As a young boy, Clayton Phillips used to go to University of Minnesota games to watch the Golden Gophers play ice hockey.
Eventually, it was the Golden Gophers who were watching Phillips play hockey.
On November 10, the day after Phillips formally signed his NCAA Letter of Intent, following up an earlier verbal commitment, Minnesota coach Don Lucia tweeted a photo of a young Phillips posing with him at an autograph signing.
“Great to welcome Clayton Phillips to the #Gophers program!” Lucia posted. “Love seeing photos like this of kids who grow up wanting to be part of our program!”
That was the case for Phillips, an 18-year-old defenseman from Edina, just about 20 minutes from campus.
“It was a Skate-with-the-Gophers Day and they had all the players out on the ice and then after they were out there signing autographs; the coaching staff was up there, too,” Phillips said of his photo with Lucia. “It’s kind of a little flashback memory from childhood.
“As a kid, the big team you grow up wanting to play for is the Minnesota Gophers. The recruiting process, when they came knocking on the door, it was a dream come true. I was real happy everything has worked out the way that it has.”
Phillips has had plenty to celebrate already in his hockey career. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round of this year’s National Hockey League Entry Draft and is preparing to represent Team USA for the fourth time already in his young career, this time at the World Junior A Challenge. Two of his three previous international appearances resulted in gold medals.
“It’s always an honor to put on the red, white and blue,” said Phillips, who was part of a win in the same event last year and also won gold at the Five Nations Tournament as a 14-year-old. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to put on that sweater, it’s truly an honor and it makes you want to work that much harder just to be on those teams.”
With so much to look forward to in his hockey career, Phillips knows the importance of keeping his development on track. He said the best thing for that development was to request a trade from the Fargo Force earlier this season.
After switching teams midseason for the first time ever, Phillips is playing well for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, so well in fact that he earned his second career United States Hockey League Defenseman of the Year award last week.
Phillips had goals and assists in both Muskegon games, giving him back-to-back, multi-point games for the first time in 73 career USHL games, dating back to a brief appearance in the 2015-16 season. His third-period goal Saturday broke a tie and a five-game Lumberjacks losing streak, providing the game-winner in a 3-2 victory over the Lincoln Stars.
“I try to just keep my focus on the team and then my personal development,” Phillips said. “I just have the mentality of waking up every day and trying to get better and improving on different areas of my game as much as I can and as often as I can.”
Phillips has four goals and five assists in 11 games with the Lumberjacks and his five total goals on the season — he had a goal and two assists in three games with Fargo — is the most by a USHL defenseman this season.
Muskegon coach John LaFontaine said Phillips has provided a boost to both the power play and the defense for a team that ranks near the bottom of the USHL in power-play efficiency and goals allowed.
“Clayton is very skilled,” LaFontaine said. “He has his head up and reads the ice well. He has very quick feet. You can see why Pittsburgh drafted him.”
And, why the University of Minnesota team is looking forward to being joined by one of its fans next season.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc. Photo by Hickling Images.