The first time Rico Phillips officiated a hockey game was as a teenager growing up in Flint, Michigan, in the 1980s. It was during a game about two months into that experience when an assistant coach shouted a racial slur at him.
Quite an eye-opener for a 17-year-old kid who had only recently begun playing the sport as a senior in high school. Phillips, who was the only person of color on the ice, was so shaken by the incident that he almost walked away from the game entirely.
Fortunately, the senior official he was working with stepped in, handled the situation, then gave Phillips some advice he has never forgotten.
“He told me it was time to grow up, that there will be people in my world who are ignorant and bigots,” Phillips recalled. “I could either walk away or face those types of situations head-on.”
Phillips, who worked as a firefighter for 37 years before retiring in 2019, heeded the advice, and has been officiating ever since. But that moment on the ice, coupled with the realization that there were few kids of color involved in hockey, fueled a desire within him to do more.
About 10 years after he became a referee, Phillips decided to start Flint Inner City Youth Hockey, a program designed to introduce underprivileged kids to the game and give them a sense of hope in a community that has seen its share of hard times. With the help of community leaders and individuals, his vision began to take shape. In its first year, 55 kids participated. For the next several years, the program experienced difficulties in funding. But Phillips refused to give up, and the program revived in 2014.
“My goal was to have 30 kids on the ice each and every year,” Phillips explained. “I wanted to start a program, because there were no longer outdoor ice rinks in our community. There were no hockey programs within the city of Flint that encouraged kids to play and subsidize their ability to play.”
Phillips recruits high school players in the area to serve as instructors. Practices are held at the Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center, the same arena Phillips played in as a teenager. Hockey gear is provided free to all players, and the Flint Mass Transportation Authority offers free rides to players going to practice.