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Russell, who played more than 1,000 games in the NHL, now makes his home in Spring Lake. He and his wife, Colleen, are the parents of Mary Charlie Russell.
Colleen is a teacher in Roosevelt Park, so Phil has assumed the role of a stay-at-home dad.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Russell said proudly. He also has a daughter, Amy, 35, from a previous marriage.
I knew that Russell was making his home in our area and I’ve always wanted to meet him, but I never got around to it — until recently.
I was sitting in the steam room at the Spring Lake Aquatic and Fitness Center when another occupant asked me if I was the guy always walking three dogs. “Yes, I replied.”
Then he introduced himself: “I’m Phil Russell.”
As a longtime hockey fan, I immediately asked: “Did you play for the Chicago Blackhawks?” He did.
Russell was the No. 1 draft pick of the Blackhawks in 1972. He spent seven seasons in Chicago before being traded to the Atlanta Flames (they eventually moved to Calgary, Canada), where he spent another four seasons. Russell also spent time with the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres.
During his rookie year, the Blackhawks made it to the Stanley Cup finals. They were defeated by the Montreal Canadiens.
Following retirement, Russell dabbled in the business world, taking a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade.
“I found that to be more intimidating than the Boston Bruins,” he said.
He also owned a tavern before deciding to venture back into hockey. In 1988, Russell became an assistant coach with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the now-defunct International Hockey League. That team won the league championship in 1988. He was named head coach in 1991, a job he held for three seasons.
Russell, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, did what many young boys did growing up in Canada — play hockey at a very young age. He elevated his game as a hard-hitting defenseman and caught the eyes of the Chicago Blackhawks’ talent scouts.
“Chicago needed some young players,” recalled Russell, who was the 13th pick overall in the 1972 player draft. He signed his first contract for $17,500.
“I have no regrets about the money,” he said. “Whatever you do, you have to be passionate and enjoy it.”
Russell definitely played with spirit. He accumulated more than 2,000 minutes in penalties, including eight penalties in one game. Some of his most memorable hockey fights can be seen on You Tube.
Anyone who followed hockey back then knows that Russell was an aggressive player. I told him I didn’t like him when he was playing because he was too tough on the Detroit Red Wings. He laughed.
“I wasn’t looking for long conversations (on the ice),” Russell said. “People used to tell me that I played the game like I got out of the wrong side of the bed every time.”
Russell also abided by the philosophy that it was better to give than take.
While Russell’s forte was being an aggressive defenseman and enforcer, he also could contribute as an offensive player. He scored a career-high 13 goals during the 1982-83 season with the Flames and was named to the NHL All-Star team three times.
While Russell is no longer coaching, he is still involved with hockey. He is a member of the Chicago Blackhawks’ alumni association, an organization that has given out more than 100 scholarships. The Blackhawks’ association has even done some work with the Detroit Red Wings’ Alumni Association.
“I joke that now I don’t have to fight them,” Russell said.
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He also enjoys spending time with some of his former teammates.
These days, Russell goes back to his old stomping grounds in Chicago, where he still has family. But he spends most of these days with his family in Spring Lake — something he loves doing.
And I’ve changed my mind about Phil Russell. He is is a pretty nice guy — off the ice.
— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist