Postmedia – Crag and Canyon

Canmore-raised Luke Philp is leading the Red Deer Rebels towards the Memorial Cup.

The first time I took in a Canmore Eagles hockey game was the spring of 2012 — the only year the junior A squad failed to make the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoffs in its 21-year history.

Arriving on the scene in mid-February, I watched as the team made a furious charge to gain that last playoff spot only to fall a single point short. The season was on the line right up until the final few seconds of the team’s 60th game of the season.

During those frantic few games I attended that February, one player stood out night after night — a 16-year-old Canmore-raised rookie. He was wearing No. 12. He looked young. He looked undersized. His talent though was undeniable. His desire was unquenchable.

Now, four years later, Philp is the captain of the Memorial Cup-bound Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Red Deer was chosen as the host city for the annual national major junior hockey championship tournament which brings together the league champions of the Western, Ontario and Quebec major junior leagues. The tournament happens each year in the final week of May.

That Philp should get a chance at a national championship is a story worth telling — that he should be captaining the Rebels makes it a splendid exclamation point on a stellar junior career.

Luke started playing junior hockey alongside older brother Simon on the Eagles. Both came up through the minor hockey ranks playing alongside each other in peewee, bantam and midget. Simon was almost 20 months older — but only one season in hockey years.

The brothers — the sons of Peter Philp and Lisa de Soto — would be rookie standouts though it was evident that Luke was destined to move beyond the junior A ranks. He started that 2011-12 season by playing 10 games with the Kootenay Ice, a WHL team based in Cranbrook, B.C.

Returning to Canmore for the AJHL season he would lead the Eagles in scoring with 46 points (16 goals and 30 assists) in 48 games. He would rejoin the Ice in March 2012 and would go on to become a pivotal part of the WHL team’s continued successes among the elite of the league for the next three seasons — never missing the playoffs, although never getting beyond the second round.

His regular-season numbers climbed each season: 45 points (20G-25A) in 2012-13: 77 points (31G-46A) in 2013-14; and 82 points (30G-52A) in 2014-15.

However, his size — 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds [178 centimetres and 79 kilograms] — would haunt him. Despite showing prodigious growth in speed, agility and puck handling to support a work ethic that would never be questioned, he would go undrafted each of his two eligible years even though he was ranked as high as 80th in the Central Scouting Bureau’s pre-draft rankings of North American skaters in 2014.

Philp did earn National Hockey League training camps invites with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 and Philadelphia Flyers in 2015 but no contract offers. As an overager this year he will not be draft eligible but an unrestricted free agent.

“The way I look at that is the better the team [Red Deer] does the more doors will open up,” said Philp, not giving up on an NHL career. “If you get thinking about what will happen next year — if I will get an offer or not — it can negatively affect your game. So, I just try to just go out and play.”

NHL history is full of stories of undrafted players going onto sterling NHL careers and Philp can draw on the career of Martin St. Louis — a Hart (MVP) Trophy winner, two-time scoring champ and three-time Lady Byng (sportsmanship) recipient — for inspiration.

While he may not as of yet earned an NHL contract, his talents were not going unnoticed by teams he has played against. When it became apparent that this year’s Ice would not be making a playoff run, teams knowing they would be heading into the post-season tournament started inquiring about the 20-year-old. Lead among them was the Rebels with their attention to not just trying to get to the national tournament but winning the Memorial Cup on home ice.

Red Deer head coach and general manger Brent Sutter knows what it takes and the type of player it takes to win guiding the Rebels to the Memorial Cup in 2001. After a spell with the NHL’s Calgary Flames he returned to the junior team rebuilding it into a national powerhouse over the past three seasons.

Red Deer associate coach Steve O’Rourke said Philp was an easy choice to help push the team over the top.

“When we looked at how we could make this team better, who we could add to the team in order to give us the best chance to win the Memorial Cup, he [Philp] was right at the top of the list,” said O’Rourke.

The coach was frank in saying had the Rebels not been hosting the national championship tournament the deal would not have been made but they were looking for a leader and Philp is held in the highest regard.

