by Brandon Weiss | AHL On The Beat
From there, it was all up in the air.
The dynamic forwards on top of the Stockton Heat’s scoring ranks — Phillips’ 15 points leading the charge for the second-ranked offensive attack in the AHL, while Gawdin’s 14 aren’t far behind — have enjoyed a big step forward from their rookie seasons in 2018-19. They largely have each other to thank for it.
Headed to professional hockey after illustrious junior careers in the WHL, Phillips and Gawdin decided to be roommates. It was a fresh experience for the young pair, Phillips having spent the previous three seasons with one host family and Gawdin splitting his time with two sets of billets over five years with Swift Current.
A new level of hockey in a new country with a new living situation could be daunting, but they figured they’d get through it together.
“It doesn’t get too much attention when you’re getting ready for your first pro season,” said Phillips. “That first month or two, it’s a big shock off the ice. I found out big time, as soon as you can get everything settled and organized you’re a lot more dialed in at the rink.”
“We had no idea what to do,” said Gawdin. “We had to set up housing and lease and WiFi and stuff we’ve never had to do before. We had to go through that together, it was the blind leading the blind.”
They made it through to tell the tale, so at the very least that’s an encouraging sign.
At the rink, the pair came in with many similarities. In junior, Gawdin had helped lead Swift Current to a championship and was named MVP of the WHL playoffs in 2017-18, while Phillips boasted a pair of appearances on the WHL All-Star team and was the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year.
The changes on the ice would be drastic from junior, now playing for a living against bigger players, a faster, tougher game awaiting.
There were ups and admittedly for both there were downs. Fittingly, they finished their rookie season tied with 38 points apiece for Stockton, Phillips skating in 65 games, Gawdin in 64. It was in the down times that they leaned on each other to stay on track.
“The hockey lifestyle takes a lot out of you,” said Gawdin. “To be able to go home and just relax, forget about hockey is a big side of it. We’ve done a good job of going home and relaxing.”
Ironically, ‘getting away from the game’ meant watching hockey, mostly. But they also formed a mutual bond over “The Office” — a show Phillips had never seen before but who Gawdin now admits is superior in knowledge.
Asked to grade out their respective first seasons, both came back with a similar theme — good but room to improve.
They attacked the summer hard, each retreating to their homes — Phillips to Calgary, Gawdin on the west coast — but meeting up in Calgary prior to the Flames’ rookie camp. Since returning to Stockton, the results have been obvious.
They have both been consistent throughout the year en route to their place at the top of the team’s offensive output. Gawdin, an every-situation-type center, picked up from valuable experience in key situations last season. Phillips, a dynamic, shifty winger, learned how to handle playing against bigger bodies.
Neither shows any sign of slowing down.
“They were both very mature from the beginning,” said Heat head coach Cail MacLean. “What’s been noticeable in the second year is that they haven’t changed or gotten any sort of entitlement when it comes to their development. Sometimes you go through your first year and you accept the burden of having a lot of work and having to do the extra, then you get to your second year and it’s easy to settle in. They haven’t settled in, and that’s positive.”
Phillips attributes Gawdin’s progress to more maturity and responsibility, taking care of his recovery after games and practices. Gawdin says Phillips has taken a step with his on-ice savvy and is just reaping the rewards of his shiftiness and blue-collar work ethic.
Asked to evaluate themselves, both said their improvement boils down to familiarity with the professional life and having a solid environment away from the rink.
“(A lot of the improvement) comes with being comfortable,” said Gawdin. “You know how the league works, know the teams and the travel. Being comfortable helps big time.”
Speaking with MacLean, the development from both of the forwards has been easy to see, and it’s come from a similar source: good hockey sense. It’s a testament to their previous teams, said MacLean, that both are heady players. The development also comes from their drive and from each other.
“These young men are both mature, they’re driven and they’re leaders,” said MacLean about how they’ve helped each other develop. “They will push each other just by setting an example for each other. It’s a reason why they’ve done well — they’re a good influence on each other.”
When they first came into the league, Phillips and Gawdin had to duel over who got the master bedroom. A year later, that problem solved itself with an upgraded living space.
A small step, but another bump in the road that they’ve been able to overcome. Still on the newer side to professional life, they continue to lean on each other to get through.
Off the ice, on the ice, no matter — they are always available for each other.
“We just came in and went at it together,” said Phillips. “Our situations are very similar, but day-to-day we face different challenges. We’re there for each other and supportive of each other, we like seeing each other do well. It helps a lot when we’re in the same shoes.”