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Retirement won't end Angela Ruggiero's hockey feats

December 29, 2011 |  2:18 pm

FabforumAngela Ruggiero cried the first time she stepped onto the ice at a rink near her Simi Valley home, unable to figure out how to go forward or do anything but fall.

Ruggiero, now 31, grew up to become a four-time Olympic hockey medalist and all-time leader in appearances in a USA hockey jersey. She made some suspicious sniffling sounds Thursday as she discussed her retirement from the U.S. women’s national team, but her tears were understandable -- and likely short-lived, because hockey has given her a gateway to a bright future.

Ruggiero has made a remarkable journey, from frightened 7-year-old to dominant defenseman who parlayed her skills and wits into becoming a powerful figure within the U.S. and International Olympic Committees. Her influence off the ice might be stronger than it has been on it, a key reason she decided to retire now.

“I’m able to give a voice to the athletes around the world -- use my degree for something other than the power play,” she said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. “So it’s exciting.”

Inspired to skate by Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles, Ruggiero began playing hockey in Southern California but quickly outgrew local competition. Her family left California when she was young so she and her brother, Bill, could improve their games. In 2005 they were teammates in a Central Hockey League game, in which she became the first woman to play a position other than goalkeeper in a professional game.

She joined the U.S. national team at 16 and later excelled at Harvard, playing professional hockey when she could and becoming a mainstay of the national team. She became a leader through 10 world championships and all four women’s Olympic hockey tournaments, winning a gold medal in 1998, silver in 2002 and 2010 and bronze in 2006.

A recurring shoulder injury and her growing responsibilities to the IOC’s Athletes Commission and other assignments led her to realize she could not fulfill all her duties with the passion they deserved. She announced her retirement Wednesday after playing for the U.S. 256 times, a record for any player, male or female.

“There wasn’t an ‘aha’ moment; [it was] more a cumulative decision,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is the responsibility I have to the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee, and I’m really passionate about that ….The more I’ve done work with the IOC the more I’ve come to realize I’m really excited about this, the work that I’m doing and the impact that I can have if I’m fully committed to it."

Ruggiero said she was considering attending business school but expects to remain connected to hockey as an advocate for developing and improving the women’s game, which has been dominated by the U.S and Canada. She said she has spoken to officials in the Czech Republic and Russia about devoting the kinds of resources to their women’s programs that they do to the men’s game and hopes they will eventually overcome cultural barriers that have held the women’s game back.

“In a way, by being fully committed to the Olympic movement globally, I’m better able to promote women’s hockey and talk about women’s hockey and put a face to women’s hockey, to all the IOC members,” she said. “To all the International Ice Hockey Federation members, to anyone really in the global community and do what I can to promote the game at that level.

“I’ll miss being on the ice and in that kind of shape and all the fun stuff that comes with it, but it’s a fun time for me," she said.

“I still love hockey. It’s just I’m at a different stage of my life and I think I’m just ready to grow in other ways outside of just being a hockey player.”

Not just any hockey player, though, and her greatest influence on the game might be still to come.


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-- Helene Elliott

Photo: Angela Ruggiero. Credit: Don Tormey / Los Angeles Times.