Travis firefighter earns hockey MVP title

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Rico, 60th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services training NCO in charge, keeps the puck away from the opposing team during a game at the Armed Services Hockey Association Las Vegas International Championships which was held Nov. 11, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Rico was awarded MVP after his team lost in the final game, 3-2. (courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Rico, 60th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services training NCO in charge, keeps the puck away from the opposing team during a game at the Armed Services Hockey Association Las Vegas International Championships which was held Nov. 11, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Rico was awarded MVP after his team lost in the final game, 3-2. (courtesy photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.—Staff Sgt. Justin Rico, 60th Civil Engineer Squadron fire emergency services training NCO in charge, wears several hats; he’s a husband, a father, an Airman, a firefighter and now an MVP. 

The Travis Airman was recognized as the most valuable player in the Armed Services Hockey Association Las Vegas International Championships which was held Nov. 11 in Las Vegas, Nevada. According to the ASHA, it is the largest open-invitation international military ice hockey tournament in the world.  

Travis’ team consisted of active-duty, retirees, civilians and even some Tennessee-based Soldiers. Since players came from all over, many of them didn’t know each other before hitting the ice.

“Our first game was pretty awkward; no one said anything,” said Rico. “We didn't know each other's strengths or weaknesses or what position they played, so everybody just got thrown in some random position. We held our own, but we still ended up losing 3-1 the first game.”

After a night in Vegas, the team got to know each other better, made adjustments to the lineup and dominated their way to the finals. The Travis team came up short in the final minute, losing 3-2 to an Alaskan team, “The Lucky Puckers.”

“The thing I love about the tournament is we’re not upset or anything,” he said. “Everybody is there for a good time so we we’re happy for them. It sucked we didn’t take the overall (win), but after the game, I was congratulating the guy who made the goal. Everyone did a tremendous job.”

Master Sgt. Garland Lym, 60th Force Support Squadron first sergeant and fellow teammate, met Rico while playing hockey at the Vacaville, California, ice rink this past year. It wasn’t until the tournament, however, that they got to know each other better both on and off the ice.

“Rico is an easy-going guy off the ice,” said Lym. “He is confident, but humble at the same time and always has an air about him that he is having a great time doing whatever he is doing at that moment. He is the kind of amiable person who seems to draw a crowd that wants to be around him to enjoy that aura.”

Rico’s interest in hockey stemmed from “The Mighty Ducks” movies when he was a kid and developed while watching Detroit Red Wings games on television with his aunt’s boyfriend.

“I’m always active; I did wrestling, lacrosse and hockey in high school, so I just always stayed busy,” said Rico. “If I was busy with that, then I didn’t get in trouble with all the other things, so my parents liked that a lot.”

Rico has been playing on this league for seven years, which, like firefighting, has built camaraderie.

“You start off with a good friendship, but now we call each other family,” he said. “We call each other up for any little thing.”

On the fire scene, everybody has your back, or we’re checking up on families when members are deployed, said Rico.

“Teamwork is vital to our firefighting mission,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Wasiewski, 60th CES superintendent of operations. “We rely on each other to be competent and to have each other’s back. Staff Sgt. Rico does both and he’s one of our best. He is an energetic, hands-on leader with a passion for developing Airmen. He takes care of our people and fills whatever role is necessary to get the job done.”

According to Lym, that same mentality is what earned Rico MVP. 

“His selection was more than just his skillset on the ice, it was passion for the game and his team,” said Lym. “It was how he approached the game at every moment on and off the ice that set him apart. I was very happy for him and it was a selection that I don't believe anyone could have disputed.”

Rico was awarded a new hockey stick for his achievement, which he gave to his wife, Tech. Sgt Evelyn Rico, 60th Security Forces Squadron operations and training flight chief. He says she got the bug to play after watching the tournament. His goal is to get the whole family on the ice, including their 19-month-old son, who, according to Rico, is already showing interest.

“We’re definitely waiting till his feet can fit in the smallest skates and he’s going out,” he said with a grin.

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