Paying the price

Ruggiero is the world's top female hockey player but fortune doesn't accompany fame

Angela Ruggiero has a dream. In it, she owns a big house (or maybe just a rented condo in Boston) and a shiny, new, late-model BMW. She has enough money to take a yearlong trip around the world. And, of course, she gets to play pro hockey in front of 20,000 screaming fans.

Ruggiero is musing about her wish list from her 10-by-20-foot Harvard dorm room overlooking the Charles River, an abode large enough to house a full-size bed, a couch, two small dressers, and a desk, but with no room for a closet or kitchen utensils other than a blender. Those things, as well as bathroom facilities, the 24-year-old Ruggiero must share with four other women, all fellow Harvard students.

Ruggiero is a two-time Olympic ice hockey star whose gold medal from the 1998 Nagano Games and silver medal from Salt Lake City in '02 are in a safe deposit box in Cambridge -- unveiled only for public appearances. She was recently named the top female hockey player in the world for 2003 by The Hockey News, an honor that surprised the humble Ruggiero, even though her 219 career points (80 goals, 139 assists) blow her fellow defensemen off the ice. She is believed to be the all-time leader in collegiate defensive scoring, though no such records are officially kept.

Sunday, she will lead Harvard, ranked No. 2 in the country behind the University of Minnesota, against No. 3 Dartmouth in what promises to be a spirited battle for collegiate and Ivy League supremacy. The game, at the Bright Hockey Center, begins at 2 p.m. The Crimson, with a 12-0-1 record, are off to the best start in program history.

But while Ruggiero may be the best athlete in the world at her sport, she has little to show for it financially and even less hope for future prosperity.

While players on the men's Olympic hockey team, which also won a silver medal in Salt Lake City for the United States' first men's medal since Lake Placid in 1980, earn millions by playing in the National Hockey League, Ruggiero has but a few thousand dollars in the bank. She lives month to month on meager NCAA-allowed stipends from the US Olympic Committee and has never owned a car, though she hopes to buy her first in the spring -- something practical, perhaps previously leased for a year or two, to bring down the cost. Her prized possession is a blue Canondale racing bike that she uses as the newest member of the Harvard cycling team.

When she graduates in May, Ruggiero has no idea how she will finance her bid for the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy.

"I used to think I would get a job in consulting here in Boston," said Ruggiero, a government major, in between studying for finals and writing term papers. "I really could use the money. But the more I think about it, the tougher it is. I mean, it's hard to ask an employer to let me come in at 10 o'clock because I have to go the gym for three hours and then leave early because I have a game to play. I really want to get my feet wet in another world because I realize you can't make a living at hockey.

"But it's really hard to train for the Olympics and work a 9-to-5 job at the same time."

For all of 2003, Ruggiero earned less than $10,000. That included a $3,000 allowance from the US Olympic Committee, designed to help defray costs for select athletes. She also taught hockey clinics around the country last summer, though the fees she was paid barely offset her school expenses. In addition, her financial aid package at Harvard requires her to repay 50 percent of any summer earnings, making her hockey career seem like an unpaid internship.

Granted, Ruggiero is a collegiate athlete on nearly full financial aid at arguably the most prestigious university in the country. She receives free room and board, coaching, training facilities, equipment, travel, and, in the end, a Harvard degree. She must also abide by stringent NCAA eligibility standards to maintain her amateur status and be able to play for the Harvard team, a reality that became especially harsh when Ruggiero and four other underage Olympians were not allowed to pose for a Wheaties box following the US team's victory in Nagano because it was considered a commercial endorsement. She was, however, allowed to take the $15,000 awarded to her and her fellow silver medalists in Salt Lake City, which she used to take a two-month European vacation.

But, mostly, Ruggiero can't help feeling the sting of the multimillion-dollar contracts awarded to Bruins such as Martin Lapointe, Glen Murray, Brian Rolston, Joe Thornton, and Sergei Samsonov.

"It's frustrating because I do the exact same thing as the NHL hockey players," said Ruggiero, who receives minimal support from the financially strapped and mostly volunteer-run USA Hockey. "I spend as much time in the gym and as much time on the ice. But they make millions of dollars and I have trouble paying my bills."

"Angela's in a funny situation because she's an outstanding athlete in a sport that doesn't generate any income," said US Olympic women's ice hockey coach Ben Smith. "She's caught in a capitalist society that's revenue-driven, and we have no television revenue.

"Everyone says, `If you're not on TV, you're worthless,' " added Smith, who lives in Gloucester when he's not traveling around the country scouting new talent for USA Hockey. "I think that's ridiculous. Unfortunately, people are not beating down the door to watch our team play except for two weeks in February every four years."

