Angela Ruggiero: The Big Q&A
by Lucas Aykroyd|12 AUG 2021
Ten years after winning her final Women's Worlds gold medal in Switzerland, the passion of IIHF Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero (left, with Jenny Potter) for sport is as strong as ever.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Using her skill, speed, size, and strength, U.S defender Angela Ruggiero took pride in dashing Canadian dreams in international hockey during her IIHF career (1997-2011). The IIHF Hall of Famer (2017) was part of the U.S. Olympic team that upset Canada to win the inaugural Winter Games gold medal in Nagano, Japan in 1998. Ruggiero also tallied the shootout winner in Linkoping, Sweden that gave the U.S. its first IIHF Women’s World Championship title and stopped Canada’s streak at nine straight gold medals in 2005.

However, since retiring in 2011, this legendary four-time Olympian and four-time Women’s Worlds champion has focused on building solutions that benefit all female athletes, not just in the U.S. and Canada, but worldwide. An ultra-active International Olympic Committee (IOC) member from 2010 to 2018, the 41-year-old, Harvard-educated Ruggiero now heads up Sports Innovation Lab.

The Boston-based, 2016-launched company conducts data-driven market research into fan behaviour. It promotes the idea of the 21st-century “Fluid Fan,” who wants to engage with sports leagues and organizations on multiple digital platforms and connect with the personalities and social values of individual athletes. The outspoken Ruggiero has thrown herself into this latest venture with the same enthusiasm she brought to battling the Canadians.

With both the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Calgary (20 to 31 August) and the 2022 Beijing Olympics coming up, interviewed Ruggiero in Boston via Zoom recently.

Angela, with the IOC, you played an important role in getting new sports approved for the Tokyo Olympics. Did you have an extra appreciation for getting that done because you yourself were part of a newly minted sport in Nagano?

Yeah.  I didn’t have a dream of playing in the Olympics until 1992, when they said that women’s hockey would be in. That year, I was 12, and I got to play when I was 18. When I served on the IOC as a board member, and then an executive board member, I was actually at the table, helping to approve this idea that we would have more youth, more urban flavour, and more gender inclusion. And those were really the three pillars that we thought about in terms of skateboarding, karate, surfing and so on. I was on the board when we approved those for Tokyo. Some of those athletes have never been able to compete on the Olympic stage. Or then take softball. These women didn’t get to play in the Olympics for several cycles, and now they get to again.

I can definitely empathize with the athletes, but I can also speak to the need in the Olympic space to be more youthful, and to make sure that we’re not giving more medals to men than women just because that’s what we’ve always done. We should really ensure that gender balance. The fact that I got to compete and win a medal and have that experience for the rest of my life, I want every athlete to have that opportunity.

As you mentioned, you won that Olympic gold medal as a teenager on your first try. It’s sort of reminiscent of how Jaromir Jagr won his first two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh. How do you think that early taste of success affected you and shaped the path you’re on today?

In some ways, I didn’t appreciate it because I was so young. If you watch me at the end of the [1998 gold medal game] video, I’m skating around with the flag with this youthful exuberance and joy. You know, if I’d won in Vancouver as opposed to Nagano, I probably would have been crying, a little bit wiser in terms of the work that went into it. But I think it helped me in a lot of ways because it gave me an enormous amount of confidence: self-confidence, team confidence, and just the idea of what it means to be a team. That was the other benefit. Through my 20s, I had that amazing experience of having 19 or 20 other women who were really my big sisters, I learned from them, and we were the epitome of a team.
Even to this day, I always think about that team and how we came together, the roles we played and the lessons I learned. Having won early on gave me that blueprint for what a good team looks like and I tried to think about that with my other teams, whether it was Harvard or another U.S. team that I represented. I finished my career, in Switzerland with gold [at the 2011 Women’s Worlds]. It wasn’t an Olympic gold. But I appreciated it more, I think, the older I was.
Angela Ruggiero visited South Korea while serving on the PyeongChang 2018 Coordination Commission.
photo: Courtesy of Angela Ruggiero
In your opinion, what major changes or evolution do you see the Olympics going through in the next decade or so?

With women’s sports in general, there’s been talk about differences in uniforms, differences in rules. I still question why women’s hockey has no checking and men’s hockey has checking. I believe that rule was implemented to protect the women in a largely male-dominated federation. In terms of full face shields, I’m actually okay with that. I think the men should wear face shields. They should copy us because I still have my teeth! [laughs]

But then, look at the media, like primetime. Why do the men’s events consistently get primetime? And they’re slowly changing, but I would love to see the final of the Beijing Olympics, for example, be the women’s hockey match, not the men’s hockey match. Why do they always get the final day, the final game, all eyeballs going into the closing ceremony? Could we alternate when you have those men’s and those women’s sports, giving them equal attention? And not just in the schedule, like 4 a.m. versus noon. That’s Step One. It’s also about where the final games are played.

