Career Comes To Disappointing End for Ruggiero

As the horn sounded, the Best Defenseman in the World bent over, her stick set across her knees. She began a slow coast toward her team’s goal. Then she took a knee.

Anyone familiar with hockey’s body-language lexicon knew this wasn’t just another game for No. 4. This was it — the end to one of the most brilliant careers in women’s college hockey history.

The Angela Ruggiero-captained Harvard Crimson fell Sunday night in the NCAA championship game to Minnesota, 6-2. Ruggiero assisted on Nicole Corriero’s second-period goal for a 2-1 Crimson lead. She put seven shots on goal. And she, by rough calculation, played 4,574 minutes.

Typical Ruggiero game. In every way but one: Harvard lost.

That’s not an exaggeration. Over her four seasons in Cambridge, interrupted two years for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the Crimson was 109-13-5. Not a coincidence.

But this night was for Ruggiero’s Team USA mates, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz, to toss their gloves in the air and accept the trophy. The Gophers were too good, too fast, too deep.

“We kept our composure, we kept fighting, but we couldn’t get through in the third,” Ruggiero said afterward.

By any measure, the end to her collegiate career was a difficult one.

But someday, years from now, when she sits a grandchild on her knee and opens a yellowed scrapbook of her remarkable time at Harvard, she’ll have a few numbers to start with:

Goals: 96.

Assists: 157.

Points: 253.

National championships: 1.

Patty Kazmaier Awards: 1, received Saturday.

She was also a Kazmaier finalist, first-team All-American, first-team All-ECAC and first-team All-Ivy League selection for four years.

Ruggiero has played in a major championship game — the AWCHAs, NCAAs, Olympics, or World Championships — in each of the last six seasons.

She won Gold in Nagano and was on Harvard’s 1999 national championship team, but has been on the losing side of the last four: the 2000 World Championships, 2001 World Championships, Salt Lake City Games, and here Sunday night.

This is a career, though, that goes beyond wins and losses. Ruggiero carried the World Trade Center flag during the 2002 Opening Ceremonies.

Not the kind of player that comes through a hockey program all the time. And Ruggiero was also unique in that, because of her Team USA obligations, her collegiate career took the form of separate two-year tours of duty. She first arrived on campus in the fall of 1998.

“We stretched her career out as long as we could,” Harvard coach Katey Stone said.

During the press conference, when Stone was asked about Ruggiero and the team’s other seniors, Lauren McAuliffe and Mina Pell, she had difficulty controlling her emotions.

“The hard part is I’m not going to get the chance to see them at practice again,” Stone said. “They’ve meant so much to this program.

“And it’s not the caliber of player. It’s the caliber of character.”

Ruggiero, of course, will play again. Soon. She will skate Tuesday with Team USA during the preliminary round of the 2004 IIHF World Women Championships.

But she acknowledged Sunday that won’t ease the pain of leaving Harvard hockey behind.

“It’s an honor to wear the USA jersey, I’ve done it for nine years, but I’m sad to not put on the Harvard jersey again,” Ruggiero said. “This has been a very special team this year, not just on the ice, but off the ice.”

This Harvard team, minus the likes of Canadian Olympians Jennifer Botterill and Tammy Shewchuk, didn’t have the star power of those Ruggiero played on earlier in her career. And, in a way, that made reaching this game more meaningful.

“We’ve worked so hard to get to this position,'” she said. “It’s going to be really sad not to have my Harvard teammates by my side.”

Tuesday, she’ll rejoin an old set of teammates. She embraced two of them, Wendell and Darwitz, in the handshake line Sunday.

“It’s tough,” Wendell said. “She’s a senior, and this is her last game. She’s a great player, with everything she’s accomplished.

“I know what it feels like to finish second. But it’s good to know we’ll be going back in the same direction two days from now.”

Asked whether she was ready to hop back on the same bench with Wendell and Darwitz, Ruggiero cracked an ever-so-slight smile. “I need a day or two,” she said, “but I still like them.”

After Sunday’s game, you could bet Ruggiero wasn’t thinking much about Team USA or her Olympic medals or agreed-upon best-in-the-world status. For one last night, she was a college hockey player. She was someone who, like Lauren McAuliffe and Mina Pell, had just played her last game at Harvard. She had the teary eyes to prove it.

And that, perhaps even more than the accolades, is the wonder of Ruggiero’s career. Her memories of this Harvard team will have a place in her mind and on her mantle. Right beside — not above, not below — her stars and stripes.