Angela Ruggiero is a Hockey Hall of Famer, a successful businessperson and a respected former member of the International Olympic Committee. She will add “head coach” to that biography next summer as one of the inaugural group of eight bench bosses for 3ICE, an innovative 3-on-3 hockey league scheduled to begin play in summer 2021.
Despite her experience and her stature, it’s one of the first coaching opportunities to ever come her way.
“Which is surprising, to be perfectly honest,” Ruggiero told ESPN recently. “I know Hayley Wickenheiser has done some stuff with the Toronto Maple Leafs. You’ve got Cammi Granato who’s a scout [in Seattle], which is amazing. And then you’ve got a few former Olympic athletes involved with NHL teams.”
Ruggiero said that the only time she worked with an NHL team was around 2006 as the director of “Project Hope,” a New York Islanders-backed program that was aimed at providing young Chinese athletes with access to higher education. After attending business school, there were some other front office offers in the sport. But Ruggiero has never had another job with an NHL team; like so many other women in hockey, she’s waiting to see the current homogeny in managerial personnel finally change.
“I think it’s time to have more women in the front office. More women on the GM side,” she said. “Again, hockey’s hockey. It’s shocking, to be honest, that we haven’t had more. It behooves the hockey community — when we’re trying to recruit more female fans, more female players — to have more of that voice at the table.”
As other sports have inched forward with opportunities for women in coaching and management, she hasn’t seen the same in hockey.
“Look at what a lot of teams are doing in football and basketball. All the leagues are saying that this isn’t just the right thing, but it’s good for business to have more former WNBA players helping [in the NBA],” Ruggiero said. “There’s a talent pool out there, and there’s an opportunity to have more of this. Hockey has a great talent pool. And most female hockey players, at least in North America, have an undergrad degree. We go through the NCAA. That’s the path we all take. So they’re all educated.”
She paused for a moment. “That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m excited to be on the coaching side.”
Ruggiero, 40, was among eight Hockey Hall of Fame players named as the inaugural head coaches for 3ICE. The league is expected to open with eight teams of seven players — six skaters and a goalie — which will take part in a nine-city tour, with multiple games at each location, totaling 60 games for the season next summer.
Joining Ruggiero behind the benches are Guy Carbonneau, Grant Fuhr, Ed Johnston, John LeClair, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy and Bryan Trottier. Some of them have previous head-coaching experience. “But everyone who’s going into it is a rookie. No one’s ever coached this type of hockey before,” Ruggiero said. “We don’t know the kinks or the rules. So, in a way, it’s exciting to be the first in this new format and to be with a bunch of Hall of Famers will also be exciting.”
She knows that her first professional hockey head-coaching job isn’t going to be that demanding from a tactical standpoint.
“For me, it’s the selection and the preparation going in. Not a lot of X’s and O’s and strategy,” she said. “There will be a lot of a flow, a lot of creativity that fans will crave. Every game counts. Speed will count as much as skill.”
Ruggiero lives outside of Boston with her wife and two children, one of them her three-month-old son. “This is my first experience birthing and nursing. And man, it’s hard,” she said. “But my [quarantine] experience has been fairly normal. I would have been home anyway. It’s just that I didn’t have as many lasagnas dropped off as I would have otherwise, or people there to hold the baby while I took a shower or something.”
She is a four-time Olympian for the U.S. and captured the gold medal in women’s ice hockey in 1998. The defender was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. Off the ice, she’s the CEO and co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab, a technology-powered market research firm that works with sports brands, and was a member of the International Olympic Committee from 2010-18, including a two-year stint as chairperson of the IOC Athletes’ Commission.
Ruggiero was connected with the 3-on-3 hockey startup by Peter Tomozawa, president of business operations for the MLS Seattle Sounders and a minority owner in the Vegas Golden Knights. She worked with him on the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic bid. “He was familiar with what these guys were doing,” she said. “I haven’t actually coached since I retired. The opportunity to get back into the game in that capacity really interested me.”
Ruggiero’s varied experience interested 3ICE. “We’re overjoyed,” said E.J. Johnston, CEO of 3ICE. “Having a gold medal-winning Olympian, a Hockey Hall of Famer, a Harvard MBA and a media and technology expert with us is both empowering and exciting. Angela is exactly the kind of intellect we need to ensure our success.”
Ruggiero believes that 3-on-3 could be what hockey needs to reach new markets.
“The concept of 3-on-3 is something I saw first-hand with basketball in Singapore, at the youth Olympics, right after I got elected to the IOC. Everyone loved it, and now it’s an Olympic sport. There’s a whole 3-on-3 league here. It’s taking a sport that’s dynamic like basketball and making it even more bite-sized,” she said. “I’ve been saying as a hockey player, ‘Man, let’s do something differently.’ You saw the attraction with 3-on-3 overtimes. Could we do more of that? So when I was approached by these guys, I was already a fan of it and [wondered] why we couldn’t do more of this stuff? Why couldn’t sports do more of this stuff?”
She also believes the “barnstorming” model, with multiple games at each stop, is the right innovation, too. It’s something akin to what she experienced at the Rio Olympics, watching the fast-paced Rugby Sevens tournament before handing medals to the winning teams.
“It’s a totally great analogy [with 3ICE]. I’m on the board of world rugby. I’m the only woman there, too. As I’m the only woman on everything anymore,” she said with a chuckle.
Ruggiero is the lone female coach in 3ICE, but hopes not to be the only woman on the benches. The NHL’s 3-on-3 exhibition between U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey stars at the 2020 All-Star Game was well received. Could it be a harbinger for women participating in 3ICE?
“I would love to see it. I think they’re open to that. We’re actively thinking through how to pick players, what the rosters will look like. Having my involvement, having a female coach sends a message that they’re trying to be more inclusive. It’s not unprecedented. Think doubles tennis. Think about World Team Tennis. Think all of the youth Olympics I’ve participate in, where sports were mixed-gendered,” she said.
“I think it’s interesting, for the players and fans. Hockey’s hockey. In this case, there’s no checking and no fighting. It’s skill and flow, which is very much women’s hockey. I would love to see women involved in this, and hopefully it works out with the pre-Olympic [schedule]. That might be one of the biggest restrictions.”
Ruggiero has been monitoring the national team players’ current conflict with the National Women’s Hockey League, the pro league they opted not to work with last year.
“I’m with the players on this one,” she said. “If you look at what makes a league — men’s, women’s, whatever — successful, it’s robust funding. It’s a long-term horizon. It’s a league that has that infrastructure to market. When any league starts out as a startup, which is most women’s leagues, they’re fighting an uphill battle. I think the players, at the end of the day, are saying that they need more. They want a strong professional league that can be supported by the NHL. That could not have the same financial structure that the WNBA has, but could leverage the marketing and promotional capabilities in the markets.
“I commend the NWHL for launching, and for some of the owners that have gotten involved to make the sport stronger. But at the end of the day, I’m with the players who say we need something built for the long term.”
NHL participation in a professional women’s league is a controversial subject in the community, but Ruggiero is in favor of it.
“Any recent leagues that have launched and have been successful are the ones that are venture-backed. That have capital. They have a seven-year horizon and not two-year. It’s not a women’s thing, it’s a business at the end of the day and has to be viewed as such. I hope the NHL steps up the plate,” she said. “I hope Gary [Bettman] and the owners, despite COVID, see the opportunity. I certainly thing women’s sports is untapped. There are fans. There’s an opportunity. I hope it’s hockey, and not some other sport that figures it out.”