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Flint youth hockey program founder says conversation with Willie O’Ree propelled him to new OHL diversity job

Rico Phillips was named cultural diversity & inclusion director Thursday
The two were interviewed by ABC12 in March 2019 when Rico Phillips brought O'Ree to Flint to visit with inner-city youth as part of his revered hockey program.
The two were interviewed by ABC12 in March 2019 when Rico Phillips brought O'Ree to Flint to visit with inner-city youth as part of his revered hockey program.(ABC12 News)
Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 11:21 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - “My heart is here. My soul is here, and I just want to do good by, by the people here,” Rico Phillips said.

The beloved Flint youth program coordinator and retired firefighter has found another way to make his mark in the sport he loves so much by accepting a newly created position with the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

The Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program founder is still on cloud 9 after the incredible 12-plus months he’s had.

“In one word I would describe it as unimaginable,” Phillips said.

In March 2019 he brought hockey legend Willie O’Ree to town to visit with the players of the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program. A few months later in what he calls a twist of fate, Phillips won hockey’s highest community award, which is named after O’Ree.

RELATED: Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award winner presents $10,000 check to Kris Perani Hockey Foundation

He was then honored by the governor last October, retired after a 27-year career with the Flint Fire Department, participated in a ceremonial puck drop for the Detroit Red Wings, conducted his youth program and even managed to referee the Flint Firebirds annual Blue vs. White Training Camp Game. But, Rico felt there was still much for him to do in the sport.

“Retirement was apparently holding me back (laughs),” Phillips said. “I had a statement to make, and my statement was about making my world a much more just place to live in.”

He decided to contact O’Ree for advice.

“I gave him a call and told him I was struggling with some of the things that were happening in our country right now, particularly with the George Floyd incident, and I asked him where should I start, and he said, ‘Rico, your voice is in ice hockey. People are listening to you and that’s where you need to be heard,‘” Phillips said.

Phillips decided to contact OHL Commissioner David Branch. He says the two had already established a working relationship, and after a meeting of the minds, his career in the sport he loves has hit new heights. Thursday the OHL announced Rico as the Director of Cultural Diversity and Inclusion. He says he will focus on diversity in terms of culture, race and class. He’s also aware that the community work he’s used to doing in Michigan may be a little different in Canada.

RELATED: Retired Flint firefighter Rico Phillips appointed to hockey diversity role

“In my own personal experience and research there’s indigenous people that live in these areas that are those people we have to really reach out to and I hope my efforts are going to help that,” Phillips said.

Phillips plans to gather players of color and diverse backgrounds to hear their experiences in the OHL and use them as learning tools to cultivate change.

No matter how far he goes in the sport, he is careful to always remember his hometown.

“I want to be this beacon of light that Flint. Flint is shining, not just Rico is shining. I’m a product of Flint,” he said.

Phillips will have to split his time between his new position and the Inner City Youth Hockey Program, but he promises it will continue on with the help of the board of directors and dedicated volunteers.

Copyright 2020 WJRT. All rights reserved.

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