As part the OMHA’s AGM Dinner and Awards night in June, Tara Slone and Rico Phillips were featured as the guest speakers for the hundreds in attendance. Sharing messages about growing the game, diversity and inclusion, we wanted to share this important conversation ahead of the start of the season with those who were unable to be there.
He was 17. It was 1986 and the day is etched in stone in his memory. He stepped onto the white sheet of ice for the first time in his hometown of Flint Michigan and felt completely out of place.
“I realized back then the sport didn’t have diversity. We didn’t use that term at that point. There were just no black people.”
Rico Phillips, who is now the Director of Cultural Diversity and Inclusion for the Ontario Hockey League, is talking about his early days in hockey as one of the keynote speakers at the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s (OMHA) recent Annual General Meeting.
Phillips didn’t really have much of a playing career given that he didn’t learn to skate until he was in high school. Where he made his mark was as an on-ice official which he did for 35 years.
But Phillips tells the audience that career almost ended before it started because of an incident that occurred after only two months on the job.
“I was refereeing a game and like many young officials, I blew a call. The head coach called me over and is giving me the business,” Phillips says, as he emphasizes this was a game between eight- to 10-year-olds. He couldn’t believe what happened next. Things escalated, and he experienced something for the first time in his life that he’ll never forget.
“The team’s assistant coach came down and started screaming at me as well, telling me he was going to kick my tail in the parking lot. He called me the “N”, word but he didn’t say the “N” word. He said the actual word. Here I was 17. It was the first time, I ever faced anything like that.”
In shock after the game as he unlaced his skates in the dressing room, he had already decided this was going to be his last time coming to the rink.
“I wasn’t going to be part of something that’s racist like that.”
That’s when his senior partner and refereeing mentor stepped in to tell him he couldn’t quit.
“He said Rico, today's a day you’re either going to grow up or you’re going to stay a kid,” Phillips says, adding he asked his partner what he meant by that.
“He told me you're going to come across racists in your life. You're going to come across people that look at you that way because you're different. And you can run and go the other way which is what (the assistant coach) wanted, or you can try to open up people's minds. I'm still here 35 years later.”
Despite the rough and very difficult beginning, Phillips tells the crowd at the OMHA’s AGM, “when I watched my very first game at ice level, like all of us here, I fell in love with this game.”
On stage with Phillips at the AGM is Tara Slone, who is nodding in agreement. Slone spent eight years criss- crossing the country with co-host Ron Maclean for Rogers’ Hometown Hockey where she witnessed how hockey, at its best, brings communities together like few other things in Canada.
“I was drawn in as a fan to the best parts of what I would consider hockey culture. You know, the good stuff - the teamwork, elevating people bringing out the best in them, the dedication. That's why I loved what I did on Rogers Hometown Hockey because we got to celebrate those amazing aspects of the game.”
“I personally have been very outspoken about what I see as some of the issues in hockey culture. Instead of shrinking back and being on the defensive, if we flip that around, we realize there is so much beauty and so much goodness, and it can be better,” Slone tells the audience.
She adds, “we want it to be better because we love this game and because we love the people, the kids we are here nurturing into young adults and adulthood. But it can be better, and we can learn, and we can be open (to difficult conversations).”
Tara Slone, former host of Rogers Hometown Hockey, speaking at the OMHA's Annual General Meeting in June about her experiences travelling across the country. (Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa Photography)
One of those difficult conversations is how to make sure everybody from different backgrounds feels hockey is a safe and welcome place for them.
Phillips says he didn’t always feel welcome, but he stayed in the game because he realized the majority were good people.
But he tells the audience if they hear banter that crosses the line or racist comments that occur in the locker room or on the ice, it needs to be called out when it first happens which he’s learned can be when players are very young.
Before he started working with the Ontario Hockey League, Phillips was involved in community hockey.
In 2010, he founded an inner-city youth hockey program in Flint, Michigan to promote more racial and socio-economic inclusivity in minor hockey. He was a recipient of the NHL’s Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, named after the NHL’s first black player.
