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NWHL adding to women’s hockey history in LP

Four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero of the United States Women’s National Team attempts to fend off Annie Desrosiers of the Beatrice Aeros, a Canadian women’s semi-pro team, during a game at the Olympic Center 1980 arena on Nov. 23, 2001. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

(Editors note: In celebration of the National Women’s Hockey League coming to Lake Placid Olympic for its two-week season in a bubble starting with a triple-header Saturday, the Enterprise is running a three-part series covering the history of women’s hockey in the Olympic Village.)

“When you say, ‘Lake Placid,’ everyone thinks of hockey. Lake Placid is synonymous with the word hockey.”

That was a statement from Katie Million, the current director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey and a former New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority employee of 17 years.

“There’s so many people who end up going through Lake Placid at some point in their hockey career,” she said.

While the United States men’s team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics is the most famous hockey memory to ever come out of Lake Placid, women’s hockey also has rich roots in the region.

Lake Placid was the training headquarters for the 1998 U.S. Women’s National Team that went to Nagano, Japan, when the sport was first played in the Winter Olympics, and numerous international competitions and the upcoming bubble season of the National Women’s Hockey League have furthered Lake Placid’s status as a hub of women’s hockey as the game has flourished around the country and the world.

Long before women’s hockey began to grow in popularity across the United States, Larry Barney, a Lake Placid local who was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in July 2020, used his extensive coaching experience to help a small group of girls form the village’s first girls’ hockey team, the Rockets, in 1984. The team went on to win many sectional and state titles. Barney also organized the first senior women’s Adirondack team, which went on to compete in the Empire State Games and win the gold medals its first eight consecutive years. 

On the national and international stage, women’s hockey events were relatively few and far between before the sport debuted in the Olympics in 1998. Some notable competitions Lake Placid hosted included the IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1994 and the Three Nations Cup (precursor to the modern Four Nations Cup) in 1997, where Team USA placed second and first, respectively.

The ball began rolling for women’s Olympic hockey at an informal camp hosted in Lake Placid in August 1995, which introduced Coach Ben Smith to many of the women who would go on to make the 1998 Olympic team that won the gold medal. Two years later, 54 women were brought to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid for a final, week-long tryout camp. The selected women then continued to train at the local Olympic facilities. 

Central to bringing elite women’s hockey to Lake Placid were Bob and Denny Allen. Bob Allen was the first general manager of the U.S. women’s team, and his son Denny was the manager of the Olympic Center for “years and years and years,” in the words of Million, who worked with both of them.

“They were both very significant in leading the charge for women’s hockey, getting the U.S. [Olympic and Paralympic Committee] and the [International Olympic Committee] to add it as an Olympic sport for 1998, when women’s hockey was first recognized as a sport under the Olympics,” Million said. “I know Denny put so much time and effort into communication with USA Hockey to have women’s events in Lake Placid. He was one of the people crucial, he and his dad both, in having that August camp, and having that opportunity to bring women’s hockey to Lake Placid. And then from there, having the residency in Lake Placid for 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams was certainly huge, and an awesome opportunity for Lake Placid and for the women’s national team. So those two guys get all the credit for recognizing women’s hockey and bringing it to Lake Placid.”

Describing a postcard of the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena with all the world flags in front of it that hung on her wall throughout high school, Angela Ruggiero recalled how making the Olympic team was always a goal of hers. After representing her country in a handful of international events before women’s hockey was added to the Olympics, Ruggiero became the youngest player to make the U.S squad heading to Nagano as an 18-year-old. During the training period before those games, she often summoned encouragement from the hockey history of Lake Placid. 

“I can remember days where it was just freezing out and you’d just have to trek and walk all the way to the rink — just the coldest day, right?” She reminisced. “And there’s no one in the stands, and you’re having practice, and you look up and there’s Olympic inspiration, and that’s why we were there — to go to the Olympics and compete. So having that motivation, you didn’t have to manufacture it in your head; it was just there.”

(Thursday: Saranac Lake’s Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, who won an Olympic silver medal in 2002, recalls her playing days with the national team.)

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