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Shining a light on hockey in Flint

Flint firefighter Rico Phillips relishes earning prestigious Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award at NHL Awards ceremony

by Josh Berenter /

DETROIT -- At the NHL Awards ceremony last month, among hockey superstars like Sydney Crosby, Auston Matthews and Carey Price, there was a non-NHLer who stuck out in the crowd.

But that person, Rico Phillips, is used to sticking out in a crowd of hockey players.

When Phillips began playing hockey at Flint Southwestern High School in the 80s, he didn't see many players that looked like him. So as an adult, he decided to do something about it.

In 2010, Phillips founded the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program in an effort to engage more African-Americans in his favorite sport. The program provides free instruction and hockey equipment to children in the Flint area aged 8-11. Participants are also provided with free transportation to and from sessions.

On June 19, the 50-year-old Phillips was honored for his benevolence as he received the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award at the annual NHL Awards banquet in Las Vegas.

The award recognizes an individual, who like O'Ree, has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.

"I'd like to express my sincere gratitude to the National Hockey League for this incredible honor, recognition and experience," Phillips said on stage as he accepted the award. "Thanks to Mr. Willie O'Ree for his passion, perseverance and leadership that has laid a pathway for people like me to enhance our great sport.

"Thanks to all my supporters, friends and families, whom without, I could not be standing here today. They're all proudly watching in my hometown of Flint, Michigan and abroad. I encourage those that are making a difference to continue to be the change in others to join us in the movement. Thank you so much."

Phillips, a firefighter for the Flint Fire Department, has always worked tirelessly to make his community a better place. In his video profile at the NHL Awards ceremony, Phillips was shown speaking to students while wearing his firefighter uniform, tying a player's skates and discussing the Flint water crisis.

"We're offering Flint children an experience that's unique. Life skills from falling and getting up, to teamwork, perseverance and sportsmanship," Phillips said. "For my program to become award-winning, I couldn't be prouder. Our community is definitely tied in."

The free nine-week program, which is directed by Phillips and run with the help of local volunteers, receives funding through collaborations with several community organizations, including Perani's Hockey World--which is headquartered in Flint--as well as the Flint Firebirds Foundation and others.

Since accepting the prestigious award on national TV, Phillips said the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program has earned immediate credibility, which will help the program expand.

"Almost instantly, I got more support from the NHL and NHLPA," Phillips said. "For us locally, my entire community was glued to their seats during that award show. We should now be able to get into the section of the community that we didn't reach before. Now, ice hockey is on their radar."

Phillips, who also received a special tribute presented in-person by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer this week, said he was honored to shine a positive light on his hometown.

"It means that I was able to represent our community in a whole different light," he said. "Hockey and Flint don't usually go together. So having the NHL shine a light on me and our community with an award bearing Willie O'Ree's name is something I'm incredibly proud of."

O'Ree, who is the NHL's Diversity Ambassador and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, visited the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program in person on its final day last season.

"My wife didn't believe I could land him in Flint," Phillips said. "It was all in an effort to bring ice hockey to our community. This is bigger than just how people perceive this sport when it comes to culture. I was on cloud 9. He fellowshipped with us and we got an inside insight into who he is."

Phillips said O'Ree is someone he's always looked up to and admired.

"He never had one fight, because he wanted to fight for his cause instead," Phillips said. "When he called me to tell me I was a finalist, I was brought to tears. To see him in Vegas and knowing he knows who I am is an incredible feeling. To get an award with both our names on it, that's stuff you can hardly dream of."

While Phillips idolizes O'Ree for his courage and the trailblazing he's done, O'Ree had the same sentiment about Phillips and the work he's done for his program.

"I was highly impressed with Rico and his program," O'Ree said. "You could see how much his players respected him and appreciated him. He's really a down-to-earth guy. Not only being a firefighter, but he has devoted a lot of time with these boys and girls in his program."

O'Ree, 83, made his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins in 1958, becoming the first African-American player in league history. Although he only played 45 NHL games, the pioneer was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for his barrier-breaking courage that helped open the door for people of color in hockey.

"The NHL has come a long way," O'Ree said, noting the importance of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative. "There are more kids of color playing hockey than ever before and more girls than ever before. I think it's due to the exposure that these boys and girls have had. I've seen a great expansion of boys and girls."

Phillips said he's pleased to see more African-Americans representing hockey, like actor Kenan Thompson, who hosted the NHL Awards ceremony, and P.K. Subban, who was the cover athlete for the NHL '19 video game.

"As I sat there during the awards, I sensed the NHL is trying their darnedest to make strides," Phillips said. "The NHL is trying to take charge of changing. When you meet guys like P.K. Subban, you recognize they're realizing their impact on others. It's happening slowly but surely. It's important for me to be part of this change."

As for the future, Phillips said the sky is the limit for his program's expansion, as Flint and the surrounding community continues its embrace of the game of hockey.

"My goal is to take this program from my program to Flint's program," he said. "Before this award, if something were to happen to me, the program would probably be gone. But I'm trying to create a board of directors and a legacy to continue this great program for a long, long time."

Players can register for the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program at or by contacting 810-513-0189 or

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