Rico Phillips had convinced himself before Wednesday night’s NHL Awards that he wasn’t going to win the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
It was the easiest way to kill nerves that went along with having to speak in front of a room filled with NHL superstars and legends, as well as a national television audience.
But as the award was about to be announced, and a video montage started playing on the screen, the realization he could win started to come back to Phillips. Then O’Ree said his name.
“When I watched Willie O’Ree say my name, it was like this snapshot of time froze, and I was like, ‘No way,’” said Phillips, an MHSAA hockey official and the founder of the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program. “I embraced my wife. She has been the person that has been the best advisor to me, and to have her here with me was an incredible moment.”
Phillips was honored for founding and directing his organization, which has given a cost-free opportunity to play the game to about 150 kids ages 8-11 in Flint since 2010. He was one of three finalists, along with Tammi Lyncy of Washington, D.C., and Anthony Benavides of Detroit.
Fans submitted candidates for the award, and the field was whittled to the final three who were then voted on by the public.
The award is named after Hockey Hall of Famer O’Ree, who broke the NHL color barrier in 1958, and who has worked as the league’s diversity ambassador for more than 20 years. It is given to “an individual who – throughout the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society,” according to a release from the NHL. This was the second year it has been awarded.
“It was surreal, would be the first word,” Phillips said. “I felt an incredible honor – having just met Willie a couple months ago in person, he brings with him this magic. To look over and hear him say my name, it was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. Willie O’Ree – Willie O’Ree! – is giving me this award.”
Those who know Phillips could certainly believe it was happening, and that it was a well-deserved honor.
“I wasn’t surprised; I thought if anybody deserved that award, it was Rico,” said Steve Berriman, who serves as assigner and referee-in-chief for the Flint Ice Hockey Referees Association. “I was so darn proud; it was so well deserved. He’s immersed himself in the hockey culture. Whatever he’s accomplished has been all on Rico. He’s done it all himself. From where he’s started to where he’s come, and then the starting of this program, it’s 100 percent on him.”
Phillips, who is a firefighter in Flint, was introduced to the game during the 1980s and fell in love with it. He served as a student trainer for the hockey team at Flint Southwestern, and thanks to plenty of time spent with the officials while in that position, was convinced to get onto the ice wearing the stripes. He became an MHSAA registered official for ice hockey beginning with the 1990-91 season.
“I took up that challenge, and it was terrible at first, because I could barely skate,” Phillips said with a laugh. “One of the other challenges, besides learning how to skate, is that I was met with racial slurs and taunts. I was young, and it was tough. I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I had some people who helped talk me through it.”
Phillips said those mentors explained to him that quitting would give those who taunted him what they wanted, and more than 30 years later, he’s still on the ice. He said he officiates about 40 high school games per year and has worked three MHSAA Semifinals and a handful of Quarterfinals.
It was during the late 1990s that the idea for the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program came to Phillips.
“As a hockey referee, in particular, it wasn’t just playing, I know the lack of cultural diversity (in hockey),” Phillips said. “It didn’t bother me, so to speak. But I thought, you know what, there’s something that can be done about this.”
About a decade later, he put the wheels in motion and went to the Flint-based Perani Hockey World to ask for financial assistance. Perani took things a step further, offering to outfit all of the players from head to toe, giving Phillips and his organization 54 sets of gear in total in the first year.
After that first year, a funder fell through. But four years later, the United Way stepped in and provided funding to pay for ice time. The Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League have since stepped in to assist with ice time.
“One of the things I appreciate about our program is that it’s a community collaborative effort,” Phillips said. “These folks give to us without a non-profit status.”
Since its inception, Phillips said that the program has served about 150 players. Each player not only receives gear and instruction at no cost, but also transportation to and from the arena.
“We have 12 that went on to continue playing hockey, which is huge,” Phillips said. “I’m very proud of that – I didn’t expect that. We help and seek out additional funding for our participants that come through to help with the cost as they move on. The kids that come to our program, they don’t understand or know about hockey or even ice skating. We’re taking these families and teaching them to love this sport.”
Phillips has been saddened by the decline of the sport in the Flint area, saying that when he began officiating there were more than 20 high school teams in the area, and now there are fewer than 10. He said he also struggles to fill his program each year.
He hopes that will change with the exposure that has come with this award.
“What I’m hoping is this opens up the doors a little more, that this brings some gravity,” Phillips said. “On the flip side, when talking about funding, (since he was announced as a finalist for the award) I’ve had owners of pro teams and others coming up to me saying, ‘We’re going to send you equipment and send you some funding.’ This definitely puts our program on the map – on the bigger map. It means a lot of more intense work that I have to do.”
The award also shined a positive light on Flint, which is something Phillips did not take for granted.
“It was an overwhelming response that I received from the community,” Phillips said. “There were watch parties – I just saw a video a little while ago of when the announcement was made, and they just went crazy. It means the world. I say this a lot of times, but there seems to be a dark cloud that likes to hang over Flint and has for decades. There are so many of us that are little lights that shine, and this was a big shining light. Every opportunity we get in Flint to pick our heads up and be proud is important.”
PHOTOS: (Top) From right, Rico Phillips, wife Sandy and NHL Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree. (Middle) Phillips drops the puck for a face-off during the Division 3 Semifinal between Houghton and Riverview Gabriel Richard this winter. (Below) Phillips, left, with his award and the Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban. (Top and below photos courtesy of Rico Phillips.)
BROWN CITY – Jerry Sauder thought he was going to be a presenter Thursday night, as his alma mater Brown City was honoring officials Curt Lowe and Joel Venia and school statistician Todd Vandewarker for their decades of service.
