This Week in Women’s Hockey: March 4, 2004

No matter how long sports are played, watched or coached, the next week is never quite like any other. Many of women’s college hockey’s seniors, even as they’re ritually honored in their final home games of the regular season, nonetheless have plenty of new competitive experiences forthcoming. Even if the seniors were to play forever, they would still find they have a lot left to learn.

For some, these last few weeks have already been marked by unprecedented achievements. Minnesota’s seniors, after living through three straight Minnesota-Duluth NCAA titles, earned their first three-win season over the Bulldogs and likely dealt the death blow to a UMD Frozen Four run. Dartmouth’s seniors became the first to go undefeated against Harvard and Brown during the same regular season in recent history.

For the most senior of the seniors on each side of the Harvard-Dartmouth rivalry, this past weekend brought a tremendous amount of adversity in the midst of unprecedented achievement. Harvard’s Angela Ruggiero and Dartmouth’s Lydia Wheatley are the only players left on each roster who could describe Dartmouth’s 3-2 overtime win over Harvard in the 2000 ECAC semifinals first-hand. As experienced as they are, neither could anticipate the misfortune that befell them this past weekend.

Like the stuff of Greek tragedies, both players proved most vulnerable because of their feet. Ruggiero, when her foot struck the head of Dartmouth’s Katie Weatherston’s on Friday night, earned the first disqualification of her hockey career in the biggest game of the season. Wheatley, who sustained a small fracture in her foot later in the weekend, might have just played the last games of her career.

After an emotional weekend, Ruggiero will be back in action for No. 3 Harvard this weekend against Yale and No. 9 Princeton with an ECAC title on the line. After back-to-back seasons of ACL injuries, Wheatley finds her foot in a cast, and there’s only a slim chance of her returning for the ECAC final rounds.

The Penalty

Though hundreds may have left Dartmouth’s 3-2 win at Thompson Arena on Friday believing that Angela Ruggiero maliciously kicked Katie Weatherston in the head during the second period, neither Harvard coach Katey Stone, Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak, nor Ruggiero herself thinks there’s any evidence of intent.

By Ruggiero’s account, Weatherston fell on the ground after attempting to take the puck from her. As Weatherston lay on her back, her legs wrapped Ruggiero’s foot. The first time Ruggiero pulled up to skate away, she was pulled back by Weatherston’s grip. As Ruggiero pulled up the second time, Weatherston released her grip and lifted her head at the last possible moment. The result is what everyone saw.

“It was completely accidental. The second I hit her and started skating away, I turned around to apologize to see if she was okay,” Ruggiero said. “Hockey is a game, and obviously I’d never want someone to be injured in the process of playing a game.”

Ruggiero never got to apologize on the ice, because she was crosschecked by Dartmouth’s Alana BreMiller in retaliation. Ruggiero sought Weatherston again during the postgame reception to offer an apology but failed to find her. She did speak with Hudak and Dartmouth sophomore Tiffany Hagge so that they could pass an apology along to Weatherston.

“I find it very tough to believe that Angela maliciously did something like that,” Hudak said. “She certainly struck her in the head with the skate, but whether it was just reckless or her trying to get away, I don’t know, and I really can’t tell from the tape.”

“As a coach and an educator, you have to be an optimist and you have to believe in the best part of people. Angela spoke with me after the game in private and apologized, and she didn’t offer an excuse or anything. She said she was really sorry and it was certainly not her intent to do that, and I have to believe her. I’ve spoken with Angela before on the ice and I’ve watched her play and I think she’s a good person.”

Furthermore, Hudak speculated that his players could sympathize with Ruggiero’s situation.

“I think the team was certainly upset at the time, but at the same time, they’re all athletes and they’ve all done things in their careers which I am sure they wished they hadn’t, which I’ve got to believe is Angela’s position right now,” Hudak said. “I don’t think anyone on the team is sitting there thinking she’s a bad person or was trying to injure somebody. I think they look at it as an unfortunate incident.”

Ruggiero said she holds the same respect for Dartmouth. It was tough for her to miss the opportunity to close out that game.

“It’s fun, that’s why you play hockey, when you know it’s going to be a one-goal game and have to capitalize on their mistakes and make the least mistakes possible for your team,” Ruggiero said. “Those are the games you want to play in and as an athlete you want to be challenged as much as possible. And Dartmouth always brings their best game to us so all the little things we’ve worked on all year long are going to pay off in those situations — well, hopefully they’ll pay off. I love to play against Dartmouth.”

As Ruggiero was being removed from the ice, she spoke with the officials to clarify that the contact was unintentional, but her words could do nothing to keep her in the game. Even if the officials were to agree there was no intent, she still had no case by the book.

In the official NCAA rulebook, there is no mention of intent being a requirement for the kicking penalty, which always results in a disqualification — an immediate ejection and one-game suspension for first-time offenders. In fact, the rules state that a kicking penalty should be given even if a kicking gesture is made towards a player that results in no contact.

