Q&A with U.S. women's hockey star Angela Ruggiero
Ruggiero is a 4-time Olympian who was elected an athlete member of the IOC
She believes long term a women's hockey league is profitable
She liked Youth Olympics and cultural education it provided for young athletes
Last year, Angela Ruggiero, a star for the past decade with the U.S. hockey team, was elected as an athlete member of the IOC, joining Anita DeFrantz and Jim Easton as the only U.S. members of the committee. In four Olympics, the California-born, New England-raised defenseman won four medals, including gold at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, when she was still a high school senior. In 2005, a year after graduating cum laude from Harvard with a degree in government, Ruggiero became the first woman to play professionally at a position other than goalie in a men's game, when she skated for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League. She sat down with SI.com last week at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto to discuss the women's game, the Olympics and her future.
SI.com: IOC President Jacques Rogge recently came out with a warning about the future of women's hockey at the Olympics. He said he wanted to see more growth and more countries able to compete with the U.S. and Canada. What did you think about what he said?
Ruggiero: I see it as more of a catalyst to do something. I don't think the IOC is making a decision on women's hockey in the short term. I think it's a wait-and-see. Obviously everyone wants the sport to grow and the IOC is all about giving women more opportunities. They're not the ones who implement. It's the national governing bodies, the federations [and] the stakeholders in this room. They're the ones who have to go out and do something. The IOC hosts the Olympics and they're the one who decide which sports are in and out, but they're not the ones who are doing it on the grass roots level. Those were just comments, but I see them as a really positive thing.
SI.com: Is this a critical time for women's hockey, though? There were Olympic men's hockey games many years ago with scores of 20-0, 30-0. Basketball had similar lopsided results before the European teams started beating the so-called U.S. Dream Teams. Does Rogge's warning speed up the timeframe by which the women's game needs to show some progress in terms of more parity?
Ruggiero: This is an impetus. I hope countries will go back and have a director for their women's programs, have a four-year plan instead of trying to scrape something together for the Olympics, hopefully do something on the grass-roots level.
SI.com: How important is it for the International Ice Hockey Federation to name a female director, someone who can be in IIHF President Rene Fasel's ear consistently advocating for the women's game?
Ruggiero: I think it's huge. If you're not heard, nor seen, how are the global issues of women's hockey going to change? It's important to have someone like that at the administrative level. You look around this room. It's all men. I'm on the IOC and it's similar. There's slow progress, but it's happening. You look at [Finnish national women's team GM] Arto Sieppi, he doesn't have daughters in the game, but he's one of the people doing so much to promote our sport. And he doesn't have a stake in it, but he's understood the good in it. If we had someone at that high level looking out for our sport -- it doesn't necessarily have to be a woman -- who can look out for the girls who start the game and women who continue to play it. Plus it's huge business opportunity. Look at the NHL. They miss their female fan base. Look at the NFL. They're always doing things to include their female fan base. A lot of times the hockey community misses that chance. It's like 50 percent of the population is ignored in our sport and then we get that two-week window and people think, 'Wow, that's great.' Then all of a sudden that dies away. Why not use that momentum for four years?
SI.com: What sort of women's league could work in the U.S.? Would it be like the Western Women's Hockey League in Canada [which includes a Minnesota team]?
Ruggiero: I've always envisioned something that's like minor-league baseball that's community based. Women's hockey appeals more to families. Ticket prices are cheaper. You could be in cities that are smaller so you could have more of a community focus. You could get international players involved so you could get funding that would make the league sustainable. You start small. Baby steps. I don't think a WNHL would work in the short term. I think we learned from soccer that if you start too big too soon, you're going to fail.
SI.com: Then does it have to be based in the upper Midwest and New England or up in Canada?
Ruggiero: Yeah, I think what we're thinking of now is expanding on the [Canadian Women's Hockey League]; Montreal, Boston, Toronto, obviously Minnesota is a huge hotbed, Detroit, Windsor. The business plan has to be right. Maybe you start with a six-team league. If you were going from Minnesota to Boston, you'd be flying, so that would add to the expense. I really think you need funding from the national Olympic committees or the IIHF or the NHL. The players could do clinics in the NHL cities.
SI.com: I could think of a certain six-team league that has grown up a lot over the last few decades.
Ruggiero: There you go. [The NHL] was six for a long time. It's almost like we have this blueprint that the men put in place.
SI.com: But how do you get financial support to do what you want to do?
Ruggiero: Long term a women's hockey league could make money. You would need sponsors who are looking for something beyond the traditional men's hockey, looking to give grass roots support. It could also be a non-profit situation like the one we had with the Minnesota White Caps with the Western Women's Hockey League. I almost don't want people to think of it that way, because it can be a moneymaking venture in the future.
SI.com: Non-profit ideas can work.