William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he gives an update on Rico Phillips, the Flint, Michigan, firefighter who received the NHL's Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award in June.
Even before Rico Phillips retired from the Flint Fire Department in October, some folks had already stopped calling him by his occupational nickname.
"One of the more intriguing things for me is when I go to a section of our community or I'm with African Americans who have no clue about hockey and they say, 'Hey, you're that hockey guy,'" Phillips said. "I've been known my entire career as 'Firefighter Phillips' and I'll be standing there in a uniform and a person says, 'You're that hockey guy.' It's overwhelming, man, it's hard to describe."
"That hockey guy," who founded the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program, has seen his life change since he received the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone at Las Vegas on June 19.
It has brought attention to Phillips and recognition to the program he started in 2010 in a Rust Belt city where hope is often in short supply, especially after it was revealed in 2014 that many of its residents were exposed to lead-contaminated tap water after insufficient water treatment resulted in lead leaching from pipes.
"With all of this, this is exactly what I hoped for," Phillips said of the award's impact. "That people who aren't familiar with our sport would show interest, not become familiar yet, but at least show interest in our sport because it's such a great sport."
The O'Ree award -- a golden trophy with the NHL's first black player's trademark fedora on top -- has been a beacon that Phillips carries with him when he goes to schools, churches, civic meetings or anywhere else he's invited to preach the gospel of hockey.
Phillips will perform the ceremonial puck drop at Little Caesars Arena when the Detroit Red Wings play the Calgary Flames on Feb. 23, 2020, the Red Wings' Hockey Is For Everyone Night.
In September, Red Wings forwards Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin visited Phillips at his Flint firehouse as part of the team's Hockeytown Cares Community Tour. They delivered a $5,000 check for Phillips' inner-city youth hockey program and dropped off a set of street hockey equipment for the firefighters to use.
Phillips was also in a giving mood. The O'Ree award came with a $10,000 donation that he could direct to a charity or organization of his choice. He gave it to the Kris Perani Hockey Foundation, a Michigan nonprofit organization that provides financial help to players whose families struggle to afford youth hockey registration fees that can be as much as $4,000 a season.
Founded in 2006 and named after the late wife of company founder Bob Perani, who died in 2012, the Kris Perani Hockey Foundation has awarded more than $120,000 to hockey families in need.
Phillips' donation was a way of saying thanks to the Perani family, whose Michigan-based company, Perani's Hockey World, donated equipment when Phillips began the inner-city program and later sold him gear for the program at cost.
"What we do after our kids leave our program, those that are interested in playing the sport or joining a team … we work with the Kris Perani Foundation to get them funding so they don't have to pay an ice bill at least in their first season," Phillips said. "I felt like it was kind of important to pay it forward, so to speak, with the donation of the $10,000 because I know it's going to help grow the sport on a much bigger level than I'm able to provide."
Kevin Ward, president of the Kris Perani Foundation and president of Perani's Hockey World, said the donation was typical of Phillips.
"He's such a stand-up guy. He's been really entrenched in the Flint hockey community for the last decade-plus," Ward said. "You can tell his passion is about helping the community; [as] a Flint firefighter, he lives to serve, basically. You can tell that in his approach to life. He's willing to help out, really, anybody who is looking for help."
Phillips grew up skating in Flint and became one of the area's few black hockey players and on-ice officials. He started the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey program after reading about O'Ree, who became the NHL's first black player when he debuted with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.
When O'Ree, the NHL's Diversity Ambassador, visited the Flint program in March he suggested to Phillips' wife that she nominate her husband for the community hero award.
Receiving the award has inspired Phillips to dedicate himself even more to his program -- to the point that he retired from the fire department after almost 27 years.
"I wanted to be a firefighter since I was a little boy and I grew up visiting the fire station I actually work at, so I was having a hard time deciding when I could retire because I didn't want to take the badge off I worked my whole life to get," he said. "Until the summer, when I got back from Vegas, that's the first time I could see myself as somebody other than 'Firefighter Phillips.'"
Retirement has given Phillips the time to improve his hockey program. He's formed a board and is in the process of completing the paperwork needed to make it a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity organization, as well as developing plans to attract more children to the program by offering floor hockey in Flint public school gyms.
Phillips wants to expand the program to operate year-round and not just the current nine weeks during the year.
"What this will be able to do is help us provide for the program long after Rico is gone," Phillips said. "It's more of a legacy that I'm trying to set up as opposed to a 'What are we going to do today' kind of thing."
-Primary photo courtesy of Dave Reginek/D.I.G. Photographics and Red Wings photo courtesy of Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings