Rico Phillips first fell in love with hockey in high school, when he got the chance to be a student athletic trainer in Michigan. A buddy of his was on the hockey team and Phillips was intrigued by the sport.
"I thought, 'Man, they get their teeth knocked out,' " Phillips recalled. "Heck yeah, that's for me!"
His training days led him to friendships with referees and by 1986, he was an official himself. Now more than 30 years later, Phillips is the OHL's first-ever director of cultural diversity and inclusion. Phillips, 51, also won the NHL's Willie O'Ree Community Hero award last year.
"What excites me the most is the opportunity to work with young people," he said. "I plan to educate them, to open up their awareness and horizons as it relates to race and racial relations. And not just race, but all sections of cultural differences. My goal is to help these budding good and great hockey players become good and great people."
In 2010, Phillips founded the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program and that community-building background gives him a foundation for his new role with the OHL. While Phillips is excited about travelling around to the different OHL cities in the league (particularly in Canada), it's not like he can start up a community outreach program in each locale by himself. Instead, part of the mission is to find like-minded individuals who can spearhead their own programs, taking pieces from the Flint program or the NHL's Hockey is For Everyone initiative, for example.
In Flint, Phillips has a great relationship with the OHL's Firebirds. The franchise's president, Jeremy Torrey, also manages the arena, so Phillips' inner-city youth program has come in on Saturdays when the Firebirds have their morning skate. This way, the kids get welcomed onto the ice by the players, who introduce themselves and chat with the kids, who also get tickets to the game.
Given that the vast majority of OHLers come from suburban or rural backgrounds, meeting kids who come from less sheltered bubbles can be a great education for the players. And when the Firebirds stop by Flint's youth centers, those tangible connections with a different community are strengthened further.
"That's one of things that propelled me to communicate with the OHL last summer," Phillips said. "I wanted to be able to provide teams with some options and ideas to connect with the under-indexed parts of their community."
Interestingly enough, this generation of teenagers already seems pretty engaged with topics surrounding race and equality - if anything, the OHL's coaches may benefit even more from Phillips' lessons about inclusivity in race and sexual orientation.
"We're going to have to have some tough discussions and open up some good dialogue," he said. "But from the coaches I've met, it's going to be OK; it's not going to be that tough of a task."
That hasn't always been the case in the OHL, though from the sounds of it, Phillips is just focused on the present and the future. He's already had very positive talks with commissioner David Branch and he recognizes that certain challenges can't be solved overnight. For example, while the player base in the league is getting more diverse, the same cannot be said for the adults involved: coaches, front offices and equipment managers, for example. The key will be recruiting, Phillips noted, so that fans and players see a broad spectrum of people in the league - but he also knows this will take time.
Phillips is also careful about going too deep too quickly. While the Black Lives Matter movement has grabbed headlines around the world recently, Phillips wants to make sure he brings folks along at a pace that is comfortable for them.
"I want to be able to help players open up about the tough discussions," he said. "Utilizing Black Lives Matter as a backdrop can be a progressive way, but I have to be very careful that I don't make anybody feel closed off. Not everybody understands and accepts Black Lives Matter, so I have to weave through that and get a better understanding of people so I know my approach."
One of Phillips' first missions is to put together a committee of recent former OHL players of color. The committee members will share their experiences in the OHL - good, bad or indifferent - and offer suggestions on how to help make things better in terms of eradicating racism.
"Once we have a better understanding of each other," he said, "we're all going to be better for it."