LAS VEGAS -- Rico Phillips' boss wasn't surprised when the Flint, Michigan, firefighter requested chunks of time off to focus on creating a youth ice hockey program in the economically disadvantaged city.
"In talking with me when he first started doing it, there were times in the summer I would allow him time to just go and work with kids," Flint Fire Department Chief Raymond Barton said of Phillips. "It was something that I knew he was so passionate about and that's the thing -- Rico's one of those guys who when he's really passionate about something, he puts his whole heart into it."
That passion was honored Wednesday when Phillips, who founded the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program more than a decade ago, received the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone.
"There's a sense of pride that's overwhelming," Phillips said after receiving the award. "This will put our program on the map in Flint, which is so important because I can't get kids to get involved. This may be the catalyst to get more kids to come out and be a part of this."
The award is named after O'Ree, a 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who became the first black player in the NHL and has worked as the League's diversity ambassador for more than two decades.
Fans submitted candidates for the award with O'Ree -- in consultation with the NHL -- and the field was narrowed to three finalists. The public voted on the recipient of the award.
The award goes to "an individual who -- throughout the game of hockey -- has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society."
Video: Rico Phillips earns Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award
Phillips, a hockey player and referee, formed the Flint Inner-City Hockey Program to expose kids between the ages of 8-11 to the game and give them a sense of hope in a struggling city where hope is in short supply.
The city of about 100,000 has been in crisis since 2014 when it was discovered that many of its residents regularly drank tap water that contained elevated levels of lead because of insufficient water treatment and lead leached from water pipes.
The crisis made Flint a national news story and a symbol of urban despair for many Americans. Phillips getting the O'Ree Award helps boost the city's image, Barton said.
"For Flint, we're under a cloud of constant negativity whether it be for our crime rate, our arson rate, unfortunately for the water crisis, now we're in water crisis recovery," he said. "But there are so many little bright shining spots in Flint, this one is just a big beam of light. And it come from a whole different realm. When you talk about the National Hockey League taking a focus on a community like Flint, Michigan, it's incredible. I'm hoping they all rally around it … I know they will."
Phillips said he started the program out of a sense of duty to his hometown and to end his feeling of being the only black hockey player and on-ice official in the area.
He looked to O'Ree for inspiration.
"I felt lonely at times," Phillips said in May. "I did some digging and I found Willie was in charge of a cool thing that I thought would be cool for Flint, which is the cultural diversity task force they [the NHL] had in the 1990s."
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He got buy-in for his idea from Flint area residents, elected officials, the city's business community and from Flint of the Ontario Hockey League.
Local high school hockey players serve as volunteer instructors. Perani's Hockey World, a Michigan-based company, made an initial donation of equipment and now provides the program gear at cost. Flint's Mass Transportation Authority gives free rides to shuttle program participants to practice.
"He's not in it for any glory, he's not in it for any type of accolades," said Robert Perani, co-owner of Perani's Hockey World. "He's doing it because he loves the game of hockey and he wants to give back and help in the city that he was born and raised in. The intentions are the most pure and the most genuine that I've ever seen."
While Phillips was inspired by O'Ree's work as diversity ambassador, O'Ree was impressed by Phillips' program during a visit to Flint in March. O'Ree suggested to Phillips' wife, Sandy, that she nominate him for award.
"He's got a great program going here with kids," O'Ree told WJRT-TV in Saginaw.
The other finalists for the O'Ree Award were Anthony Benavides, director of the Clark Park Recreation Center in Detroit, and Tammi Lynch, a hockey mom from Ellicott City, Maryland, who co-founded a group called Players Against Hate.
Phillips said being chosen for the award from among such an accomplished group means his work in Flint has only just begun.
"Man, I got a lot of work to do now, I can't coast at all," he said. "It means more dedicated hard work, but I think what's great about it is that I'm sure as a result of winning this is more people will gravitate to our program."