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'Fiery' Ruggiero sparked women's team to medals

by Jon Lane

The United States Hockey Hall of Fame will induct four new members on Thursday during a ceremony that includes two Lester Patrick Award winners. This week, profiles the six people to be honored.

One of Angela Ruggiero's proudest moments as a defender for the United States women's hockey team came at the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Harbin, China.

Given the standards they set by winning gold medals at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and 2005 World Championship, as well as a handful of silver medals in between, the Americans were reeling. They disappointed with a bronze medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics and lost the gold-medal game to Canada in the World Championship a year later. In Harbin, Canada was the U.S. opponent in a qualifying-round game, and the last thing Ruggiero wanted to do was play for another bronze medal.

"We were in a bad state," Ruggiero said.

Ruggiero wasn't the captain or an alternate, but a young and inexperienced team that endured plenty of turnover since 2006 looked to her as part of the leadership council. Discovered in 1995 as a 15-year-old at a junior national team tryout in Lake Placid, N.Y., Ruggiero already was a veteran of the international game. Three years later, she was a defensive stalwart on the Nagano team that lifted women's hockey into the national spotlight.

Ruggiero believed the United States' biggest weakness was its youth. She was determined to flip it into their biggest strength.

"I said, 'What do you guys have that Canada doesn't have?' The analogy was our legs," Ruggiero said. "We were youthful and we had energy and we were faster than them. I tried to empower the team so they'd recognize that we could do that. If you ask anyone on the team that year, we came out flying. No one sat down the entire game."

The United States used two third-period goals to defeat Canada 4-2, and earned gold medals after a 4-3 victory against Canada in the final match. The catalyst for taking home gold in 2008 and the following year in Hameenlinna, Finland, was that pep talk from Ruggiero, eventually named alternate captain for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

"If you were skating off the ice, people were cheering for you like you won the Stanley Cup," Ruggiero said. "And no one saw it. That's the funny thing. We ended up winning that game trying to keep that same momentum up into the final. It carried over and we won the 2008 Worlds, really from a position that I don't think we deserved just on paper."

Leadership is one of Ruggiero's intangibles that led her to Hockey Hall of Fame last month and has her ready to accept her induction into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Boston. To those who played with and against her, the double entry is not surprising. Ruggiero was anointed for greatness and proved it competing at the highest national and international levels, beginning with the gold medal in 1998 when she was 18.

"There was something special about her despite her age," said U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Karyn Bye Dietz, an alternate captain on the '98 team. "When she was around, you knew it. Her presence was contagious. She had the will to win, I'll tell you that."

A year before Harbin, Ruggerio convinced a 17-year-old named Hilary Knight, playing in her first World Championship, she had to goods to become a star. All Knight had to do was believe it.

"I don't think [Knight] saw that right away," Ruggiero said. "She was happy to be on the ice. She had potential in her at a very young age. I was encouraging her, pushing her, trying to be a mentor to her like so many others had been to me. In order to do that well, I think I had to be vocal."

Ruggiero's leadership also resonated with current U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, who at 21 was another fresh face skating in her first World Championship in 2008.

"[Angela] was definitely fiery," Duggan said. "If she thought something, she would stand up and say it. If she thought that someone was doing something that was out of line, she'd be right in their face and tell them. She wasn't afraid to have the hard conversation, because she knew that it was for the better of the team.

"That's what I think about when I think of Ang, how strong and powerful a leader that she was and is. It was great to learn from her. I was young when I played with Ang and now I'm obviously in a leadership role myself, and I've certainly have taken a lot of what I learned from watching Ang."

Ruggiero also was durable; her 256 games played in a 16-year career are more than any hockey player to represent the United States, male or female. She was indispensable, one of five Americans to compete in four Olympic games. She was intimidating, a menace on the ice who sparked everyone around her.

"You can't measure those," said Mark Johnson, a member of the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic team and women's hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin, who led Ruggiero and the Americans to an Olympic silver medal in 2010. "When they drop the puck, who's going to compete, who's going to play, who's going to do what it takes to come away victorious? Certainly with her presence on the ice … just her physical presence and her willingness to compete and maybe do some things other kids may not want to do, she was willing to do it."

Even on the day Ruggiero was announced as a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, she stood out. Ron DeGregorio, USA Hockey's president for 12 years and four terms, will enter the U.S. Hall with Ruggiero, Chris Drury and Mathieu Schneider. Asked about his favorite Olympic memories, DeGregorio brought up Ruggiero and 1998 before the Miracle on Ice team of 1980.

"She was one of the best players, if not the best, of her era," DeGregorio said. "Her strength and savvy, and she could play up or back, and had more skills as well as the grit and determination with those skills. She had the will and skill to get the job done, and was a very big part of our team. We had other parts, but I really thought Angela was probably one of the best players of her generation."

Ruggiero was recognized as the best more than once. She was twice named top Olympic defender (2002, 2006) and four times at the World Championship (2001, 2004, 2005, 2008). In 2003, she was voted the finest female ice hockey player in the world by The Hockey News. She ended her career with four Olympic medals (gold, two silver, bronze), 10 World Championship medals (four gold, six silver), and enough cachet to change the complexion of an entire team.

"Angela's the ultimate leader," Duggan said. "She spoke up at the right time. She did all the right things on the ice, off the ice. She led by example all the time. She always put the team first, no matter what."


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