I was on a coordination commission to PyeongChang. We took seven or eight trips there before the [2018 Winter] Games. So I would go there representing the athletes. I’m on a bus and I asked, “Why do the women only get the gold medal game in the big arena and the other games in the smaller arena? That doesn’t make any sense to me.” And I was told that the IOC was told that the big ice needs a day off. And the IOC doesn’t know any different, but I do. I said, “That’s not true. Because you don’t have these off-days with hockey rinks. Unless you’re painting lines, you don’t need a day to breathe. This isn’t soccer.” They said that was what they’d always done. I pushed and we finally got the women’s semi-finals and the gold medal game in Pyeongchang in a big arena. I hope that we can uncover more of these biases and continue to treat the men’s and the women’s games equally, not just in terms of participation and media portrayal, but also equal funding.
Angela Ruggiero served as an IOC member from 2010 to 2018.
photo: Courtesy of Angela Ruggiero
During the Tokyo Summer Games recently, Simone Biles was front and centre. What was your reaction to her decision to withdraw from the gymnastics competition for the sake of her mental health?

I was so proud of her. I think she said that athletes are humans. We’re not all superheroes. The world likes to look at you as a superhero, as a role model. But the best role models in the world show that they’re human and show their vulnerabilities and how you overcome those vulnerabilities. I think about her in the team competition. If she knew going into it, “Look, I may throw some points here because I’m not where I need to be,” and removed herself and allowed her team to win a silver medal, well, that’s courage. Traditionally, the attitude is, “You need to run through a wall. Don’t worry about it, you’re tough.” And now we’re seeing more of an awareness that athletes are humans with faults.

Stepping away, I think it’s the hardest thing to do. As an athlete, I want to play every shift. You fight through the injury. I didn’t tell my coach about the torn shoulder that I played on in my last World Championship. She had no idea. And I think back: “Man, if we didn’t win, if I missed that puck and someone went around me and no one knew...” [To disclose] is not something we’ve been taught to do. We’ve been taught to hide our weaknesses, to not show our vulnerabilities. So I think it’s great that the conversation has started around the impact that will make beyond sport or beyond gymnastics, in her own life and the conversation on mental health.
You’ve been successful with a lot of things you’ve done since retirement, from the IOC to Sports Innovation Lab. Is it hard to make that transition from athlete to sports official to entrepreneur?

Yeah. I think all athletes struggle, myself included to an extent, because the high you get as an athlete is unparalleled. You know, I’ve jumped from an airplane a couple times. I’ve probably driven my car too fast! You’re an adrenaline seeker. You love the pressure, the camaraderie. There’s so many amazing elements of being an elite athlete, especially if you get to do it in your 20s or 30s, where you develop friendships and but also go into a venue with thousands of people cheering for you and that pressure. You can’t duplicate it. So I empathize with every athlete out there that’s trying to find that next big passion point.
Luckily, to your point, I’ve been able to throw myself into technology, into fan intelligence, building this company, building a great culture here at Sports Innovation Lab. I’m trying to bring more diversity and inclusion into the sports ecosystem through data and market intelligence and help the whole industry make better decisions – not just with women’s sports, but across everything they’re doing. It’s who I am. It’s like my approach when I was playing.

I look at my peers, and some of them don’t, I think, have that kind of passion that I’ve fortunately found in my second career. But I just encourage everyone to keep looking, putting their hand up, volunteering, and throwing themselves into something the same way that they threw themselves into sport. You only find passion when you’re fully immersed in it. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to get outside of my bubble post-hockey and find something that really feeds my soul.

With that said, let’s take a deeper dive into women’s hockey. Looking at 2022, what do you think needs to happen to ensure that the momentum for the sport from the Beijing Olympics is maximized, whether it’s the U.S, Canada, or another country that ends up winning the gold medal?

Well, I have to say I want the U.S. to win! [laughs] But I want all countries to come. I want it to be a killer competitive tournament. In the future, we need more global support. We need the IIHF to keep stepping up and spending more money, investing in more development. We need the national federations to put more investment into their teams, their national women’s team programs and youth programs. I mean, here in the U.S., we have a National Team Development Program, but we don’t have an equivalent on the women’s side. You know, I see these inequalities even in my home country. With the investment, everything else will follow, in my opinion. You’ll have those elite athletes, you’ll have that infrastructure, the grassroots support. It’s just starting at the highest level.

I’d like to see grassroots participation and investment across the board. Any country that has a great men’s program should have a great women’s program, full stop. Russia, Sweden, Germany – anyone that’s done well on the men’s side has that infrastructure and hockey knowledge to compete on the women’s side. 

Once you’ve built up that base of athletes, we should have a pro league. It’s crazy. We were talking about a pro league back in 1998 after we came back with a gold. You know, we’ve had starts and stops. And now, in terms of what’s going on with the NWHL and the PWHPA, I don’t necessarily think we need the NHL. I think I would build a league that can stand on its own two feet and looks very different. There’s so much change going on. Women’s hockey could write the playbook for innovation. I’d love to see women’s hockey lean into that opportunity at the elite level and build something – yes, you can partner with the NHL and maybe lean into some of the existing infrastructure of the NWHL – but something that rewrites the rules.

