By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Nick Hagen
By Ryan Dixon | Photography by Nick Hagen
Having seen the best and worst of the sport for nearly four decades, Rico Phillips is now bringing tough, necessary conversations to the OHL.

Rico Phillips has always been the type of person to take things a step further than most. After sitting on a firetruck at age seven, Phillips knew what he wanted to do with his life. The kid who used to park himself in an empty lot across from Flint Fire Station No. 1 in the hopes of witnessing the sirens sing eventually retired after 27 years on the job last fall. Another example: As a high school trainer, Phillips opted to work with the hockey team for no other reason than the fact he knew their banged-up bodies would give him tons of practice. Just months before hanging up his yellow helmet, Phillips was on stage at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas, accepting the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for his role in founding the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program.

It’s maybe no surprise, then, that this past spring, the events of a May day in Minnesota sent him surging forward again. “George Floyd was murdered unnecessarily and I’m sitting in my house trying to figure out [what I can do],” Phillips says. As he worked through his thoughts and feelings, Phillips had the option, thanks to the connections he’s made, to call the man who broke the NHL’s colour barrier. He knew he wanted to take action, but couldn’t figure out how to channel his efforts. So he put it to O’Ree. “I said, ‘Willie, I’m having a hard time. I want to say something, but I just don’t know what to say and where to say it,’” Phillips recalls. “He told me, ‘Rico, your voice is in ice hockey and people are listening to you, so let your voice be heard.’”

That bit of advice from a respected source prompted Phillips to begin a dialogue with the Ontario Hockey League, which led to him being appointed the circuit’s first director of cultural diversity and inclusion in mid-July. The conversations he will initiate in that position have been informed by three-plus decades of navigating the hockey world as a Black man in a largely white sport — a journey that has both delighted and devastated him at times. The racism he faced at the rink as a teenager nearly prompted Phillips to walk away from hockey. Thank goodness the 51-year-old decided to stick around, because ignorance and ugliness remain in the game, too. And whether it’s with the suits in the OHL’s executive offices or kids putting on pads for the first time in Flint, Phillips is fully qualified to be the man who broadens horizons and gets both bodies and brains pushing in new directions.

Working through his feelings and wanting to do something positive after the killing of George Floyd, Phillips reached out to Willie O'Ree for advice. The Hall of Famer told him to focus his efforts on hockey.

For a guy who couldn’t really skate at the age when young men get drafted into the NHL, it’s an exceptional night when you win a trophy at the same event where Nikita Kucherov, Elias Pettersson and Ryan O’Reilly also take home hardware. Being handed the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award might have been the most concentrated moment of fame for Phillips, but it was hardly the start of him having a profile. He’s known across his hometown as “Firefighter Phillips” thanks to countless hours spent standing in front of crowds and speaking about the crucial importance of fire safety.

Early on in his career, Phillips came face-to-face with the gruesome realties of his profession, witnessing a man he couldn’t save burn to death in his car and — in the same week — a woman perish with her two grandsons in an apartment fire. He also had his own brush with death as a young man. Phillips was fishing by himself on Otsego Lake in Northern Michigan when, on his way back to camp, a gust of wind upended his modest, 12-foot boat. He fell into the water without a life jacket and went under enough times that he began to ask God, not to save him, but to let him pass gently. Larry Proctor, however, wasn’t going to let this be Phillips’s final day on Earth. Proctor, who was dressed for church, began peeling off his Sunday best when his son called attention to a boat on the lake that was still doing crazy things because the throttle was wide open. Proctor hopped on his jet ski and hummed across the water. He thought Phillips was dead upon finding him floating and Phillips — who was not getting a lot of oxygen in that moment — wasn’t completely sure himself which world he was in as Proctor hauled him from the water. “I couldn’t see this guy’s face, really, the sun was so bright,” says Phillips. “And he had a gold cross on and it was swinging back and forth, blinding me basically.”

All of this led Phillips — who talks to Proctor every year on the anniversary of his near-drowning — to search for ways he could maximize his positive impact on the world. He pivoted from charging into burning buildings to addressing crowds about do’s and don’ts. He became vice-president of his union and worked in media relations to help raise the profile of the fire department. Austin Phillips, Rico’s 21-year-old son, can’t recall how many times he’s been chatting to someone who suddenly started connecting dots back to Firefighter Phillips. He swears the family has been on vacation several states removed from Michigan only to have a stranger approach his dad with a big smile that is always reciprocated. “If he knows you or met you, he is going to come out of his way to speak with you,” says Sandy Phillips, Rico’s wife.

