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Ruggiero talks about women's game, 'The Apprentice'

by Jon Lane

Angela Ruggiero will be inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 17.

By the dawn of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the United States women's team had played Canada 13 times in international competition, with Angela Ruggiero and Hayley Wickenheiser getting to know one another quite well.

The United States' best defender often was assigned to deny Canada's top center, regarded as the greatest to play the women's game. The rivalry was one of many elements that brought women's hockey into the international spotlight, beginning with Ruggiero and the United States defeating Wickenheiser and Canada for Olympic gold in '98.

"I lived to play Canada, I lived to play Wickenheiser," Ruggiero said. "When you have a caliber of a player like a Wickenheiser coming down the boards, and she's trying to beat you and you're trying to stop her, that's what you live for. It was a very intense rivalry, like Yankees-Red Sox and some of the best rivalries in sport."

The United States fought through Wickenheiser and Canada to win four Olympic medals and 10 more, including four gold, in World Championship play during Ruggiero's career to help pave her road to the Hockey Hall of Fame. On Nov. 9 in Toronto, Ruggiero became the fourth woman inducted into the Hall, joining Cammi Granato, Angela James and Geraldine Heaney.

Ruggiero spoke with about her start in hockey, becoming the first American position player to compete with men, her appearance on Season 6 of "The Apprentice," and her legacy. When the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductees were announced, you said timing played a huge role in your career, and when you were younger didn't know women's hockey even existed. How did you discover the game and what made you want to pursue it?

Ruggiero: My father signed me up. He signed up my brother, who was 6, and he came home in his goalie gear, and I thought he was really cool in it and I asked my dad if I could try. My dad didn't think girls played hockey, but he went back to the rink regardless and asked. He said, "I have a couple of daughters at home," and the guy that was signing up players said, "We would love to have them," and said, "We'll actually give you a discount if you sign up more than one child." So my mom and dad decided it would be a great family sport. My fondest memories as a kid were being in the car with my family going off to hockey tournaments or hockey games on the weekends.

I sort of fell into the sport. Maybe if I grew up on the East Coast, where there was more hockey and they weren't desperate for players, I wouldn't have played. By year two I was in love with it. I wore my hockey gear for career day in the second grade. They thought I was crazy that I was walking around in this heavy [gear] in the middle of 80-degree weather in L.A. They said, "Who do you want to be when you grow up?" I said, "Wayne Gretzky." I wanted to be a hockey player. I was 8 years old. I didn't realize that there wasn't an Olympics [for women's hockey]. The thing is, no one defeated my dream as a kid. They let me dream. When I was 12, the [International Olympic Committee] announced women's hockey would be in the Olympics in '98, and then in terms of college hockey starting to grow, I was literally right on the edge of the growth of the game. How did the opportunity to play for the Tulsa Oilers first develop?

Ruggiero: My brother Bill and I were best friends growing up in the car. We spent so much time together. He was in net, I played defense. When I went away to prep school at 14, we stopped playing together on the same team. Fast forward 10 years, 2005, he said, "Ang, we're down a couple of D. You should come out and skate for us. You can totally hang with these guys." He had a game over Christmas and was going to be there all alone. I said, "Why don't I just spend Christmas with you this year?" He ended up asking his coach if I could skate with the team over Christmas and I skated with the team just for fun. And then the coach ends up inviting me back for a game the next month and wanted me to stay there, but I was already living and playing in Montreal for the Montreal Axion. I didn't spend the season [in Tulsa], but I least got to play with my brother. It was really that Bill and I wanted to play hockey again and it turned into something bigger than that, that I'm suddenly representing all of women's hockey. It was an unbelievable experience. I loved it. It was a really special moment for the Ruggieros. On your third shift of the game you delivered a hard check seconds after being checked. How important was it to send a message to the men that you were there to play?

Ruggiero: Completely. I was there not as a sideshow. I was there to play hockey, to have fun, to push myself and show that I deserved to be out there. I didn't want to be treated any differently. I didn't want any special rules. I grew up playing with the boys. I played with my brother every summer growing up into my 20s back in Michigan. I didn't want the rules to change. I'm another hockey player out here. Don't treat me differently. I'm not going to treat you differently. Your time in Season 6 of "The Apprentice" showed off what you once called your "entrepreneurial bug." After you were voted in from a poll of 12 Olympic athletes, what made you jump at the opportunity?

Ruggiero: It was an opportunity competing against others. In my head you're competing on a team, but turns out it's largely individual. It was fun. It was a great experience. I got to be in really interesting situations, like a halftime show for GMC or marketing for Lexus, just doing really interesting entrepreneurial things. I've always had an interest in business, part of the reason I went back to business school, and this seemed in line with what I was doing. It was the summer after the 2006 Olympics so I needed some time off anyway, so everything sort of aligned. How did the competition of the business world and the boardroom compare to being an Olympic defender on a national and international stage?

Ruggiero: I was prepared to be on the international hockey stage where you could defuse the pressure because you had control. You had more control of the outcome. But on a reality show you don't have much control. Your opponents are less predictable than, say, a Hayley Wickenheiser or Caroline Ouellette, especially on "The Apprentice." Both are hard in different ways, but overall I'm happy that I was on the show. I learned a lot and got to hit golf balls with Mr. (Donald) Trump. I actually got an offer to go work for him and decided to keep training for 2010. In terms of teamwork, how was the dynamic different? In hockey it's a unit of five skaters and a goalie aiming to score and prevent goals. On "The Apprentice," you worked as part of a team in the field but in the boardroom it was every person for him or herself.

Ruggiero: Exactly. It was very different and I learned a lot. I'm a big, big team player, so in the boardroom it's tricky. If you succeed, great, we're on the same team. If you fail, there's a lot more finger pointing, especially on that show. On the ice you were together. It was an interesting, interesting situation where if you lost, you all of a sudden start defending yourself. From the looks of your itinerary, you're keeping busy.

Ruggiero: It's super interesting. Instead of being the athlete on the ice, the second-best thing is to represent them in the boardroom. Through all the experience that I've had competing in four Olympics, I can now leverage to help the organizing committee, help the IOC structure the games for [the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics]. I'm busy, but I find it extremely stimulating and rewarding at the same time. What do you think is your lasting legacy on and off the ice?

Ruggiero: I look back at my career and I think I did everything I could to help the growth of the game. From an individual perspective, if you push the game and individually as a player bring fans in, encourage young women and boys to sign up for the sport, you can make yourself bigger than yourself, you can really help the game. Hopefully my legacy is something that helps the sport of hockey in the U.S. and also showed what was possible.


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