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Ruggiero leads US women's hockey into 4th Olympics

Angela Ruggiero is fond of saying hockey is just her first career, and the defenseman always thought she would be on to her next big thing after Vancouver.

She's not so certain any more. Even if her fourth American Olympic team adds a second gold medal to the prize she first won as a teenager in Nagano, the most accomplished defenseman in the history of the women's game might not be ready to ditch her sport for the corporate world, the coaching ranks or anything else.

Although she still gets infuriated by bad officiating and frustrated by an amateur athlete's meager options for making a living, the 2007 contestant on "The Apprentice" still loves the discipline, camaraderie and competition of her first career.

Hockey is a hard habit to break, even when she has a Harvard degree to help her to the next challenge.

"I'm cautious right now," Ruggiero said. "I don't want to close any doors. I've enjoyed this immensely, and I still don't know when the second career is supposed to start. I don't know what it will be, and that's not a bad thing."

Ruggiero and forward Jenny Potter will be the only Americans to play in every Olympic women's hockey tournament, emerging as the most enduring American stars to a generation of young women rising to join them on the U.S. team. While Ruggiero was the youngest player on the 1998 team, the 30-year-old has evolved into the physical cornerstone of a club hoping to take down Canada on its home ice.

"She's a presence," said U.S. coach Mark Johnson, who took over for three-time Olympic coach Ben Smith after the Turin Games. "You look at different players that have great leadership skills, and one common theme is that they have a presence on the ice and a presence in the locker room. You're going to respect them, and that's Angela all the way."

It's difficult to overstate how much the U.S. team depends on Ruggiero, who plays the toughest shifts and frequently matches up against the opponents' top lines. Always a solid offensive player, Ruggiero is most valuable as a defensive dynamo who's simply too big and tough for all but a handful of players to match.

Ruggiero credits part of her evolution to watching seasoned NHL defensemen like Chris Chelios, who anticipate a forechecker's moves before they're made, and then incorporating those skills into a body that isn't nearly ready to diminish with age.

"I was more like Bobby Orr in the last two Olympics: I rushed the puck, took chances, got way more involved," Ruggiero said. "Even though women's hockey is faster now than it was four years ago, I just get it. I'm not huffing and puffing every time I'm on the ice. I've recognized over the last four years that our team needs more steadiness on the blue line, so I've altered my game to give us what we need. I don't jump into the play as much. I'm way smarter."

Sometimes she's almost too smart: She's been a regular victim of flopping over the years during any physical contact. Ruggiero, Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser and most top players bemoan the inconsistent officiating of their game, which doesn't allow bodychecking but is highly subjective in deciding what contact is legal.

"Literally, I have players that will fall in front of me if I get near them, and I have to go to the box," Ruggiero said. "It's frustrating. I work hard to get faster and stronger, and then you end up punished for it instead of rewarded."

That's just one frustration of the amateur athlete's life for a player who has always known her career wouldn't last forever. She graduated cum laude from Harvard in 2004 and is five credits shy of a master's degree in sports management from the University of Minnesota, planning to complete it from wherever she moves after the Olympics. She's also a candidate for a place on the IOC's athletes' commission.

With roots in Simi Valley, Calif., the Detroit suburbs and Boston, Ruggiero has been away from her various homes for several months while training in Blaine, Minn. She spent part of last summer in Southern California, working on strength and endurance with several NHL players.

Ruggiero's ability to stay in the game this long is evidence of her love. She could have left for a job with Donald Trump, who offered to hire her after their television interactions, and her Harvard education would open countless doors — perhaps even helping her further her dream of starting a women's pro league that would pay its players enough to make hockey a more lucrative career.

"For a while I was putting pressure on myself to figure it out, to have a deadline, but now I'm trying to enjoy it," Ruggiero said. "If I were in the NHL right now making millions of dollars, I'd play until I was 40, no problem. The reality is the same opportunities aren't out there, and there's a lot of sacrifices to keep playing.

"We're a bunch of amateurs playing because we love the sport. We're all here for the right reasons, and that's cool. You have that true Olympic spirit on our team."