The first time Rico Phillips officiated a hockey game was as a teenager growing up in Flint, Michigan, in the 1980s. It was during a game about two months into that experience when an assistant coach shouted a racial slur at him.
Quite an eye-opener for a 17-year-old kid who had only recently begun playing the sport as a senior in high school. Phillips, who was the only person of color on the ice, was so shaken by the incident that he almost walked away from the game entirely.
Fortunately, the senior official he was working with stepped in, handled the situation, then gave Phillips some advice he has never forgotten.
“He told me it was time to grow up, that there will be people in my world who are ignorant and bigots,” Phillips recalled. “I could either walk away or face those types of situations head-on.”
Phillips, who worked as a firefighter for 37 years before retiring in 2019, heeded the advice, and has been officiating ever since. But that moment on the ice, coupled with the realization that there were few kids of color involved in hockey, fueled a desire within him to do more.
About 10 years after he became a referee, Phillips decided to start Flint Inner City Youth Hockey, a program designed to introduce underprivileged kids to the game and give them a sense of hope in a community that has seen its share of hard times. With the help of community leaders and individuals, his vision began to take shape. In its first year, 55 kids participated. For the next several years, the program experienced difficulties in funding. But Phillips refused to give up, and the program revived in 2014.
“My goal was to have 30 kids on the ice each and every year,” Phillips explained. “I wanted to start a program, because there were no longer outdoor ice rinks in our community. There were no hockey programs within the city of Flint that encouraged kids to play and subsidize their ability to play.”
Phillips recruits high school players in the area to serve as instructors. Practices are held at the Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center, the same arena Phillips played in as a teenager. Hockey gear is provided free to all players, and the Flint Mass Transportation Authority offers free rides to players going to practice.
At last June’s NHL Awards, Phillips was honored with the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which recognizes individuals throughout the game who positively impact their community. The award is named after Hockey Hall of Famer Willie O’Ree, the first black player to play in the NHL. As part of the award, Phillips received $10,000 to donate toward a charity of his choice. He chose the Kris Perani Foundation, which helps players and their families cover the cost of ice time.
“It can help upwards of 30 families pay for ice bills,” Phillips said of the award money. “Short term, it just gives some validity to our program, showing others in the community how to pay forward and give back to one another.”
It was Phillips’ wife, Sandy, who nominated him for the award. His immediate reaction after learning he had won was disbelief.
“I knew what this meant for the Flint community to win,” he recalled. “It was bigger than just Rico winning an award. It meant I was getting ready to serve in an ambassador role for hockey, and especially for the Flint community.”
Phillips takes that role seriously, and believes his work as a referee is an opportunity for mentorship, just as that senior official did for him that day at age 17.
“I feel I have to hustle more than everyone else to prove that not only do I belong there, but I’m a central part of the game,” Phillips said. “In my level of communication with the players and coaches, I’m very open and receptive to the conversation. I try to teach the game as much as I can, especially to the younger players.”
While he believes strides are being made in diversifying hockey, particularly at the grassroots level, Phillips also realizes there is still a lot of work to be done. But winning the Willie O’Ree award has motivated him to work even harder in bringing the game to more kids and their families.
“I’m already very passionate about the sport, but now I have a sounding board to speak to others about goodwill, community, teamwork, perseverance, and the things that come along with the Willie O’Ree award,” Phillips said. “My name is under Willie’s name. I’ve always felt as if I owe it to Willie to be an ambassador of the sport, because that’s what he stands for.”
Phillips and his inner-city program demonstrate that it’s possible to make an impact when a community comes together, and he hopes other cities will follow his example.
“If we can do it, anybody can do it,” Phillips said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.