The biggest thing is that athletes retire early and then you don’t see their full potential. We know in hockey, you don’t mature at 22, but that’s when a lot of female athletes retire if they’re not already in the national team program. Look at the average age of the men’s hockey player. It’s much older now. I’d love to see women have the same opportunities to keep playing, keep pushing themselves, and pushing what’s possible in our sport.
How do you feel about the proposal to play the Women’s Worlds in Olympic years in August, starting in 2022?

It’s great to have more exposure. Obviously the athletes are going to have to juggle more, but the men always have year-round opportunities, and I think it’s great to have that opportunity on the women’s side. You won’t have as much off time in the off-season, but you know, with growth comes sacrifices, and that’s OK.

I talk to the WNBA players a lot, and they’re bouncing around, playing everywhere, every which way, but they’re out there. They’re making money. They’re promoting their sport, and so I’d love to have women’s hockey players have the same “frustration”: “Oh, we have so many games, so many opportunities to play and make money, and go promote the sport!”

Your 2006 autobiography Breaking the Ice mentions that when people asked which games you remembered from Nagano, you said: “Canada and Canada.” What kind of impact do you think the U.S.’s controversial gold-medal shootout win over the Finns in Espoo in 2019 had on women’s hockey and the perception of the sport?

I mean, that was huge. You skipped over when we lost in a shootout to Sweden [at the 2006 Olympics]! And I had one of those shots, by the way. So I remember very well. But anyway, [Espoo] was great for the sport. Fans show up when they don’t know who’s gonna win. They love that context and the drama. Look at the Olympic soccer tournament, with people on the edge of their seats.

Now, I love this nonstop rivalry that the U.S. and Canada have. You’re guaranteed a bloodbath – not literally, but figuratively. People are going to go as hard as they can, because they train to play against that other team, and they have the utmost respect, but it’s intense. And people love that. 

But I loved that [2019 final]. I was on the edge of my seat as a fan, watching, obviously cheering on the Americans. It showed the competitiveness is out there. We just need to continue providing support. Hopefully a lot of those players won’t have retired on the Finnish team, so they’re still around for Beijing and can put some pressure on the North American teams.
What was it like for you to watch the Americans beat Canada in a shootout for the 2018 Olympic gold medal 20 years after Nagano?

Well, I got to give out the medals afterwards, which is the highlight of my IOC experience. I was over the moon for those players. It was surreal being on the ice, giving out those medals because it was almost 20 years to the day that I was getting mine as a little kid. And I’m giving it to my, like, little sisters! They did an amazing feat, and obviously Canada has won many golds.

I just see so many amazing women that want to keep pushing the sport, if we can just come together and put a solid plan together and build that next level that women’s hockey needs, which is the pro side. And not start from scratch. There’s a lot of really good things going on with the NWHL, a lot of great things going on with the PWHPA, and a lot of support you could get from some NHL clubs so people. It’s just figuring out which different groups could contribute to what that business plan could look like.

Who do you stay in touch with in the women’s hockey world these days?

Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne are two that are obviously still playing that I try to give a little bit of guidance to.

I took Hilary under my wing when she joined the national team. I’ll never forget her joining. I’m like, “Who is this kid?” [laughs] We did a little camp in 2005. We were going through Cromwell, Connecticut. It was one of these practices where a bunch of girls could skate with us for 20 minutes before we went off to Torino. And Hilary, of course, jumps on and is first in line. And we’re like, “That kid, she’s big already!” And then she made the team the following year. She’s someone I’ve always had a good relationship with.

Likewise, Kendall, she was a camp counselor at my hockey schools for many years. And obviously Brianna Decker I know, so I’d say those three. It’s just crazy that get I’m old now where I’m like, I know a lot of the other players, obviously, but I didn’t have direct overlap with most of them.

How about retired teammates?

Oh, we have an amazing WhatsApp thread for 1998. And that just blows up every single day, whether it’s commenting on something in the news or congratulating someone for something they did or cracking a stupid joke. That team, which is amazing, is still very much connected. Cammi Granato was one of my captains back in the day, and I’m very close to her, even today. And it’s really cool to see A.J. Mleczko doing a lot of commentating. I’m staying connected with and close to her.

Obviously it’s hard with children and everything, but actually, having kids myself has brought me closer to some of the more local players here that have kids. Although they mostly had theirs a few years ago, because I was the youngest player on the team.
Angela Ruggiero played four years on the Harvard women's hockey team.
photo: Courtesy of Angela Ruggiero
Have you developed a kinship with any of those Canadians you used to battle with?

There’s Jen Botterill I played with at Harvard, of course. We were actually roommates. There’s Tammy Shewchuk, who obviously played on the Canadian team and also at Harvard. Anyone I overlapped with at Harvard, I have a special relationship with. But now increasingly, there’s Jayna Hefford who’s working with the PWHPA and is in the Hall of Fame. Hayley Wickenheiser got elected to the IOC. So I saw her occasionally when she was able to show up to those meetings. 

It’s interesting with the Canadians, because yeah, we had our battles on the ice, but we’re all in it together at the end of the day. And I think, especially when you retire, you recognize that. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”