Michigan referee Rico Phillips is one of the finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for 2019.

The award, established in 2018, recognizes an “individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture, or society.”

Also nominated are Anthony Benavides, from the Clark Park Hockey Program in southwest Detroit, and Tammy Lynch, who started Players Against Hate. Fans can vote for the winner at once a day at NHL.com/oreeaward through May 5th.

From Phillips’ nomination:

Phillips grew up in the city of Flint, Michigan and has always desired to make his community a better place. Rico’s impact on the community has been made through his two passions in life, firefighting and hockey. Rico’s greatest community impact was founding the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey program and serving as the program director.

For the past six years, this program has provided the children of Flint, MI, the opportunity to play hockey for free. Throughout the nine-week program, high school hockey teams and parents provide mentorship and assistance on and off the ice. This grass roots effort supports local businesses and gathers hundreds of volunteers. Through this program, Rico has been able to promote cultural diversity within our community while adhering to a strong set of values. The program builds character by promoting commitment, hard work, belief and openness. The impact is felt by the participants, their families and our volunteers.

Rico is an inspirational leader, coach, hockey official and career day speaker who spreads a positive message to our youth and community.

More on Phillips from NHL.com:

Phillips, a firefighter in Flint, formed the program in 2010 to expose kids between the ages of 8-11 to hockey and give them a sense of hope in an economically struggling city where hope often is in short supply.

Players receive free equipment, ice skating and hockey instruction during the nine-week program, held at Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center.

For Phillips, it’s about giving back to his hometown.

“I’d say this is a medium-size town, Flint, Michigan, and not too many great things happen on the regular,” he said. “Representing something so big in my community is awesome. We try to look past the clouds covering our city.”

Phillips began the Flint program after doing research on O’Ree, who became the first black player in the NHL when he debuted with the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.

Like O’Ree, Phillips said he was a first: the only black hockey referee in Flint after being one of the few players of color.

“I felt lonely a lot of times,” Phillips said. “I did some digging and I found that Willie was in charge of a cool thing that I thought would be cool for Flint, which is the cultural diversity task force they had in the 1990s.”

Phillips has gotten buy-in for his program from Flint-area residents, elected officials and the business community.

Local high school hockey players from the surrounding suburbs serve as instructors. Perani’s Hockey World, a Michigan-based company, provides Phillips’ program equipment at cost. And Flint’s Mass Transportation Authority provides free rides to get the kids to practice.

“It’s a collaborative effort,” Phillips said. “As the program has gone on I’ve gotten grants. The rest of it is basically volunteers. I have two credit unions in town that help subsidize because the one person who I do pay for is an on-ice instructor.”

Phillips discovered that his program has produced an unexpected result: racial understanding between its participants and volunteers.

“Here are some suburban kids and some rural kids who had never interacted with people of color,” he said. “It was clear, and they had some apprehension on their faces. The barriers get broke down. The inner-city kids aren’t looking at them (volunteers) one way or another, they’re looking for help to learn how to do this ice skating stuff, and the high schoolers are all of a sudden having fun like they’ve never had before. I’ve got an enrichment thing going on for our entire community.”

Vote for Phillips for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award – Click here to vote!

Fans can vote once a day through May 5th at NHL.com/oreeaward.

The 2019 NHL Awards will be held on Wednesday, June 19 in Las Vegas.