Give a people person a prestigious award and the result, perhaps, is predictable. The sleek bronze statuette — topped with O’Ree’s trademark fedora — collected no dust prior to COVID-19 because it was always on the move with Phillips. Sandy can remember more than one time when Rico would be talking to someone and say, “Hang on, I’ll run out to the truck and get it.” He never viewed the award’s glamour as a reflection of his achievements, but rather a way to start conversations about inclusivity issues that have always been a driving passion. When time allows, Phillips may even delve into his own hockey origin story and how, shortly after falling in love with the game, he was so wounded by it he almost turned away for good.

“George Floyd was murdered unnecessarily and I’m sitting in my house trying to figure out what I can do.”

As a sophomore at Flint Southwestern High School, Phillips earned an opportunity to work as a student athletic trainer. A buddy on the hockey team said they could use his help. Phillips didn’t know much about the game beyond the fact the Detroit Red Wings team he occasionally saw on TV wasn’t very good. That said, hockey’s reputation as a rough sport preceded it — especially in those days — and Phillips figured, if nothing else, he’d get some reps working with young men who frequently smashed into each other. “I didn’t want to be with the swim team,” he says with a chuckle.

One ice-level viewing was all it took to enchant Phillips. He wanted to learn how to skate, so he began badgering the head coach to give him some tutelage. That resulted in an assistant coach giving Phillips a few pointers before or after practices. By his junior year, Phillips was a trainer servicing all the high-school teams in the area, meaning he spent entire Saturdays at the arena. The only problem was, being a team of one, he had nobody to chat with between periods or games. That’s when the door to the referee room swung open and he began shooting the breeze with the men in stripes. “They are the folks who started encouraging me that I should become a referee for the next season because I’d get more time [on the ice] and I’d learn the sport inside out,” he says.

When he began officiating, Phillips could shuffle along the ice surface, but couldn’t really stop yet. Essentially, he was a teenager learning to skate right alongside the little tykes he was monitoring. Two months into his refereeing career, the inevitable happened and Phillips blew a call. The head coach on the penalized team called him over and dressed him down. Then the assistant coach got involved. “He called me the N-bomb [and] told me, basically, he was going to assault me,” Phillips says. “I’m 17 years old and I’m beside myself trying to figure out what the hell I got myself into, because I’d never been called that name that way before in my life.”

Phillips’s senior partner stepped in and ejected the coach from the contest. After the game, Phillips was in a haze and his fellow ref sensed it. “He could tell I was dejected. I was really taking off my stuff for the last time,” Phillips says. “He told me, ‘Rico, today is a day you either grow up or stay a kid.’ I kind of looked at him sideways. He said, ‘First of all, you had the authority to handle that situation yourself. But I understand why you didn’t and I don’t blame you. Second, you’re going to come across people like this in your lifetime and you’re either going to have to face them head-on or run and tuck your tail. It doesn’t mean you have to fight a person like that but you need to stand up and be confident with who you are.’

“I’ll tell you right then I grew up a little bit and it changed the whole way I thought about everything. It wasn’t the last time I dealt with racial comments or slurs or epithets, but it was the first time, and that first time helped prepare me for every time after that.”

"We talk often about how fortunate we are to be a mixed family,” Sandy says. “We offer different perspectives."

Everett Graham was determined to try every sport available to him. In 2015, when Graham was 10, a man came to his school and talked about the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program. Graham didn’t know anything about the sport, really, but his mother, Raena Graham-Grant had a little high school hockey experience. “I had a friend on the team and he would tease me a little bit about how the cheerleaders didn’t come to hockey games,” she says. “So I gathered up the girls and we went to a few hockey games.” Raena may not have known too much about the sport, but she’s an anything-for-my-child mother. If Everett wanted to try hockey, that was going to happen, and FICYHP looked like the place to start.

The idea for the eight-week, learn-to-play program had kicked around Phillips’s head for a long time. In addition to refereeing, Phillips also plays hockey and he coached a bit when Austin got into the game as a youngster in the early part of this century. He’d been a regular in rinks for nearly 20 years by that point, and the typical composition of the people he encountered there always gnawed at him. “When I was on the ice, I was the only person of colour — not only on the ice, but in the building,” he says, estimating that was the case 90 per cent of the time. “I saw the exact same type of person, whether it be kids or adults; all clearly from suburban, affluent communities.”

Phillips began leveraging his relationships to try to get the program running. He wanted something that provided transportation and equipment for up to 30 kids aged eight to 11 who met just one additional criteria: They were from downtown Flint, where there is essentially no hockey available to them. “It wasn’t just about getting more Black players,” Phillips says. “It was about making sure [everyone] had the opportunity.”

