In MiHockey’s new MiStory feature, we let hockey people tell their own stories with their own words. Our first MiStory feature comes from Nate Phillips, Michigan State’s third-string goaltender since 2011. The Jackson native and graduating senior discusses why his college career was a remarkable experience, despite him playing for a total of one minute and 37 seconds during his time with the Spartans.
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By Nate Phillips –
In the early 2000s, a wide-eyed boy sat in Munn Ice Arena with a wooden mini goalie stick and Michigan State Hockey memorabilia puck watching perhaps one of the greatest teams to ever step foot on that particular campus.
While sitting next to his dad, this boy was sipping on a Coca-Cola and envisioning himself making saves with those old-school Vaughn Iceberg pads on him, the same pads that Ryan Miller was donning while leading his team to a victory that night.
It’s incredible how powerful the game of hockey is. That was the first hockey game that boy had ever attended and it instilled a dream, a desire and a love for something that he had no idea would be the best thing ever happened to him.
Fast-forward a decade later and that same boy is sitting in Munn Ice Arena. It’s the day after Christmas and I take a seat on the home bench a few hours before my first practice as a Spartan (I joined the team halfway through the season due to an open spot on the roster).
I sat there looking at the freshly-cut ice, the dim overhead lights barely give off enough brightness to read the rows of banners hanging from the rafters and I realize I have arrived, I am a Spartan hockey player.
When I walk back into the locker room I’m hanging up my gear in the dressing room stall where I would call home for the next five seasons and I get a pat on the shoulder from someone. I turn around and I am standing over the short, buff guy who I knew to be Torey Krug. (Yeah, Krug might get wind of that short joke, but it’s okay he scored on me plenty of times so this is just payback).
That very moment was four years ago and I am currently on the exit ramp from college hockey. As I take a look back at my career at Michigan State it may appear that it has not been what the hockey world would call “successful,” but I beg to differ.
That same boy that had never put on a pair of goalie pads before was also the kid that had dreams of being the go-to guy, the all-star and the starting goaltender for MSU.
No youth hockey player dreams of being the guy that sits on the bench and tosses in a new piece of Dubble Bubble gum every few minutes, right?
The question I have been asked hundreds of times since committing to Michigan State is “Why? Why sit the bench and see someone else have the glory?”
Now I want every youth hockey player, and their parents for that matter, to read this upcoming statement very closely because during my career I have seen an abundance of players who fail to get this lesson.
Hockey is a sport that does not revolve around individuals. Hockey creates an atmosphere where a group of players sacrifice their own success for the bigger picture. When I mean sacrifice I am talking about everything: goals, ice time, pain and lots of other aspects. If a group of players are able to look past their own personal success, then the team will thrive, I promise you.
And this is my exact reasoning for taking ownership of my role as a career backup in college hockey.
Why else do I accept my role?
I’m a member of an elusive group: a family of past, present and current tough sons of guns that would jump in front of a bullet for you.
It does not get any better than life in East Lansing. I have taken full advantage of living in the best college town on earth by staying here every summer instead of going home. This has led to some beautiful summer days cruising around campus on my moped and letting the hockey hair just flutter in the wind.
On the flip side, this also meant I was spending those same days inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building where our strength and conditioning coach Mike Vorkapich, aka Vork, ran me through the ringer day after day after day.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Coach Vork and can still hear the first words he said to me.
“I’m going to see what you had for breakfast this morning.”
Not even a half hour later my head was buried into a trash can as I heard Vork laughing at his accomplishment. That was the start of a great friendship and I’ll always be thankful for him pushing me past my limit.
Often times when the team travels there is a limited roster that goes on the road. In my position, more times than not I would not make the travel roster, so whoever did not go would have to workout and skate on their own.
Over time the guys who did not travel would end up self-proclaiming ourselves “The Bullpen,” and we took pride in this. Whenever one of us would make the lineup we would always give that guy the slap onto the opposing forearm as baseball managers do to bring in a relief pitcher.
I even received a baseball mitt as a Secret Santa gift a few years ago. Little jokes like this keep you going during a long, grueling season.
The academic aspect of Michigan State is enough in itself to want to come here and play the role I do. Not only am I one of three goalies in the world who put on the green and white jersey, but I also am in the College of Education, which currently ranks No. 1 in Teacher Education. I have the best of both worlds here at Michigan State University.
To ensure the reader gets the full picture of my career, though, I want to make one thing certain; life as a backup goaltender is tough. No. It flat out it has moments where it absolutely sucks, but the best moments outweigh those bad ones. In the end it is worth it because I can look in the mirror and be proud of what I accomplished at Michigan State.
The best advice I have ever received was from my longtime friend and goaltending coach, Jason Muzzatti. If you don’t know much about him, please go YouTube his name and you’ll see a what a heavyweight fighter looks like in goalie pads…. the guy could scrap just as well as he could stop the puck.
Anyway, back to the advice.
Entering my senior year I sat down and had a cup of coffee with Jason and talked about hockey just as I have many times before. He was my lifeline when I played junior hockey because I called him about every fear or question I had when it came down to the game or recruiting.
He told me to “never leave the game on a sour note. Always find the positive in the situation you are in because leaving the game of hockey upset does you no good.”
Little did I know I would leave my competitive career on an all-time high. My last game at Munn Ice Arena, coach gave me the nod with 1 minute and 37 seconds left in the first period against Ohio State University.
With my legs barely underneath me I took my place in the crease, trying to soak in everything in the wild environment, the crowd went nuts. I took a deep breath and dialed in, at this point nothing else mattered in the world because I was just a kid playing hockey.
My one, and only shot, in my collegiate career came from Anthony Greco; when I saw him beat our defenseman wide I knew it was my time to sink or swim. When adjusting my angle to the moving shot my left foot didn’t catch an edge, an immediate freakout occurred, and I had to lean into Greco’s backhand as I went paddle down. Shot. Save.
Time ticks down to 0:00 and the horn rings. That was it, my college career in a nutshell and it went by in a flash.
Not going to lie it’s pretty cool to say my save percentage in college hockey is 100% and my GAA is 0.00. It even gives me a little bragging rights over my goalie partner of four years, Jake Hildebrand, who has his name on just about every page of the record book here.
#GoalieNation is top notch here in East Lansing.
What might be the coolest part about getting to play was thinking about all those kids who were in the stands that night. Who knows what spark I put into a young hockey player, maybe that gave them the passion to dream big?
The stats don’t mean anything. What I want to accomplish is that I gave hope to all young hockey players at Munn that night. There might have been a child who attended their first hockey game with their dad, just like I did many years ago.
Dream big. Work hard.
I have taken this chapter at Michigan State to heart and I constantly remember that boy sitting in Munn with his pops. The happiest kid on earth just happened to be in East Lansing that day.
Soon I will be walking out of Munn Ice Arena with my hockey bag over my right shoulder, leg pads over the left and hockey sticks in hand knowing I had the best experience as a Spartan.
Proud of everything I was able to accomplish, and being able to say…..
I am a Spartan. Forever.