So it was on Jan. 3 after five seasons in an organization based 2 1/2 hours south of Canmore, Philp would move to a team 2 1/2 hours north of his hometown for the final five months of his junior career. The price tag was not cheap with the Rebels sending three players — 21-year-old Presten Kopeck, 17-year-old rookie Ryan Pouliot, and 16-year-old prospect Tanner Sidaway — and two bantam draft picks to the Ice.

That same week, the team also picked up Adam Helewka, the leading scorer of the Spokane Chiefs, in a four-for-one deal that included sending Rebels’ captain Wyatt Johnson to the Washington state team, and had already added another point-per-game forward in Jake DeBrusk from the Swift Current Broncos just a few days earlier.

At the time of his being traded, Philp was recovering from an ankle injury that had him on the sidelines since Nov. 21. He wouldn’t play again until Feb. 12.

“We had the player we wanted and we were ready to wait three, five, six weeks to get him into the lineup,” said O’Rourke.

When he went down with the injury, Philp was in the top 20 in league scoring. He finished the regular season with 45 points (21G-24A) while appearing in just 39 games: 22 for the Ice (13G-16A) and 17 for the Rebels (8G-8A).

Philp was the captain of the Ice, and was coming off a season in which he was named the team’s most valuable player, Fan Club player of the year, was chosen by his teammates for the second successive year as the Rod Hunter (player’s MVP) winner, and capped off 2014-15 with the team’s Boston Pizza top playoff performer award.

When Philp stepped into the Rebels’ lineup he would be wearing his familiar No. 12 emblazoned with the ‘C’. It was an easy decision said O’Rourke after the team traded Johnson.

“It was a real honour,” said Philp. “Brent [Sutter] and I discussed it when I came over although I wasn’t sure it would be the ‘C’. He wanted me to be part of the leadership group of this team. I think I just have to lead by example with the way I play and the way I act around the room.

“There are a lot of really good leaders, with older guys and a more veteran group — that helps a lot.”

Philp was also put on the top line with Helewka on his left wing and Grayson Pawlenchuk on the right side. They are matched each game against the best the opposition can throw at them in these playoffs.

Playing 18 to 22 minutes each night, Philp is also part of the team’s first choice power play and penalty killing units.

This story wouldn’t be complete without one more brotherly moment. While Luke started his junior hockey sojourn playing alongside his older brother Simon, this season in Cranbrook it was Luke mentoring his younger brother Noah.

“It was pretty cool. I started playing through every second year of minor hockey and a year of junior with Simon, and Noah played with Simon last year, and now playing with Noah this year,” said Luke. ‘We all got a chance to play together in junior.”

The youngest Philp began his junior hockey career playing for the Canmore Eagles alongside oldest brother Simon last season. His wasn’t quite the rookie season of either of his older brothers – 31 games and three points (1G-2A) as a 16-year-old – but it was good enough to build on for the Ice.

In his first season in the WHL, the 6-foot-1, 17-year-old played 67 games and registered 22 points (6G-16A). Noah was named the Ice rookie of the year – a feat accomplished by Luke in 2012-13.

Luke was asked whether he misses not finishing his final junior hockey season alongside Noah?

“When I got traded he [Noah] understood. I was moving on from Kootenay next year anyways,” Luke said.

And this brings us back to Saturday night in Red Deer. The first game of the WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Regina Pats after the Rebels dispatched the Calgary Hitmen by four wins to one in the first-round of the playoffs. There was Luke again, looking much more polished, maybe even slightly taller but that could be because his stature in the game has risen. His talent is still undeniable. His desire is unquenchable.

Philp’s journey has had its ups and downs, but when this 20-year-old finishes his junior hockey career there will be plenty of highlights to cherish which he hopes to cap by hoisting the Memorial Cup on May 29.

“It goes by really fast. You hear everybody that has played junior and they say ‘you wake up one morning and it’s all over’,” said Philp. “So you have to enjoy it and finish hard, and hopefully I can get a championship out of this last season.”