanley Cup. In the first game, Phillips and Rat Portage came up big. The Thistles took the game 9-3, led by Phillips' five goals. The Thistles employed a high tempo, tic-tac-toe passing game that left the Ottawans out of sorts and unable to keep up. The next game saw Ottawa bounce back 4-2, taking advantage of slushy home ice of a highly dubious origin that slowed the mighty Rat Portage juggernaut. The third game saw the Thistles come up one goal short-- 5-4. Phillips scored three of the six Rat Portage goals in the final two games, but the watery ice of Ottawa's Arena Rink severely hampered his skating and shooting abilities. Many eastern hockeyists openly questioned the outcome of the series, with a good share of them proclaiming Phillips as the best player, not only of the west, but in all of organized hockey.
During the offseason, Phillips tried his hand at other sports. He played baseball for the local Alerts club, and also rowed at local and national regattas. At the Henley Regatta in St. Catharine's, Ontario Phillips and Griffis placed second overall. Phillips and the newly named Kenora Thistles stayed on track for the 1905-06 season, keeping their focus on winning the Manitoba Hockey League title. It was a close finish, with both the Thistles and the Winnipeg Winnipegs finishing 7-1, but the Winnipegs had played one extra game which had resulted in a tie, so the Thistles won the trophy. Phillips scored 23 goals in 8 games, but again came in second in league scoring, this time to Winnipeg's nimble centerman Billy Breen, who scored 26 in 9 games. Because the season had ended too late in the season to make a Stanley Cup challenge, the Cup trustees promised the Thistles a match at the beginning of the following season in January of 1907.
At this time, though not official, it was known in some circles that Phillips was receiving financial compensation for his on-ice services. The summer and fall of 1906 brought with it the death knell of amateur hockey dominance, yet the Thistles still had a bit of business left undone. An openly professional league, the International Hockey League (I.H.L.) had been operating for several years in northern Michigan and was employing some of hockey's top stars, including Fred "Cyclone" Taylor and Riley Hern. Compensation became top priority for those who had superior hockey talent, and that didn't bode well for the Thistles, who showcased at least four players who were of sufficient quality to test the professional waters back in the east. The Thistles stayed together however for one last chance at the Cup.
The 1906-07 season brought with it a split within the M.H.L., with some teams opting for professionalism and the
TEAM PHOTOS FEATURING TOMMY PHILLIPS:
This web page is designed and maintained by Borden D. Mills. Best viewed using Internet Explorer, with medium fonts, at 600x800 to 1024x1280. It is a historical project, not for commercial gain, and claims all usage of images and photos as that of "fair use". All writings 2001-2007 by Borden D. Mills using a variety of great resources, many of which you can access by going to the links on the lefthand menu. Any comments, information, or corrections anyone has regarding this website can be sent to this address.
Proud member of the Society for International Hockey Research