A point of emphasis this year is to show zero tolerance for contact to the head. Ruggiero can accept that.

“Whenever there’s contact to the head, I realize and understand that the referees have to protect the players on the ice,” Ruggiero said. “I’ll take the disqualification if that’s what they think is necessary.”

Earning a disqualification was an entirely new experience for Ruggiero. She had earned two game misconducts earlier this season in the final minutes, but never any penalty this serious. In fact, those have been the only three ejections of her entire playing career. She lasted this long without an ejection despite having once played for a squirt team where all but five players were unable to dress due to various punishments. She was one of the five who played.

Perhaps the toughest part for Ruggiero was that she was unaware of her one-game suspension until she started to dress for the Vermont game on Saturday. Stone said she had talked to Ruggiero the night before and was under the impression that she knew, which made the situation all the more unfortunate.

Another difficult aspect of this third ejection for Ruggiero is that she has faced questions regarding her character that she’s never had to answer before. This is the same Angela Ruggiero who was one of three Patty Kazmaier finalists last year and the same Angela Ruggiero that during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games was one of eight U.S. athletes elected to carry the American flag that survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She maintains that her teammates and the opponents who know her stand by her. Her coach has always supported her.

“It’s certainly not part of a larger problem,” Stone said of Ruggiero’s three ejections. “Angela Ruggiero has played her best hockey at Harvard University this year. She has played more of the way I want her to play than ever. She’s under control. She manages the game well.

“We would not be where we are if it hadn’t been largely for the way Angela Ruggiero played for us. There’s no question about it. We’re a very young team. And she’s a great leader.”

Stone said that Ruggiero has come a long way in college hockey, since she was a freshman and really didn’t know how to play with athletes who weren’t as strong. Ruggiero drew 74 minutes of penalties her freshman season. She had not come close to matching that total until the events of these past several weeks, an increase that Stone attributes to Ruggiero having to enter another period of learning — one where she has to deal with the reality that she’s always being watched.

Ruggiero’s worst game this season was a 6-3 loss to Princeton in which Ruggiero drew four penalties in just the first period. By the final minute, she had earned 22 penalty minutes and a game misconduct.

“She’s playing the best hockey she’s ever played in college hockey this year,” Stone said. “She’s the most dominant player, and with that comes a heavy burden and a huge bulls-eye on your back. So now there’s even another growth period here where she has to understand those hurdles even more and adjust her game to suit the things that are happening on the ice. The advantage is going to the less talented, less skilled, less strong player in this league right now and I think that’s unfortunate.”

Stone calls Ruggiero the strongest, best-conditioned player there is. She observes that most other players would have fallen at some point had they been leg-locked by Weatherston or crosschecked by BreMiller.

“I think it’s typical of our players that we’re trying to get them as strong and fit as possible,” Stone said. “They’re not diving. They’re not dropping to draw penalties. They’re trying to stay on their feet and play hard. That’s how we’re going to do it. If that means we don’t get to draw as many penalties as other teams, that’s okay. I prefer to play that way.”

Stone did not take issue with the disqualification, and she noted that the level of officiating is headed in the right direction.

And she stands by her player.

“She’s a tremendous ambassador for the game of women’s hockey.” Stone said of Ruggiero. “She’s bright, she’s articulate, and she’s kind. No one asked her to go up to that reception and apologize. That’s just a testament to her character. Kids don’t do that kind of stuff. She’s a mature kid.”

Another Tough Break

While Ruggiero has always inspired the Harvard team, Lydia Wheatley has been a constant source of inspiration for Dartmouth. In her junior year, her season ended after 10 games due to an ACL tear. In her senior year, her season ended after two games, when she tore her other ACL. Where others might have quit, she kept pressing onward for a what has been an outstanding fifth season.

Wheatley has played in all 27 games this season, and her presence was crucial to Dartmouth’s success because of the team’s constant national team departures and frequent injuries. Wheatley was typically the player who got the call to fill in on the top two lines when necessary.

In the weeks prior to her first ACL tear, Wheatley had been a dominant player. She had 4 goals and 8 assists in just 10 games of a junior season where she was finally coming into her own.

One of her greatest starring roles came in an early season game against Brown, a team Dartmouth would battle blow-for-blow with all season for the ECAC title and a Frozen Four berth. Dartmouth had scored to go ahead 4-3 late in that game, when Wheatley took the puck straight off the faceoff, blew down ice and circled in front for a critical insurance goal just seconds after the fourth Dartmouth goal.

It has never been easy for Wheatley to be the player she was before the knee injuries. In Dartmouth’s 7-3 loss to Minnesota in early February, she came up short on more than one breakaway chance that showed just a shadow of the Wheatley of the past.