But that was simply a ruse by fellow official Tom Mailloux and Brown City athletic director Tony Burton to get Sauder there to join the ceremony and receive his own award for 50 years as an official.
With Sauder on the court, 175 total years of involvement with athletics were honored between the JV and varsity Unionville-Sebewaing vs. Brown City girls basketball games. Sauder spent 50 years as an official, Lowe and Venia 45, and Vandewarker has spent 35 years as a statistician, all across multiple sports.
“Tonight, we gather to pay tribute to those whose steadfast dedication has woven the fabric of excellence into the tapestry of Michigan high school athletics,” Brown City principal Brad Hale said to kick off the ceremony. “It is with profound gratitude that we extend our heartfelt appreciation to the unsung heroes behind the scenes – the pillars whose tireless efforts ensure that each game unfolds seamlessly, each moment etched with the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play. … Tonight, we shine a spotlight on a few whose commitment spans decades, illuminating the path for generations of athletes to follow.”
Sauder’s 50 years as an official included 25 as a Division I college basketball referee. He is currently working in an administrative role with Elite Officiating, overseeing officials in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference. He’s officiated NCAA Tournament games and contests around the world after getting noticed at a camp at Western Michigan University.
“I’ve always said I’m the luckiest guy to put on a shirt,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be selected to be given the opportunity. There’s a lot of guys that could have, but weren’t set up to do it at that time.”
During his time as a high school official, Sauder reffed MHSAA Finals for basketball and football. He also spent time officiating baseball and softball games.
He began officiating when his best friend Jim Seidell, a longtime coach and administrator in Brown City, convinced him to start. Sauder knows his path isn’t a common one, and that it’s not easy to convince people to get into officiating. But with perseverance, opportunities are available.
“There’s a dire need right now,” Sauder said. “We’ve got to do something because if we don’t, high school sports as we know it is going to suffer. … I was fortunate to have good people around me that mentored me. Kids start, they last a couple years and they walk away from it. They don’t pay enough money to get yelled at like people go at you now. I don’t blame the young people.”
Lowe, who officiated Thursday night’s JV game before the ceremony, got his start thanks to Sauder and Seidell. Also a Brown City graduate, Lowe’s 45 years of officiating include multiple assignments at MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals. He’s also been on the court for women’s college basketball games.
“Officiating is like family,” Lowe said. “I have met so many people – wonderful people. And, over 45 years, it’s been a ton.”
While he’s worked plenty of games in the Thumb, much of Lowe’s time as an official was spent in the Saginaw and Flint area, where he was able to officiate games featuring some of the state’s greatest athletes, including Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green, Mark Ingram and the late Charles Rogers.
“Those were the best games, and Jerry got me in there,” Lowe said. “That was the best ball ever. It was just amazing to watch.”
Lowe’s crew Thursday night included a pair of younger officials who later officiated the varsity game with Mailloux. Lowe thinks it’s a great opportunity for athletes who want to stay connected to sports.
Venia’s start in officiating was more by happenstance. He was working the scoreboard for rec basketball games in his hometown of Marysville, and one day needed to fill in as an official. After reffing the game, he made $10 as opposed to the $5 he got for running the scoreboard, and made the move.
He’s still doing football games but is no longer on the basketball court or softball or baseball diamonds.
“It’s probably the contacts you make in the little towns,” Venia said about what has kept him in the officiating business. “I go down to the Macomb area and do that. In football, we always take five games up in the Thumb. I know so many people up here. With the kids, it keeps you younger, keeps you moving.”
Like Sauder and Lowe, Venia has officiated multiple MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals.
He played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and thinks that experience can be “tremendous” for future officials. But he was quick to point out that those who don’t have that experience can also thrive.
“I’ve worked with a couple guys that never played,” Venia said. “(Mailloux) never played football, but he’s a good football official. I mentored a guy that never played basketball, Jordan Stevens, who is the softball coach at South Dakota State. He never played basketball, never played football, but he was a very good official. I think it gives you an advantage, but by no means is it a barrier if you haven’t played.”
The person with the best seat in the house as Sauder, Lowe and Venia have run up and down the court or football field in Brown City has been Vandewarker, who was celebrated for his decades of service as a statistician.
When asked how he got started, he pointed at Burton.
“That guy suckered me into it,” Vandewarker said with a laugh.
Vandewarker was himself a Brown City athlete, competing in football, basketball and track. Over his more than three decades keeping stats, he’s seen several great Green Devils and opposing athletes – so many that he couldn’t narrow them down.
“A couple thousand (games),” he said. “I’ve seen some stuff, I’ve seen some good stuff. A lot of good players. Too many memorable ones to mention, I guess. I’ve seen the best of the coaches and heard everything they have to say. Best of the refs – I was in high school and Jerry Sauder was reffing my games.”
At that point, Vandewarker had to step away and start the pregame clock for varsity warm-ups. But when he came back, he had an idea of how long he may remain at the center of Brown City athletics.
“I always said as long as Tony and Cindy (Burton, Brown City’s assistant AD) were around,” he said. “But I don’t know. I’ll probably go for another 10-15, put a good 50 in. I think I got that in me, still.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) From left: MHSAA-registered officials Curt Lowe, Joel Venia and Jerry Sauder and Brown City statistician Todd Vandewarker stand together as they are celebrated Thursday at Brown City. (Middle) Vanderwarker receives his award for 35 years as a school statistician. (Below) Lowe refs the junior varsity game before the recognition ceremony. (Photos by Paul Costanzo.)