Phillips began his role with the Ontario Hockey League in July 2020, shortly after George Floyd was tragically killed by a police officer in the United States, sparking organizations all over the world to look at how to erase systemic racism.
Rico Phillips, Director of Cultural Diversity and Inclusion for the Ontario Hockey League, addressing the audience at the OMHA's Annual General Meeting in June. (Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa Photography)
“I wanted my voice to be heard. I knew I had something to say. I called Willie O'Ree. Willie said that your voice is being heard around hockey, so you'd better keep speaking because people are listening. I had an epiphany. So, I contacted David Branch, the Commissioner of the OHL, and I was fortunate they created this role.”
One of the first things Phillips did was conduct a survey of recent OHL players of colour, which included black, Indigenous, South Asian and Asian players. He asked them baseline questions about their experience from a cultural standpoint. While a lot of those experiences were positive, the answers to one question stood out. The players were asked if they ever encountered racist slurs or taunts in their hockey careers. Every single one of them answered yes.
When he dug deeper thinking they might have experienced this for the first time in their Ontario Hockey League careers where the stakes were higher, he was surprised to learn that wasn’t the case.
“All of them told me that the first time they heard a racist comment or slur or taunt of any kind was between the ages of eight and 11 and it was at an ice hockey rink and I clarified to make sure it was not at the school yard or some other place. The remarks were made by coaches, teammates, to opponents to parents.”
Phillips tells the audience at the AGM that over the years, maybe people have used differences to try to intimidate or throw somebody off their game. But that causes tremendous harm. Hockey has implemented rules penalizing and giving misconducts to anybody who uses racist taunts or slurs.
“The rules are there against marginalizing people. We have always had that one parent who screams at the top of his lungs or acts like a fool during the game. I know none of you have ever been that person,” Phillips tells the crowd.
He adds, “But how many of you felt so awkward or ashamed when that person was representing your team as a parent. It is time for us to flip the tables. We need to make that one person feel awkward and set the standard for that bar higher than it's ever been.”
Slone says ongoing education is key.
“These conversations (like this one tonight) are important. Communication is important. But at the end of the day, this is the only way to truly grow the game, let alone doing the right thing and being inclusive and opening our hearts. But to actually grow this game, and to make the great game that we all know and love even better, that's what you have to do.”
Slone says it has been great to see some NHL teams hiring former stars of the Women’s Olympic hockey team as executives, as well as the recent hiring of NHL player Mike Grier as the first black General Manager in NHL history.
Slone, who is 48, says when she was growing up, she never played hockey because in elementary school she didn’t know one girl who played the sport.
“Representation matters. It really does matter. If you don't see yourself reflected in a certain world, you don't have those aspirations. They simply don't exist. If I'm a five-year-old, and I'm not seeing myself reflected in the organization and the minor hockey organization in a relevant way, there's messaging there. It's kind of coded.”
In the OHL, Phillips is looking to create opportunities for players to learn more about each other’s cultures. That includes everyone from Europeans to players of colour. He’s also hoping to recruit more athletic trainers, equipment managers, people in hockey operations, general managers and owners from more diverse backgrounds.
He says there is one key takeaway local hockey associations can also learn from his experience especially if they are trying to reach new Canadian families who aren’t involved in the game right now. He says in the US, they have ‘try hockey for free days’ – in an attempt to reach new people and to remove any perceived barriers.
“If you're recruiting for brand new hockey members to come out - first timers - how often do we go into the not so typical areas? Are we going and reaching out to others and making sure that we have an inclusive mindset? If we don't intentionally include, we unintentionally exclude,” Phillips says.
He adds, “that’s important for you and your strategy as you go forth looking at ways you can prepare to open up your doors even more.”
Phillips says there’s a lot of good work happening, and he is optimistic about the game’s future. He is happy he didn't quit all those years ago. Phillips believes hockey is the best game in the world and shares one final thought with the audience.
“The time was not right 30 years ago. The time is right now. So please be a part of the leadership that helps us change this.”
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