Phillips’s first push to get the league off the ground came in 2010. After some fits and starts, the program found its permanent footing in 2014. The next year, the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers moved to town and became the Flint Firebirds. The only real attention paid to the Firebirds in that inaugural season was the minor scandal when owner Rolf Nilsen, in an extreme over-parenting moment, fired coach John Gruden because he felt his son, Hakon, wasn’t getting enough playing time. The players — including the younger Nilsen — protested and Gruden was re-hired, only to be fired again months later. Gruden is now an assistant coach with the New York Islanders, while the OHL suspended Nilsen for five years.

What didn’t make for wacky headlines was the fact the Firebirds — unlike previous teams that have come and gone in Flint — immediately engaged with Phillips when he raised the notion of reaching out to the inner-city community. The Flint Firebirds Foundation provides the program Saturday morning ice time at team’s downtown rink, Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center. Firebirds players, along with some from other club and high school teams, help Phillips recruit in schools and recreation centres around the city. They also help the kids who participate get dressed and find their way around the ice. The program is open to boys and girls, and has seen Flint kids of all stripes — including some with special needs — come through the doors. Some are apprehensive about entering this cold, foreign world, while others are Phillips-like in their eagerness. Everett definitely fell in the latter category. “Hockey’s the only [sport] he had a passion for where I didn’t have to say, ‘Get up it’s time to go do this,’” Raena says.

“It wasn’t just about getting more Black players. It was about making sure everyone had the opportunity.”

Everett recalls the initial thrill of donning the gear, getting a little hockey history lesson and instruction from Phillips, then hitting the ice. “Once I skated for the first time, I really, really wanted to do it again,” he says. “We would fall, we would laugh, we would get to skate around. We would just get to have fun.”

That being the case, two months of hockey was never going to be enough for Everett. However, there’s nothing in the way of a youth hockey scene in downtown Flint. And even if every kid was like Everett and wanted to keep playing, it was never Phillips’s intention to make an inner-city squad. “It’s more important for our inner-city kids to infiltrate those teams located in the suburbs so it creates that atmosphere where both the inner-city and the suburban kids and rural kids are learning from each other and becoming friends,” Phillips says.

Introduced to the game after Raena signed him up for the FICYHP, Everett fell in love with hockey his first time on the ice

Five years after her son picked up the game, Raena is someone Phillips describes as a hockey mom to her core. That said, there were a lot of barriers to getting there, including sticker shock. “When I heard the price, I was like, ‘No sir,’” Raena says. “I needed some time to think about it — put it that way.”

Everett is one of about 15 kids who’ve passed through the program and gone on to play youth hockey on teams outside the city and Phillips’s support of them is unending. He helps find the funds to pay for registration; he tells them where they can find good second-hand equipment and explains which items are must haves and which ones can last another season. “The hockey world is kind of like a Rubik’s Cube to me sometimes — how things work, why they work that way when they can be done this way and not be so hard,” Raena says. “Rico was kind of the key to all of that. You can just ask him anything and he’ll tell you the truth. You can ask questions like, ‘No, for real, how much does this cost?’ Or ‘Look, I can’t afford his skates. Is there anybody who can get this boy some skates because he keeps growing?’ We’ve been blessed with many, many opportunities.”

With his decades’ worth of knowledge and connections, fielding calls about where to find sticks and helmets is no problem for Phillips. Other conversations, though, are the troubling sort that haven’t changed since Phillips’s youth. Everett has had some awesome coaches and his character has been recognized with the captain’s ‘C’ on his sweater. But being the lone Black kid on the ice — or one of just a couple — can still leave him bewildered and hurt. “We’ve dealt with the crazy, racist comments from kids on the ice and parents in the stands,” Raena says.

At times, Everett has actually tried to shield his mom from the specifics of what he’s heard. In one of his first seasons on a team, he was hit with the same slur Phillips heard as a cub referee in the mid-’80s. In the aftermath, Everett downplayed the situation with Raena, claiming it was a different epithet thrown his way. But when the kids on his team told their parents what they heard, Raena soon learned what actually happened. “The N-word was used and he was also called some other things, by a parent — by an adult,” she says.

Regardless of how many times Everett endures these encounters, “it’s never expected,” he says. “I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. When we go to games, I always try to be as respectful as possible. It just throws me off-guard sometimes when we can be having a good game, a nice, clean game, and just out of nowhere one kid will get mad and start throwing around the N-word or other slurs and then the rest of the team will join in.”

Unless you’ve been in that position, it’s impossible to know how it feels. For Everett and Raena, though, someone who does understand is right there. “Rico is always the first person I call,” Raena says.

Named the OHL's first director of cultural diversity and inclusion in mid-July, Phillips knows he's got a big job on his hands — one he can't accomplish alone

The teen who once wobbled his way around the rink now leaves a vapour trail. “When I come out and do a hot lap, I’m hot-lappin,” Phillips says. “When there’s an icing, I’m jetting down the ice. I learned a long time ago, whatever I lack in competence, I can make up for in hustle.”

