Retired Flint firefighter Rico Phillips was just looking forward to his role as the head of his Flint inner city youth hockey program in his golden years, but then the NHL honored him with the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
Then, he was asked by several NHL and OHL hockey clubs to talk about diversity in the game.
That has led to today’s announcement by the Ontario Hockey League that they have named him as the Director of Cultural Diversity and Inclusion.
“My firefighter days have prepared me for my future days in the OHL.” said Phillips. “I was trying to consider how I can help, how I could get my voice heard, and I was fortunate to speak to Willie O’Ree himself. I gave him a call and told him of my struggle. I wanted to have my voice heard and I didn’t know how, or the best way and he said ‘Rico, your voice is in ice hockey right now and everybody is listening. So, let your voice be heard.’”
Phillips fell in love with the game as a student at Flint Southwestern.
Being the team manager, he admired the speed and the skill of hockey.
He decided to become a high school referee and that is when he faced his first bout with racism.
“I had a coach call me over for a call I apparently missed, and he called me the N-word,” said Phillips. “That was a trigger word that left me alienated and it left me empty and I wanted to leave the sport and never come back again. But luckily, I had a senior partner as a ref and he sat down and talked to me about growing up and people are going to be like this and I’m going to face in my life. So, I decided at that point that I wasn’t going to run and hide in the sports that I was beginning to love.”
Phillips says his first step in his new role will be to reach out to OHL alumni of color which is a step he has already started with a phone call to former Flint Firebirds captain Jalen Smerek.