Smith expects the game between Harvard and Dartmouth to be great, but he doesn't expect more than 400 people to be in attendance.

According to Smith, there are some 40,000 registered female players in USA Hockey, 10,000-12,000 of whom are under age 12 and 6,000 of whom are over age 35. Compare that with the 500,000 registered male hockey players and 8 million registered soccer players, and you realize the grass-roots nature of women's ice hockey.

It doesn't help that the women are hidden under helmets and bulky, padded uniforms, giving what Smith describes as a "Neanderthal" look to the sport. With the cost of equipment and ice time, and the inhumane hours often allotted for women's team practices, it's not surprising that women's hockey is about as popular as bobsled and luge. The only difference is that the men and women in those two sports are pretty much on equal footing, whereas men's and women's hockey are millenniums apart.

"Our sport is probably 30-40 years behind where it should be," said Smith, "but that's one of the things that makes my job so enriching. There's a certain purity to the sport that is so different, especially when you realize the kind of sacrifice these women are willing to make to follow their Olympic dream."

Cammi Granato was the undisputed star of both the Nagano and Salt Lake City Olympics, an outstanding offensive player who is Team USA's all-time leading scorer as well as team captain. She is also as captivating and personable off the ice as she was dominating on it. But now, at 32 years old, Granato is struggling to make ends meet as she bides her time until the '06 Games.

"Amateur athletics is a struggle every day to decide whether to play or get a job," said Granato, whose brother, Tony, coaches the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, and played for the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks for 13 lucrative seasons.

"I guess it's all perspective. We [in the US] actually have it better than most places because we get support to help us improve. There are all kinds of junior programs out there. It's just that there's no place to play after college."

Until recently, Granato and fellow Olympian Shelley Looney played for the Vancouver Griffins of the National Women's Hockey League, a semi-pro league in Canada that pays expenses but no salary to some of the best players in the world. But the team folded when Canadian officials decided to limit the number of foreigners permitted to play for Canadian teams. Granato has remained in Vancouver, playing for a local team and training for '06, all the while weighing whether to go back to school to study nutrition.

The $30,000 she earned last year is a far cry from what she made in the aftermath of the US's dramatic win over Canada in the gold-medal game in Nagano, when there was a constant banging on her door.

"Winning there afforded me a lot of [endorsement] opportunities," said Granato, whose idea to start a women's pro league in small venues around the United States (a la Triple A baseball) is still in the conceptual stage. "But then the honeymoon ended, and within six months, no one was calling anymore. After we lost in Salt Lake City, there was silence. And then the recession hit, and there were cutbacks everywhere."

According to Granato, if anyone can break the hockey endorsement barrier, it's Ruggiero. "I told Angela that I predict she's going to be the first female hockey player to earn a million dollars," Granato said. "She's intelligent, well-spoken, and she's an amazing hockey player. When you watch the team play, you can't help but notice her. She'll definitely have her opportunities."

For Ruggiero, that moment can't come too soon. From the time she first hit the ice at age 7, accompanied by her dad, Bill, a former recreational goalie and true hockey fan; brother, Billy, now 22; and sister, Pamela, who turned 25 yesterday, the joys of hockey have been weighed against the financial burdens of the sport.

"Growing up, it actually put a lot of strain on my family," said Ruggiero, whose parents moved from Southern California to Michigan in 1996 in search of better hockey opportunities for her brother. "There was always a deficit. We always owed money to the rink in Pasadena, but we were such a big part of the team there that they gave us a break. My parents always put hockey first, and, obviously, I appreciate everything they did."

(Ruggiero's mother, Karen, worked as a secretary and now sells real estate, though the parents no longer support their daughter financially.)

Because Ruggiero was always an "A" student, as well as a hockey standout, she earned opportunities, first at age 14 with a full scholarship to attend prep school at Choate-Rosemary Hall, and then at Harvard. Ruggiero had her first experience playing on an all-girls' hockey team at Choate after years of being the only girl in an all-boys' league.

"I never had any aspirations of playing in the Olympics," said Ruggiero. "I was just playing hard against the boys, trying to prove myself."

One of the few chances Ruggiero might have to play hockey after graduation is to play with a men's pro team in Europe. Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser was paid to play last year for Salamat, a men's pro team in Finland (though she received limited ice time), and at 5 feet 10 inches, Ruggiero is not only bigger and stronger but she is more talented. More than likely, though, she'll head to Canada and try to play for a NWHL team out of Toronto, just three hours from her Michigan home. She won't make any money, but at least she'll have her expenses paid and be able to keep training for the Olympics.

"Sometimes it's frustrating when I see what the Bruins are making," Ruggiero said with a sigh. "But I'm not bitter against the men or anything. I do this because I love the game. And I do it because I want to win another gold medal."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

 

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