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Women’s hockey sees huge growth after 1st Olympics

Members of the United States Women’s National Hockey Team leap over the boards and stream toward their goaltender to celebrate a 3-2 victory over Canada on Nov. 9, 2008 in the championship game of the Four Nations Cup tournament at the Olympic Center’s Herb Brooks Arena. Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian, is pictured standing on the bench with arms raised in triumph. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

(Editor’s 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. This is the third of three stories.)

The state of women’s hockey in the United States has come a long way since the first U.S. Olympic team competed in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, where it won the gold medal.

In addition to USA Hockey, more professional opportunities continue to pop up for women in this country and beyond our borders.

The National Women’s Hockey League formed in 2015 with the aim to give female athletes a professional, paid stage for their sport, and it has continued to expand in terms of teams and fans since its beginning. Additionally, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association is composed of some of the top players in the world, and hosted a 2019-20 “Dream Gap Tour” that featured talent showcases and community engagement events in American and Canadian cities to promote professional women’s hockey.

And while the NHL has yet to formalize a relationship with any women’s hockey league, it has included top women in its All-Star Weekend the past few years, such as Kendall Coyne-Schofield’s groundbreaking participation in the faster skater competition in 2019.

Katie Million, the current director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey, remarked how women’s hockey continues to grow as more people recognize the skill of female athletes. 

“I think people are finally recognizing that women play sports, too, and we’re good at it,” she said with a laugh. “And I think for women’s hockey, Olympic teams have been super-successful, and that always has a certain popularity and recognition and exposure to it. I think sometimes those events really motivate young girls to, when they see that, they want to be that. That motivates the younger generation to either take up the sport or ramp up their motivation and training, and want to be on the national team or Olympic team one day.”

Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian who has been recognized time and again for her contributions to the sport and currently serves as the CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, echoed similar sentiments, in particular noting how far hockey has come since she started playing, including in terms of the sheer increase in the number of players. Ruggiero guessed the increase of females playing the game went from 5,000 in the 1990s to around 80,000 currently.

“It’s just amazing, the growth. We’ve still got a long way to go, but the fact that you can be a girl and you don’t have to hide your hair, you don’t have to change your name — a lot of my peers have stories like that, [being] the only girl until they were in college. I, literally, was the only girl in the state of California,” she said. “The first time I stepped foot on the rink with all girls, it was amazing. All my friends could be in the locker room. It’s so nice that now girls grow up with that, or start on a girls hockey team; they have the choice, at least.”

Ruggiero did voice her dismay in the gap of investment in junior women compared to junior men, as there is currently no national team development program, but she did give credit to the Olympic platform for the incredible growth women’s hockey has achieved in the U.S. 

Saranac Lake’s Andrea Kilbourne-Hill won a silver medal with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team in 2002. She is now the principal of St. Bernard’s School in her hometown and coaches for her kids’ teams. Kilbourne-Hill also noted the increase in opportunity for female athletes to continue playing even beyond college, as fans are increasingly drawn to women’s hockey.

“A lot of people ended up saying, ‘I actually love watching that elite level of female hockey better because there’s not so much rough stuff, there’s not a lot of fighting, and things like that that go on in male hockey,'” she said. “It’s a real purist game based on skill, and so I think a lot of people found a new appreciation for that as well.”

From a local angle, she added, “I think that when you grow up in this area, you have a different feeling for what’s possible because you have an Olympic-caliber rink, bobsled track, Nordic center, all of those things. They’re there, and so it’s ingrained in your mind that it’s something you could do from a young age.”

For information on the NWHL’s bubble season in Lake Placid that begins Saturday, go to www.nwhl.zone or visit the nwhl Facebook page.

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