Citing a chronic shoulder injury and her role on the International Olympic Committee, veteran women’s hockey blueliner Angela Ruggiero confirmed a somewhat poorly-kept secret upon declaring an end to her playing career this week.
An active participant in USA Hockey for more than half of her life up to this point and a member of the first four Olympic teams, the 31-year-old Ruggiero leaves an arguably greater void than Cammi Granato did in 2006. By the same token, she has the right portfolio to pilot the effort to fill that set of skates on the ice and to enhance global appreciation for the women’s game.
With more of the same in her off-ice role and a burgeoning generation primed to match and exceed her standards, Ruggiero ought to lend affirmative answers to the following questions.
We are almost at the halfway mark between the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and the U.S. women’s hockey team is suddenly without its longest-tenured player, on-ice leader and off-ice ambassador.
While Ruggiero will doubtlessly continue to have her voice heard in the effort to grow the game, the Americans still need at least one active player to function as their go-to media magnet.
It needs to be someone who can not only stand out on the ice, but also embrace attention and consistently grant requests for endorsements and speaking engagements.
A few viable options right now include Gigi Marvin, Hilary Knight and 19-year-old phenom Kendall Coyne. But whoever it is going to be, she must get going in that area without hesitation so that, by the time the blizzard of ads for the Sochi Games is brewing, she will be recognizable even to the less-than-casual fan.
Upon addressing the media in the wake of her personal announcement on Thursday, Ruggiero mentioned her efforts to beseech traditional hockey nations outside of North America to perk up their women’s game. The obvious reason is that women’s hockey cannot live out on the United States and Canada alone.
Lately, Finland and Sweden have decisively been in an echelon above the rest of the world, with the exception of the Canadians and Americans, who are at least two competitive spheres above Scandinavia. And every double-digit blowout that a European country brooks in a high-profile IIHF game seems to nudge the sport a little closer to losing its Olympic membership.
Ruggiero specifically cited Russia and the Czech Republic as two other countries that have no reason not to give their female pucksters a chance to match their male counterparts. But as hard as she will push in her role on the IOC Athletic Commission, she cannot make this play single-handedly.
Humble by nature, Ruggiero’s voice needs assistance from others who can step up and cite her as a proud product of her country. That, in turn, should remind the Europeans of the benefits of having medal-caliber teams and internationally recognizable figures in yet another sport.
One of Ruggiero’s last acts as a competitive player was partaking in the Boston Blades’ inaugural season.
The Harvard University alumna regularly revisited her old haunts, as well as other New England rinks, as the nomadic Blades brought the fledgling Canadian Women’s Hockey League to American ice in 2010-11. And she may even continue with that on a part-time basis
But being a native of Harper Woods, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and one who spent a substantial portion of her childhood in the Los Angeles area, Ruggiero’s roots are multi-regional. She should use that to her own advantage and, more importantly, that of the game she loves.
If Ruggiero puts forth the same effort to sustain and advance the CWHL (currently a professional circuit in name only) as she does for the international game, she could be the nucleus that spawns comprehensive expansion.
This means pushing to add teams in other hockey-hungry American markets, such as Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It also means helping the Blades and other franchises find a permanent home facility and the opportunity to draw steady revenue.
Ruggiero hung around just long enough to surpass Cammi Granato, her childhood idol and 1998 Olympic teammate, in the Team USA record book with 256 appearances in international competition.
A few months after editing that entry, she was swift to credit Granato for merely amplifying her own opportunities when Granato finished her trailblazing conquest as one of the first two female players enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, opposite Geraldine Heaney.
From both a practical and ethical standpoint, it is hard not to envision a new wing specifically for female athletes blossoming someday in the Toronto puck museum. After all, other past players such as Karen Bye, Cassie Campbell, Kelly Dyer, Hayley Wickenheiser and Manon Rheaume have earned consideration for induction themselves.
Depending on how readily the HHOF committee wakes up and inserts an annual women’s category to go with the men’s players, builders and media, Ruggiero ought to have her turn sometime within the next decade.