But Wheatley came to play this past weekend. She was one several Dartmouth players that could always bring her best for Harvard and Brown. Her first career goal as a freshman gave Dartmouth a commanding 3-1 first period lead the night Harvard raised its national championship banner, and the Big Green went on to stun the defending champions 5-4 in overtime. This past Friday against Harvard, she was there to redirect the puck at the crease on the power play for a 2-0 second period lead.

“Lydia has been a real leader in that program,” said Stone, a most respectful opponent.

On Saturday, Wheatley’s redirection tied up Brown, 1-1. The Big Green went on to win both games by a 3-2 margin and provide Dartmouth with its third Ivy title in four seasons on Wheatley’s last senior weekend.

“The whole season has been a continued improvement for her getting right back into shape,” Hudak said of Wheatley. “This past weekend we saw a Wheatley that was really reaching for her potential.”

That makes her broken foot this past weekend all the more upsetting for Dartmouth. According to Hudak, it’s not a bad break, but it’s enough to keep her in a cast and there’s only a very slight possibility Wheatley will be back by March 20th. It’s another tough blow for Dartmouth, who once again finds itself with different line combinations and power play units from the week before.

If this past weekend’s games are Wheatley’s last, she can take solace in that she went out at the top of her game this season, and she has made her team proud.

What Lies Ahead

There is no league with more at stake than the ECAC this weekend, from top to bottom. Not one seed is secure. Vermont and Cornell fight for the last playoff spot, Princeton and Brown go head-to-head for home-ice advantage and the No. 4 seed, while St. Lawrence, Harvard and Dartmouth battle for the top.

Dartmouth will be unable win the league title assuming St. Lawrence sweeps last-place Union or Harvard beats Princeton and Yale, but the Big Green still will have to get by Cornell and Colgate to maintain the No. 2 seed and the No. 2 standing in the Frozen Four hunt. Colgate gave Dartmouth a tough 4-2 game last time around, and Rebecca Lahar has been a steady presence in net for the Raiders.

“They do a nice job defensively, trying to keep you away from the net and letting their goalies see the puck,” Hudak said. “I expect to have a good game with them. We’ll continue to work on the things we need to work on. At this time of the year our focus is really trying to refine some things we’re doing.”

The Princeton-Harvard game on Sunday could have both home ice for Princeton and an ECAC title for Harvard riding on it, which promises to make it a show.

The Tigers struggled a bit with losses to Yale and Mercyhurst this past week, which Princeton coach Jeff Kampersal attributed to youthful mistakes. On Sunday, the Princeton seniors, not wanting to close out their regular season home slate with three straight defeats, rallied for a 3-0 victory in a rematch with Mercyhurst. The Tigers were led by Seniors Angela Gooldy and Lisa Rasmussen who both netted goals, and Megan Van Beusekom who delivered a 40-save shutout.

“Hopefully they can rally the troops again and perform well this weekend and get us going and back on track heading into the playoffs,” Kampersal said.

Princeton took it to Harvard in a 6-3 win in late January but fell to Brown 3-1 the next day. The Tigers were outshot by a 31-18 margin and outscore 2-0 against the Bears in the final two periods.

“I think that we put so much energy into that [Harvard] game that weekend and it was an emotional game, we were just flat on Saturday,” Kampersal said. “Not to take anything away from Brown — in the second and third period they really took it to us. We respect Brown, and hopefully we can match their intensity on Friday.”

One of Princeton’s keys to success against Harvard was effectively shadowing Ruggiero. In her words, she could not skate in a straight line all day.

“I just think Ruggiero is a dominant, dominant player and we’ve got a lot of respect for her,” Kampersal said. “Watching her in different box scores she’s posting 12 shots, 17 shots, 10 shots — it’s just a ridiculous number of shots for a defensemen. So that’s someone we tried to focus on a little bit more in that game.”

“I just know that I’m fortunate to get to see her play in the summer and work with her a little bit in the summer. I don’t know her as while as some of the other kids, but she’s always pleasant, she’s nice, she’s a professional. She’s a respectful kid and she’s someone you don’t really want to play against on a particular day. We certainly don’t fear her but we certainly respect her, though.”

Ruggiero said she’ll look to be prepared for what Princeton throws at her, though she added that as per usual, Harvard will not be changing its game plan. She expects to bring far better games against both Yale and Princeton this time around.

“We have a lot of respect for all of our opponents,” Stone said. “We’d like to play better than we played the first time we played them. But we’re in a better place now than we were then. It should be a great atmosphere and two great hockey games.”

Although Ruggiero only saw the end of the Dartmouth game from the tunnel and all of the Vermont game from the stands, she likes where Harvard is headed.

“We played tremendous in that game,” Ruggiero said of the conclusion against Dartmouth. “We proved were not a two or three-person team, but we’re a really good hockey team. You have to take the positive experiences. We have that going into the playoffs, knowing that when we need to we can find it in ourselves to elevate our game.”

“From what little bits I saw from my position in the tunnel, it was a good, fun period.”