Phillip Ischi takes a shot while playing for Kenai in February 2004. He is now playing professionally in Switzerland.
Clarion file photo
Phillip Ischi had been in a few fights before in hockey games, that is.
“I never got beat up or anything,” he said. “So that was good.”
Then as a rookie in Canadian Juniors, his coach instructed him to drop the gloves more often.
“He was kind of a goon when he played and he thought everyone should be a goon,” he said of his former coach. “I knew fighting was part of the game and it didn’t bother me, but he wanted me to be strictly a fighter and I’m not a big guy.
“I said I wasn’t going to fight if I didn’t need to.”
Evidently, never tell a “goon” you don’t want to fight.
The coach, Ischi said, acrimoniously demoted him to the fourth line where he rode the bench while his team was struggling to score.
He’d had enough. That was it. He was finished.
“I called my parents and told them I was ready to quit hockey and come home to join college,” the 2004 Kenai Central High School graduate recalled. “I was pretty sure I was done.”
His father, Pete Ischi, persuaded him to stick it out. It’s a good thing he did.
Ischi, 20, finally returned to the first line and even played another season under a new coach in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL).
Now, he is playing professionally in Switzerland.
Would his young European career had ever been born had he given in during that moment of weakness?
“Not at all,” he said without hesitation.
More than a feeling
But his journey began like that of any Alaskan youngster.
“When I was around three or four I started skating,” Ischi explained. “My dad just got me on the ice and had me pushing around the chair, getting used to being on skates and what not.”
Less than a decade later, a choice needed to be made.
“Around middle school I had to make decision if I wanted to play other sports or be serious about hockey,” Ischi said. “That’s when I had to stop playing every other sport.”
Always smaller than other players and still learning to use his speed to his advantage, Ischi grew accustomed to competing with larger kids.
Still, though, high school hockey wasn’t easy especially for a freshman playing at the varsity level.
“Coming in at 100 pounds, only 5 feet tall playing varsity against Anchorage schools and seeing guys walking out of locker room, 6-foot-3, weighing 200 pounds it was a little bit intimidating,” he said.
One time in particular comes to mind.
“I remember showing up and seeing (a Dimond player) walk out for warm-ups and I was like, ‘Oh geez,’” Ischi said. “It’s a little bit different than the peninsula.”
With each day came experience, and after growing some, he started nearly every game the following season.
As a junior and as a captain his senior year, he then led the Kardinals to consecutive state appearances and earned the region’s Most Valuable Player award during his final campaign.
“I played well senior year and had some good linemates and played well,” he said. “It was very nice that other coaches from Wasilla and everywhere else kind of recognized it that I was a top player.”
After playing two seasons in Canada, which offered its fair share of struggles, the next chapter of Ischi’s career began to take shape.
His KIJHL coach had a friend who had just finished his Swiss hockey stint and spoke with Ischi before introducing him to an agent in Europe.
In July he was informed he’d have a job during the upcoming season and later received a call from the Visp (Switzerland) coach telling him to be on the ice by Aug. 15. The season was set to open a month later.
On Ischi’s first shift of his opening exhibition game which were used as tryouts he found the back of the net. Two goals and four contests later, he inked his name on a two-year contract to play with Visp of the Switzerland National B League.
“It was really exciting,” he said. “I didn’t know what it would be like. I didn’t know if it’d be fast, be physical, be like Canadian hockey? I didn’t have any idea.”
He must have learned pretty quickly.
“My first shift out it was just bang, bang, bang. I put a deke on the goalie and scored.”
Current Kardinal’s coach Nate Kiel, who served as an assistant during part of Ischi’s high school career, isn’t surprised by Ischi’s accomplishments.
“Phillip was a very talented, fast forward,” he said. “He has good speed on the wing and is a good all-around player.”
Ischi’s style of play, according to Kiel, is conducive to what many hockey leagues are aspiring to play today.
“His skill and speed suits that type of play well, which is the focus in Europe and probably in his league, too,” said Kiel, adding that Ischi is the first Kenai Central graduate to play professionally in Europe. “It seems to be more of a speed and playmaking type of game.
“That type of play is right down Phil’s alley,” he added.
While being young is considered a positive quality in the United States, the opposite is true in Europe.
“I’m like the really young player playing professionally. The guys I’m playing with, the oldest guy is 38 and the next guy was right around 25,” explained Ischi, who will turn 21 in February. “23 to 28 is the average age for this team.”
Either way, he’s not phased. Enthused is more like it.
“Two of the guys here when I got here, both played in the NHL for three to five seasons. I’m just like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “Playing with guys playing in the NHL, it’s a little bit different. You try to learn things from them, watch what they do and try and learn as much as you can from them.”
Fulfilling the dream
Living in Switzerland, where his grandparents were born and his grandmother still resides for part of the year, has taken some adjusting to as well.
Gas is roughly $8 a gallon, meat is more expensive and Ischi can hardly understand his coach, who only speaks German.
“I don’t eat steak nearly as much as did when I was at home,” he joked. “You have to watch prices a lot so you can hopefully get something on sale and don’t eat it right away.”
As for penetrating the language barrier well, practice makes perfect.
“I’m starting to slowly pick up some German but I’m nowhere near understanding it at all. When I’m sitting there listening to the coach talk, I pick up a few things. It’s a slow process,” Ischi said. “You either watch the board when he’s drawing up there and pick things up or a few guys on the team speak English and will translate for you if you need to know it.
“I just pay attention so I’m not left out of the loop.”
Of course, the NHL is a dream. If that doesn’t materialize, however, Ischi is content with his current situation.
“I’ll try to play hockey as long as I can and make some money and go back home get back in Alaska or something.”
The thought of being financially secure is a logical reason to stay, too.
“To get to the A League, I’ll probably be 23 or 24 before I get the first chance of going there. Those guys’ starting salaries are anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000,” Ischi said. “The top guy in the National A League that’s American, he takes home $500,000 to $700,000 a year.”
He knows it’s a long shot.
And despite bouncing between Visp’s B League team and its farm squad, regret has yet to set in.
“You always wonder if you could have taken a different path, done something different,” Ischi said. “Right now, it’s working out. There’s always another choice I can make. I can change things.”
Then again, why would he want to?
“Every little kid wants to play pro hockey. As soon as I signed the contract, I was just like, ‘Wow.’ It’s exciting,” Ischi said. “I’m getting to play the game and making money doing it.
“I’m not making enough yet to not work,” he added. “But it would be really nice to do that.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com
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