Angela Ruggiero has seen the best of times and she’s seen the worst of times. But what excites her the most are the times that lie ahead.
For Ruggiero and countless other females around the country, there was a time when being the only girl on a boys’ team was the only way to play hockey.
“I grew up in southern California, and my dad wanted to sign up my brother to play hockey,” recalls Ruggiero, who is currently training for her fourth Olympics.
“They needed players and asked if there were any other kids who wanted to play, so my dad signed me up as well. Even though I could skate circles around most of the boys, I still remember when I was 9 years old, being cut from a boys’ team, solely because I was a girl. That definitely gave me motivation to prove people wrong.”
Thanks to the pioneering women who laid the groundwork for the tens of thousands of girls who can’t wait each day to lace up the skates and go hard in the corners, the face of hockey is looking much different these days.
Jump In Numbers
Women’s hockey has come a long way since the first known game was played in the late 1800s. For that matter, it has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years. When the first IIHF Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship was held in 1990, there were 6,336 registered females playing hockey in the United States.
In 2008, there were more than 60,000 females registered. And this number typically doesn’t include girls and women playing for high school and college teams who do not have to register with USA Hockey.
“If you add in the 200 high schools and the 23 colleges in our state that play women’s hockey, we would add another 5,000 players to our numbers,” says Lynn Olson, who is the USA Hockey director for Minnesota.
With significant growth over the past 10 years, more girls then ever are honing their hockey skills, ready to take on anyone in their way – boy or girl.
“Like most girls, I started playing hockey on a boys’ team in my town, but last year I went to a girls’ team and it has been awesome,” says Caroline Garrity, who plays for the Middlesex (Mass.) Islanders 14 & Under team.
“I still get to play against my brother and his friends on the rink in our backyard, and at the end of the day when it’s just me and my brother out there skating, it’s a good reminder of how much I love hockey.”
Security In Numbers
In New England, with the large number of players and the closer proximity of girls’ teams, the security in numbers has created an environment that has allowed girls to learn, develop and mature in a confident setting. With stronger girls teams emerging, girls have the luxury of playing for an all-girls’ team in all girls’ leagues, and/or still playing hockey on boys’ teams and against boys.
For Olympian Scott Fusco, it was easy to see the demand for another top girls’ hockey program in Massachusetts, (New England teams have long been in the shadow of the mighty Assabet Valley teams.) Working with coach Paul Kennedy, Fusco quickly figured out the key to success in attracting talented players to the East Coast Wizards was not only great coaching, but also having consistent and readily available ice time. Not having that, he built his own multi-use facility two years ago—and the players have come.
“It’s not just quantity that we’ve seen,” says Fusco. “Each year the skill level of players in each age group has gotten better. We are feeding up every year, which is great to see. I think this is good for girls’ hockey all around.”
Other programs are seeing the same writing on the wall. The North Shore Vipers (Mass.), another growing program, has seen its home rink add another sheet of ice and will soon have an off-ice training facility that includes a synthetic ice shooting station, stickhandling stations, plyometric tools, sprinting track, dedicated area for quickness training, and a weight training area.
And then there is the perennial powerhouse Assabet Valley Girls’ Hockey.
“Where do I start?” asks Carl Gray, the director of the Assabet Valley Girls’ Hockey program. “Title IX affected colleges, and colleges affected prep schools, and prep schools affected youth programs, and now the cycle comes around again as the original players’ children are now playing, and more adult women are still playing.”
Team Florida, which had recently burst onto the national hockey scene, under the direction of Jane Solverson, now finds itself a product of its own success.
“We put together some top national-level girls’ teams, but then to serve their needs, it was important that they go north to get the consistent level of competition they needed to reach the college level,” says Solverson.
“We now need to build up a sustainable number of girls playing hockey in Florida.”
Until that happens, talented girls in non-traditional parts of the country will continue to look for opportunities in more traditional areas of the country.
“My goal is to play hockey in college,” says Gina Buquet, who is from Lafayette, La., but now lives with the family of Ron McCann, who directs the Ohio Flames girls’ program.
“I knew the Midwest Elite League is heavily recruited by colleges. Last year I commuted from Louisiana and played in weekend tournaments for the Flames. Now I get to live with my teammate, Tracey McCann, and we are scoring goals and having fun on and off the ice.”
University of Wisconsin junior forward Kyla Sanders grew up in Fort Myers, Fla., but traveled north to attend high school at the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt.
“There were not that many competitive girls’ teams in Florida, so we had to travel up and down the east coast to play other teams,” says Sanders. “Being a girl and playing hockey in Florida you had to be committed. But being packed in vans for 24 hours, piling people in the same room, and waking up for 7:30 a.m. games are memories that I will never forget.”
This climate of confidence and camaraderie is fertile ground for the continued growth in girls’ hockey. In the 10 years after the first Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship, the number of girls’/women’s teams rose 844 percent. This swelling pride of girls playing hockey is infectious.
It’s not surprising to hear Alesandra Miller, who plays for the Assabet 12 & Under Red major team, say, “Assabet isn’t a place where your goal to win is put to the side; Assabet is a place to accomplish that goal to win.”
For every player like Angela Ruggiero who broke new ground for future female hockey players, there are now thousands of girls who say “thank you” when someone tells them they play like a girl.