- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

The paths of U.S. women’s Olympic hockey coach Ben Smith and Angela Ruggiero, one of his star players, first crossed more than a decade ago, when he was coaching a senior national team during the summer of 1995.

“She had size and strength beyond her years,” Smith said. “But I remember being at the training center in Finland, assisting her dialing home so she could talk to her parents.”

Ruggiero was 15, by far the baby of that team. But she already was known as “The Terminator,” a nickname bestowed by her father for how she mixed it up when she played with the boys.

Since then, her accomplishments have superseded learning how to place an international phone call.

Ruggiero graduated from Harvard last year and is considered the top defenseman in women’s hockey. Last January, she played a game on her brother’s minor league hockey team.

She also is about to become a three-time Olympian. Ruggiero was a gold-medal winner in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 at the age of 18; a silver medalist in Salt Lake City in 2002 and a member of the U.S. squad competing in Turin in February.

After the pioneering Cammi Granato, whom Smith called the “on-ice and off-ice face of women’s hockey,” shockingly failed to make the team, Ruggiero has assumed her role. She has posed for magazine spreads and written a book, “Breaking the Ice: My Journey to Olympic Hockey, the Ivy League and Beyond.”

It was “beyond” where Ruggiero says she encountered a life-changing experience. She traveled to Africa last summer as part of the humanitarian organization Right to Play, which attempts to help disadvantaged children through sport. She spent a month in Rwandan refugee camps and other such troubled places, talking about AIDS and malaria prevention while delivering goodwill, soccer balls and her cheery disposition to grateful children who had no idea who she was.

“It was eye-opening,” she said. “The kids were just amazing. They were always smiling, very joyful, despite their situation. Seeing those beautiful faces and how they respond to you was incredible. … They didn’t know what hockey was, but they didn’t care. They were just happy that you came to see them.”

Ruggiero enjoys having fun with her teammates in the locker room and off the ice, but this was serious stuff. Before her trip, she studied Rwandan genocide. She watched the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and read the award-winning book whose title summed up the atrocities: “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.”

“In America, we were so secluded from everything that was going on,” she said. “Seeing it first-hand, your jaw just drops. It was very moving.”

Ruggiero, who turns 26 next week, began her Olympic training in Africa and hit the ice as soon as she returned home. She officially made the team this week, as if there was any doubt.

The only question is where she will play. Ruggiero is a defenseman by trade, but Smith, short a couple players, used her at center in recent exhibition games. She played well in a pair of victories over Finland. A better test comes tonight and Sunday against Canada, which won the gold in 2002.

“Now that I’m a center I can go wherever I want,” she said, laughing. “But I do have more opportunities to create things. I love going 150 [miles an hour] and create something.”

Smith has not decided how he will use Ruggiero, but it’s nice to have options.

“She’s a strong skater, a good puck-handler, someone who sees the ice and shoots well,” he said. “You’re talking about a pretty complete hockey player.”

Smith described the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Ruggiero as “threatening” but in a nice way. “Even as a defenseman, she has the capability of going coast to coast,” Smith said. “She’s a strong skater but strong physically as well.”

Those are the tangible skills, clearly seen. Beneath the surface, she brings experience, “boldness and competitiveness” to the team, according to her coach.

“She’s very free-spirited and swashbuckling,” Smith said. “She represents a pretty good headache to the opposition.”

Ruggiero grew up in Southern California and started playing at age 7. She signed up with her brother, Bill, younger by a year, so the Ruggieros would get a family discount. Bill is now a minor league goalie with the Motor City Mechanics of the United Hockey League.

The family moved to Michigan, a more hockey-friendly place — one would think. It was there Ruggiero was barred from playing a pickup game with some guys at a rink a mile from her house. The punch line: This happened the summer after her gold medal in Nagano. So she went undercover with a television news crew to expose the guys-only group and later was admitted. Now she holds clinics at the same rink.

The hockey world scored another goal for enlightenment when Ruggiero played a game for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League, her brother’s team at the time. She played regular shifts and had an assist as the Oilers won 7-2, and young girls filled the stands to watch her skate.

“It was cool,” she said. “No one was shying away from me. It was like I was any other hockey player.”

The whole thing “kind of started as a joke,” Bill Ruggiero said. “We were short a defenseman, and I told my roommate, ‘My sister’s sitting at home. She can play.’ Then I thought about it more. She was more than good enough. She was a little bit slower, but she did everything smart and knocked a couple of guys down. We weren’t trying to make a point about woman power. It was a special thing between brother and sister. We have a very unique relationship. She’s what her sport is. She’s a driving force.”

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