Clark Park’s Benavides, Flint’s Phillips finalists for O’Ree Award
Both Clark Park’s Anthony Benavides, left, and Flint’s Rico Phillips helped bgan programs to bring hockey to disadvantaged youth.
Two of the three finalists for the NHL’s second annual Willie O' Ree Community Hero Award are from Michigan.
The award recognizes the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform to help people build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.
The state finalists are Anthony Benavides of Detroit, director of the Clark Park Recreation Center, and Rico Phillips of Flint, founder of the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program.
They are joined by Tammi Lynch of Ellicott City, Maryland, founder of Players Against Hate.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Benavides worked with a group of neighborhood residents and organizations that eventually became Clark Park Coalition to repair the rundown outdoor ice rink, located just off the Clark Street exit of I-75.
Together with the coalition and the help of local legend Ziggy Gonzalez, he launched a free Youth hockey program in the Southwest Detroit low-income, majority black and Latino community.
The building adjacent to the rink, which serves as a locker room, is also now a bustling hub of the community with children being tutored or doing homework at computer stations. Outside, coaches put young hockey players through their paces on the rink.
“Just getting the nomination is great for me, great for the organization, great for promoting hockey up here in Detroit, Michigan, in Clark Park,” Benavides told NHL.com. “Hockey’s for everyone, but especially in inner cities to underserved youth. That's where I fit in, trying to level the playing field for the hockey population here in Detroit.”
The program outfits participants with new or donated skates and equipment. The only cost to participants is an annual $46 USA Hockey membership fee.
Under Benavides’ leadership, the Clark Park program grew from about 80 Youth hockey players in 2018 to 140 this year.
Phillips, a firefighter in Flint, formed the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program in 2010 to expose kids aged 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, skating time 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 against 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 (the NHL) had in the 1990s.”
When the third nominee, Tammi Lynch, learned that Divyne Apollon II, a black teenager who plays on her son’s Youth hockey team in Maryland was taunted racially during a game, she didn’t just get angry. She got organized.
Lynch designed stickers and buttons with the word "racism" with a red hockey stick slashed across it for players and supportive parents to wear.
The message caught on, with players from Pee Wee to the pros wearing the stickers on their helmets or placing it on their sticks.
Wanting to do more, Lynch helped form Players Against Hate, a movement she hopes will lead to concrete actions to stamp out racist actions and attitudes in the sport.
“I’m glad that people are taking notice that this is an issue and we need to make some change,” Lynch said. “I’m hoping that this will help spotlight the work that we are trying to do.”
Since starting Players Against Hate early this year, Lynch and her son’s team, the Metro Maple Leafs, have interacted with other teams to spread the message that hockey is a welcoming sport for all.
“We are determined to increase the awareness and stop the racism and name-calling from youth athletes, their teams, coaches, families and spectators,” she said. “We want to develop materials to teach the players, coaches, anyone involved in hockey, that hate has no place in the game.”
Fans can vote for the winner through June 1 by visiting NHL.com/oreeaward.
The winner will be announced at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone at the Mandalay Bay Events Center sports and entertainment complex in Las Vegas on June 19.