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Q&A with U.S. women's hockey star Angela Ruggiero

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.

Ruggiero: You get [a] certain numbers of donors. Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks have poured an enormous amount of money into the [Women's United Soccer Association]. He's the founder of the Discovery Channel. They did that because their daughter played soccer. For them, it was an investment in society. They believe their daughter should have the same opportunity as the boys. You have to think big, but be willing to start small.

SI.com: Do you want to see checking in the women's game at some point?

Ruggiero: Yes. Wow, if I could have played with checking my entire career, that would have been so much fun. When I started playing against girls, I started taking penalties. I didn't know what to do with myself. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. I always felt it could discourage young girls and parents from signing up their daughters. But I've started thinking about it the last few months. At times, people discount our sport because [it doesn't] have checking. I get what I call bi-girl penalties, because I'm stronger than someone who runs into me, so they fall and I get thrown into the box. For many years, I've said no checking, because it makes the game more skilled-based. But I think adding it might give us more credibility internationally. Do I want fighting? No, I don't think that should be part of the game at any level.

SI.com: Now, to the question of parity ... beyond the U.S. and Canada, the next tier, Sweden and Finland have beaten the top tier on occasion. How close are they to being able to do that on a regular basis?

Ruggiero: They beat us at worlds in a crossover match. But in certain years, the gap goes like this [widens arms]. Where you're putting in the dollars that the U.S. and Canada are putting behind their programs and giving us those resources to succeed, the gap just widens. In years when there's no Olympics, half the NCAA Division I players are Canadian. We're developing their program for free. North Dakota's program has two-times the budget of the Swedish National team, because of Title IX. If we were to get more Europeans in the NCAA, they would get so much better. They have 4,000 to 5,000 players in some countries compared to our 65,000.

SI.com: You went on a trip to China. What did you learn there about their program?

Ruggiero: I went there with the New York Islanders. I was the first director of Project Hope, creating hockey opportunities for kids over there. We were building rinks, trying to get some of those kids to the states on scholarship. They're doing everything they can, but they're picking just a few players and they're not building a full-time program. They don't have the sport in their culture. When I went over, I asked to watch practice. They skated in a circle this way, then that way. They don't have the kind of coaching that can help them grow.

SI.com: What have you had a chance to do with your new IOC post?

Ruggiero: Well, I'm on the board of the USOC as well. More hats. They keep coming. Representing them, I went to a Pan-American federations meeting, I went to Dubai for SportAccord. I'm on the Entourage Commission, which is a new commission for athletes and agents. We just had our first athletes' commission meeting in Singapore. Then I've done some things for the USOC.

SI.com: The feeling of IOC members towards the U.S. Olympic movement, not just the USOC, hasn't been good in recent years. Do you have a sense of what needs to be done to change that and if it is changing?

Ruggiero: I think they'd like to see more involvement with the international community. I think already the new leadership with the USOC has been taken rather well at the IOC level, with Larry [Probst] and Scott [Blackmun] doing a good job to be present and listening. How are you going to be able to listen and get things done if you're not meeting face-to-face? They're doing that. It's about building relationships. The IOC may have a lot of issues with the USOC, but it realized the USOC is a big stakeholder.

SI.com: What have the IOC members expressed to you as the biggest issues they have with the USOC?

Ruggiero: Rights are a big thing, especially the amount of funding the USOC gets from the IOC pool that was negotiated years ago. That's something everyone has known about for a while. Maybe they can come up with a solution together.

SI.com: So putting you on the spot here, if that magic number 12.75 percent of shared rights fees could be lowered, what do you think the USOC might like to see in return?

Ruggiero: To be honest, I don't have an answer for that. I think it's more a recognition from the IOC that the USOC is making a sincere effort to engage and work with and give back to the international community, that we're creating a structure that's fair. I don't know if people are aware of the way the U.S. community does contribute, with camps and scholarships, people training in the U.S. I think a lot of the things the USOC does, by bringing them over, housing them at the training center, and so on, I wasn't even aware of how much they did that. Maybe we could give more visibility to that.

SI.com: Tell me about the Youth Olympics you just witnessed in Singapore. Were they useful and what did you think of them?

Ruggiero: I loved them. I didn't really have any expectations going in. There was a great universality principle I liked. At the Olympics, you're always going to have the best of the best regardless of resources and country, but the Youth Olympics had a cultural and education program, so there was more interaction among athletes. As an Olympian, you're so focused on what you have to do, you almost have to be a pro-active athlete to befriend someone from another country and benefit from that.

From my perspective I liked that component of the Youth Olympics.

SI.com: They had a few different wrinkles there, liked mixed events -- mixed by gender and even mixed in some cases by country. Do any of those things have any staying power for the Olympics?

Ruggiero: The Youth Olympics aren't trying to be the Olympics; they're trying to be distinct. I don't think they'd try to take three-on-three basketball to the Olympics, but the Youth Olympics are thinking outside the box, getting athletes to interact more, creating a structure that allows more countries to win medals.

SI.com: What can they do to make the Youth Olympics better?

Ruggiero: I loved the Olympic village. For that age group, 14 to 18, they're so malleable, if you give them the opportunity to think outside the box, befriend people from other countries through all the cultural exchange initiatives they had in the village ... that's what the idea of Olympism is all about. The equestrian from Saudi Arabia, she was thinking of quitting her sport. Now [she] wins a bronze medal and people are saying she might be the first woman from her country to compete at the Olympics. There were a ton of upsets and surprises across the board so it was very exciting.

SI.com: So what other things are you doing now and are you retired from hockey for real?

Ruggiero: [Laughs] I'm actually not sure. I'm deciding soon if I'm going to move from Los Angeles to Boston. With all the things I'm doing for the IOC, I'm kind of weighing my options. I'm 90 percent sure I'm going to Boston. There's a possibility of a team forming there in a league. They're working out the details, but I can't say more right now. I went to school in Boston, so that's a good fit. I had shoulder surgery right after the Games, so I'm going to start skating again. Then I can see if I can commit through Sochi or if it's time to move on.

SI.com: And your school ...

Ruggiero: I'm finishing my master's in sports management at the University of Minnesota, but I just have five credits left and I can do that there or away.

SI.com: So you'd be moving back from the Lakers to the Celtics. I mean of all places for a Boston student to go ...

Ruggiero: I know, I know, I've heard that. I still have a lot of friends there, though.

SI.com: And it's becoming a hockey hotbed.

Ruggiero: Two Californians were drafted in the first round. You know, you have to be so super-dedicated to succeed out there. It weeds out a lot of players, because you and your family have to drive all over the place. It's an incredibly dedicated community. You see what started with [Wayne] Gretzky going over there. Amazing. Hopefully the women's game finds that momentum.

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