When Angela Ruggiero and AJ Mleczko-Griswold started playing hockey, they were not thinking about being rebels or revolutionaries.
They were just kids who wanted to play hockey.
Yet on Tuesday, February 7, they were speaking at the Concord Museum as part of its “Rebels and Revolutionaries” series.
Ruggiero and Mleczko-Griswold were members of the 1998 U.S. Women’s Olympic hockey team that won the Gold medal in Nagano, Japan. It was the first time women’s ice hockey was contested in the Olympics.
Ruggiero went on to compete in four Olympics, playing on teams that won the Silver in 2002 and 2010, and the Bronze in 2006. She was the first woman who was not a goalie to play in a professional men’s game when she played for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League with her brother, Bill, in 2005.
Mleczko-Griswold played on the 2002 US team that won the Silver.
They both played at Harvard University, earned multiple All-America honors and won the Patty Kazmaier Award, which goes to the country’s top female college hockey player. Mleczko-Griswold was on the Crimson’s 1999 national championship team.
Mleczko-Griswold grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut and played at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. Ruggiero also played her high school hockey in Connecticut at Choate Rosemary Hall, but she started playing in California, when her brother wanted to join a youth team and it needed more players.
“It’s almost like a survival of the fittest,” Ruggiero said about playing youth hockey in Southern California. “It;s not just you, it’s your family, driving 45 minutes to get to a rink. You have to really love the sport, both as a child and as a parent.”
Currently, Mleczko-Griswold lives in Concord and Ruggiero lives in Weston. Mleczko is an analyst for ESPN with its NHL coverage and the New York Islanders. Ruggiero is a co-founder and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, a technology-powered market research firm.
In the 25 years since they won the Gold medal, they’ve seen a lot of growth in women’s hockey but they also see plenty of room for more growth in the next quarter century.
“There’s been a lot of change, but not enough,” Mleczko-Griswold said. “There’s the depth, the sheer numbers. There are a lot more girls playing and registered with USA Hockey. There are more Division I college programs.”
Said Ruggiero, “Now there are 80,000 girls and women registered with USA Hockey. Before 1998, it wasn’t a full NCAA sport and now there are many more college programs and scholarships. There’s a professional league.”
In 1998, a handful of Massachusetts high schools offered girls hockey and the MIAA did not sponsor a championship tournament. Currently, there are 78 MIAA member schools that offer girls hockey and play for state titles in two divisions.
Both women remember the early years on the national team, when they wore hand-me-down gear from men’s age-group national teams. They recalled playing between periods of NHL games.
“Just like mini-mites,” Mleczko-Griswold said.
At the time there were also a lot of people who did not know that women played hockey.
“When Angela and I were on the team in 1998, we’d be in the airport and people would see our gear, they’d ask if it was our brothers’,” Mleczko-Griswold said. “Now when I tell people my daughters play hockey nobody is really surprised.”
The pro league, the Premier Hockey Federation, has a $1.5 million salary cap, which Ruggiero noted was higher than the National Women’s Soccer League’s salary cap.
“Now women can make a living at this,” she said.
Going forward, they’d both like to see more professional opportunities and more opportunities to showcase the quality of the game.
“I’d love to see the full life cycle for women’s players,” Ruggiero said.
Said Mleczko-Griswold, “To me it’s investment. It’s dollars. Businesses are recognizing that it could be beneficial. If they understand that they can get a return on their investment, they’ll invest it. There are women making money at hockey but I’d like to see more.”
They’d also like to see the growth of women’s hockey in other countries. As long as women’s hockey has been played internationally, most world and Olympic finals have pitted the United States against Canada.
“It’s like the Red Sox and Yankees, only you can’t get traded,” Mleczko-Griswold said.
Said Ruggeiro, “We did get Bronze one year (losing to Sweden in the semifinals) in 2006, but that was an anomaly. I’d like to see the USA win, always, but I’d like to see it grow in other parts of the world.”
Said Mleczko-Griswold, “It’s getting there. Finland recently beat our U18 team. It comes back to money. In the US and Canada, there’s more support. They go into residence before major competitions. In places like Finland, they hold jobs and get together for a while before the tournaments. You’re seeing some changes. Players from other countries are coming to the US to play college hockey and they bring that back to their countries.”
One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 25 years is that checking is not allowed in the women’s game, while it is in the men’s. They each have mixed feelings about it.
“It’s a difficult question,” Mleczko-Griswold said. “Angela and I were both bigger players who would have benefitted from it, but now even in the men’s game, you’re not seeing as many big hits. In the women’s game, they do allow more contact now, mostly along the boards.”
Said Ruggiero, :”I started playing with checking but then had to learn to play without it. At one time, I would have liked to have it in there. Now, I’d like to see both kinds available to both men and women. I’d like to see 3-on-3, or ball hockey. You have sled hockey now. Just more options for people to find a kind of hockey they’d like to play.”