Success, motivation, talent will follow Ruggiero

Veteran defenseman Angela Ruggiero showed up at the U.S. women's hockey team camp in Blaine, Minn., on Wednesday without her gear -- a first in her 16-year career. Instead, she carried 10 typed pages of prepared remarks. She didn't want to wing it and risk forgetting something important.

Ruggiero was still rehabbing from shoulder surgery and wasn't supposed to be there at all, so her teammates stared at her quizzically when she walked into the locker room. She asked them to gather and told them she was retiring, effective immediately. And then, methodical yet passionate as always, she began spelling out the lessons of a lifetime in the game.

Her teammates hugged her when she was done. She told them they would have more time to talk later. Then the players spilled out on the ice to scrimmage and Ruggiero stayed behind in her street clothes, drained and uplifted.

John David Mercer/US Presswire

After 16 years, Angela Ruggiero played more games than any other Team USA player (256) and finished with 67 goals and 141 assists for 208 career points.

"Right now, I'm standing behind the glass, and I guess that's a metaphor for how my life will be going forward," Ruggiero said by telephone Wednesday night. "It feels right. But it's emotional. Saying goodbye to anything you've done that long is hard."

Here's the first and, in some ways, the only thing you need to know about Ruggiero: She is smart and driven and talented enough to have done practically anything with her life, but she chose to play hockey. In so doing, she has enriched her sport and the experience of many of the women who shared the ice with her.

Ruggiero's retirement from the national team comes as she is about to turn 32, after 256 games, four World Championships and four Olympic medals. She should be a shoo-in to join her former teammate Cammi Granato in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Even amid the scrum of well-educated, articulate women who play at the game's top level in this country, Ruggiero stood out as one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, a go-to player for reporters who wanted big-picture analysis or an X-and-O breakdown. She was generous, humble, straightforward, steely and dependable. Add leadership ability as obvious as the flashing light behind the net, and it's easy to understand her longevity.

But what always impressed me most about Ruggiero was how much she thought through what she was doing, every step of the way. The fact that it's impossible for women to make a full-time living in hockey was both a curse and a blessing for her after she graduated cum laude from Harvard with a degree in government in 2004, and already an NCAA and Olympic champion.

Accomplishment never robbed Ruggiero of motivation, but she still had to figure out what to do with herself during those intermissions that yawned between major competitions -- how to keep herself in shape and advance the plot as a person. She had many options and pursued a good number of them, often multi-tasking, always curious, never frantic.

"I find that I've tried to become a better hockey player every year and not just hold on," Ruggiero told me in an interview in late 2009 as she prepared for the 2010 Vancouver Games. "At the same time, I've also made it a point to increase or grow in some other area of my life. If I were just playing hockey, I would probably be done with the sport."

She worked in commercial real estate, managed the New York Islanders' charitable arm, wrote a book, did commentary for the Frozen Four, ran hockey camps and earned a master's degree in sports management. Meanwhile, she traveled wherever she could get ice time with the best players, following a gypsy's path through Boston and Canada and Minnesota, with stops in her home state of California and a professional cameo in Tulsa, Okla., where she played alongside her brother. She turned down a real-life job offer from Donald Trump after he fired her on "The Apprentice."

She contemplated leaving the game more than once, but couldn't. Until now.

"It's not about, 'Let me play as long as I can so I don't have to grow up.' It's about, 'Let me play as long as I enjoy it, and when it's time to step away, I can step away gracefully even if I'm still good enough to keep playing, because I'm ready for that next phase,'" Ruggiero said in that 2009 interview, and that is exactly what she has done.

In 2010, Ruggiero was elected to an eight-year term as an athlete representative to the International Olympic Committee, which places her on the U.S. Olympic Committee's board of directors, as well. To say she loves her duties is an understatement, as anyone who follows her ebullient Twitter feed can attest. She was on the site evaluation committee for the 2018 Winter Games and has traveled the world for events and meetings, always with the same agenda in mind.

"It's an opportunity to represent the athletes, give them a voice," she said Wednesday. "I lived it for so long, I understand ... I have this unbelievable platform to help our sport, to challenge the NHL and the IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation] to do more."

On the global stage, Ruggiero said she is determined to be part of a USOC that wants to "put our best foot forward, engage with the world and show we care about the Olympic movement and it isn't just about us. I'm in the perfect position. It's a sports position and a political position where I can help better the lives of athletes around the world."

If that sounds like high idealism, it is.

And don't bet against Ruggiero getting a few things done. She plans to apply for an MBA program and continue to play for the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League in her spare time. She is someone intent on living a life without regrets. Would she have loved to be part of a championship team in Vancouver instead of falling to archrival Canada in the gold-medal game? Yes, and that goal was a big reason that she kept playing.

"I've been chasing that gold since we won in Nagano [in 1998]," Ruggiero said. "But you can't control everything in life. We weren't the better team on that day."

On Wednesday night, standing behind the glass, Ruggiero admitted she had fully intended to stick around for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. But she knew only too well what kind of commitment it would take, and had reached a point where she didn't want to close the blinds on other vistas. She's beginning to visualize something different, and shared that with her teammates in her farewell address.

"What I'd really like is to be the one putting the medals around their necks in Sochi," she said. "Gold medals."

Ruggiero could have done pretty much anything with the gifts she was given. She chose to play hockey. We should all look forward to whatever she does next.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

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