Less than two years ago, Phillips blasted onto the ice to referee a game — a charity contest, actually — and heard a racist comment directed his way. He recalls thinking: “Are you kidding me? In 2019 we’re still dealing with this crap? I still have a lot of work to do.”

Determination and resilience are certainly in the DNA of many Flint natives. Phillips talks of a special pride in his home, which may be best known internationally these days for the revelation, made public in 2015, that residents had been exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water. (In early 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said lead levels in the city’s water were now testing below the federal limit, but concerns lingered and some citizens — like Raena — still cook with bottled water.) “We’re finding a way not to be defined by the water crisis, we’re finding a way to not be defined by the arson rate and the murder rate we had several years ago,” Phillips says. “We’re reinventing ourself, always. That’s just kind of how we are in Flint.”

Like Rico, Sandy is a Flint lifer. The two were high school sweethearts and have been on quite an adventure together. When Rico developed a sudden and deep affection for broomball many moons ago, Sandy was happy to make that a big part of their social calendar. When the FICYHP got going, she went from being a sounding board to an active volunteer, taking care of all kinds of logistics required to make the program run. They have three children and, since Austin became a father earlier this year, one grandson. “We talk often about how fortunate we are to be a mixed family,” says Sandy, who originally nominated Rico for the O’Ree award. “We offer different perspectives. In my immediate household, I am the only white person. I can’t understand, sometimes, some of what [Rico has] experienced, but what’s great is that we have this avenue in which we discuss these things. Now, all of a sudden, everyone is talking [much more about social justice and race relations], where before it was a more limited conversation. But look at something as simple as this program that Rico put together: This is one of the things that’s so unique about it, it brings all different people together.”

“I’ll be the first to tell you people of colour alone cannot eradicate racism.”

The kitchen table discussions Phillips has been having for years inform a big part of what he’ll talk to OHL owners, coaches and players about in his new role. After the murder of George Floyd, Phillips reached out directly to OHL commissioner David Branch and told him he’d love to do something that involved diversity and inclusion, and an appointment soon followed. It’s a paid consultant’s role and Phillips’s work so far has included numerous Zoom calls, often with BIPOC OHL alumni to hear about their experiences in the league. Phillips also recently had a meaningful talk with former Soo Greyhound and Windsor Spitfire Brock McGillis, the first openly gay pro hockey player. Additionally, he’s trying to get a sense of how many programs aimed at reaching less-traditional hockey communities already exist — the types of programs that can, as he says, help him find other Rico Phillipses.

Essentially, the approach he and Branch have talked about would see this season — wonky as it will be — serve as an information-gathering period, allowing Phillips to construct his action plan early next summer. While that time can feel a long way off, Phillips is optimistic that institutions like the Canadian Hockey League are sincere in their desire to evolve and that the type of work he’s doing with the OHL could, in the not-too-distant future, lead to more hires across multiple leagues.

While those formal processes are one thing, in talking about his work Phillips emphasizes the need for people to challenge others to change in their everyday lives — and he includes himself in that equation. He says it can take courage for a person to confront family and friends who express bigoted ideas or use any kind of slur, but that those more intimate settings are also a place huge gains can be won, “because those are the people you can influence.” It happened under his own roof. Phillips counts himself as a person who lagged behind when it came to understanding and being properly sensitive to the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community. His kids — particularly teenaged daughter, Karissa — set him straight and over time helped him leave behind any misguided attitudes. Phillips recognizes his past errors and talking to McGillis was another step in the realization that he had to do better. “His story is not unlike mine,” he says. Phillips wants his mission for inclusion to extend to every marginalized group and is working to make sure everything he does in that pursuit is consistent with his view that you always have to be communicating, learning and improving.

“I’m not going to come to the door and say, ‘This is a lily-white sport, all you guys must be racist,’” he says. “I’ll be the first to tell you people of colour alone cannot eradicate racism. We can tell you the problem exists, we can show you how the problem exists, but the problem exists because folks haven’t been willing to understand the problem and work toward a betterment. What I’m hoping to do is [bring about] that betterment. There are people in [high-level] roles who don’t even realize what institutional racism means or what white privilege actually means.”

People like Phillips have understood those realities for a long time. His community hero award has afforded him invites to speak at tournaments and conferences across Canada and the United States, and he’s convinced the wider white world — inside and outside of hockey — is finally ready to listen.

“I started going to places I never expected to go before I won this award,” Phillips says.

Maybe the rest of us can do that, too.

Photo Credits

Photography by Nick Hagen.