BOSTON – It was “Career Day” for second-grader Angela Ruggiero, and while her classmates came in the customary fireman coats and surgeon scrubs, there she was in her ice hockey gear.
At the time, the idea of a woman making a career out of hockey was unheard of. And yet Ruggiero turned any doubters into believers and may be the single most important individual in furthering women’s hockey in the United States from where it was then to where it is now.
For all she has accomplished from those elementary school days through her stellar career on the ice and a burgeoning one off of it, Ruggiero was honored Thursday night in Boston — along with Olympians and former NHL stars Chris Drury and Mathieu Schneider and iconic USA Hockey contributor Ron DeGregorio — in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2015.
The night was particularly special for Ruggiero, a former Harvard star who led the nearby Crimson to the 1999 national title. It also meant as much — if not more — than her recent induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, in large part because of her strong ties with USA Hockey.
“USA Hockey really is my family,” she said. “I grew up with USA Hockey. I put the jersey on the first time, I was 15. When I retired I was 31, and the whole time I was a member of the national team. It is like my second family.”
Ruggiero, the fourth woman inducted into the U.S. Hall, played more games (256) with the national team than any other player, male or female. She was part of four medal-winning teams in the Olympic Winter Games — including the 1998 team that won the first Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey — and continues to serve as an ambassador for the game both home and abroad as a United States Olympic Committee board member and an International Olympic Committee member.
And while she is one of a handful of trailblazers for a sport that has blossomed tremendously in the past two decades, her advice to youngsters is simple.
“Have fun. I really think the most successful players are the ones who have fun,” she said. “To get up voluntarily and go to the rink … don’t worry about anything except having a good time and being focused. I had a passion and wanted to do something with it. I didn’t know what it was. I kind of wanted to prove myself. I was the only girl out there, so I had to focus.”
That recommendation to have fun was echoed moments later when the same question was posed to Drury, the Boston University star who stood out for four NHL teams over 12 seasons. A national champion with the Terriers, a Hobey Baker Award winner and a Stanley Cup winner with the Colorado Avalanche, Drury remains especially fond of his time with three Olympic teams. Two of them — the 2002 and 2010 teams — took home silver medals.
“Just huge thrills,” he said. “Obviously in the moment you’re disappointed to lose the gold-medal game to win a silver medal, but not a lot of people have silver medals. Very honored to have those and two great experiences.”
Drury credits Schneider’s generation with paving the way for the men’s side in USA Hockey. The Rhode Island native and 20-year NHL veteran competed in two Olympic Winter Games (1998, the first two include NHL players, and 2006) and was part of a game-changing squad that claimed the inaugural 1996 World Cup with wins over rival Canada in Montreal.
Schneider said that when he got the call about his induction, the memories of that run came flooding back.
“I think that was a team of destiny. And I don’t use that term lightly,” he said. “From the minute we hit the ice in Providence, Rhode Island, we knew it was a special team. I think everyone could feel it. The pace of the practices, the pace of the passing and the shooting: Everything was in place to have an incredible run. We were in the right place at the right time. It was truly a special group of guys and we all share that bond.”
Ruggiero, Drury and Schneider each credited their families with getting them to this point, pushing them onto frozen ponds not long after they learned to walk. And each discussed their goal of furthering the sport in the United States through their current roles in and around the game. While they’ve traveled the world over playing the sport they love, the passion is at its zenith when the subject turns to hockey back home.
That was never more apparent than Thursday night in Boston.
“It’s a different kind of Hall of Fame for me because I think this is a little bit more personal,” Ruggiero said. “Because, obviously, it’s USA Hockey.”
Tony Lee is a sportswriter from Boston. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.