Now one week less than a year until the opening of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, Zach Parise and Angela Ruggiero are among those hopeful of representing Team USA in hockey.
Parise, 24, is a winger for the New Jersey Devils and a native of Minneapolis. He has represented his country in six international competitions, but never an Olympics. He’s played in three World Championships, two Junior Worlds and one U-18 Worlds, helping Team USA win U-18 and (2004) Junior titles.
Ruggiero, 29, has played in every Olympics since women’s hockey became a medal event. Named top defenseman in the world six times, she helped Team USA to Nagano gold in 1998, Salt Lake City silver in 2002 and Torino bronze in 2006. Her cumulative stats: three goals, seven assists, 32 penalty minutes and a staggering plus-minus of +24.
She’s also played in eight World Championships and leads Team USA in international games played.
Two different players aiming for two different U.S. hockey rosters on two differing stages.
Since NHL players came into the Olympics in 1998, six different teams have played in the three gold-medal games.
The women’s game, however, has been dominated by Team USA and Canada.
Parise, whose father Jean-Paul played 14 seasons in the NHL and was a key figure in helping Canada (yes, Canada) witn the 1972 Summit Series over the Soviet Union, is having a career year.
Going into Thursday night’s game against Tampa Bay, Parise was tied for second in the NHL with 34 goals and was fourth with 69 points. His goals, points, assists (35), power-play goals (11) and plus-minus (+22) all are career highs — with more than seven weeks to play in what is his fourth NHL season. Oh, and the Devils lead the Atlantic Division.
No surprise here: Parise learned the game from his dad, who settled in Minneapolis and became an American citizen after playing for the North Stars. Zach was practically raised Canadian, though, spending countless hours playing pond hockey. The Parise house was adorned with hockey pictures taken during his father’s career.
“I think Minnesota is the closes thing to the (hockey) passion of a Canadian city,” Parise said. “In the Minnesota high school tournament, they’re selling out the Xcel (Energy) Center, 20,000 people. They love the game there.”
Ruggiero, on the other hand, began playing at 7 when her father enrolled her in a Pasadena, Calif., youth league. A boys’ league that lacked players.
“They needed to field some teams back in the day,” said Ruggiero, whose teammates included her brother and sister. “So my dad brought me to the rink. And the L.A. Kings brought in (Wayne) Gretzky the year after I started playing, so that really created an explosion in some of these non-traditional hockey states that I benefited from.”
A native of Harrison Township in Michigan; introduced to hockey in California; played prep-school hockey in Connecticut (Choate Rosemary Hall); college hockey in Massachusetts (Harvard); trained with Team USA in New York (Lake Placid, for the 2002 Games) and now doing so in Minnesota (Blaine Residency Program, for the ’10 Games), Ruggiero is a living melting pot of state pride. When asked where she’s from, Ruggerio answers “I’m from all over America.”
The U.S. men are in an Olympic pool with Canada, Switzerland and Norway. The women are grouped with Finland, Russia and China.
Both Parise and Ruggiero say Canada is the team to keep an eye on. How could they not with men’s stars such as Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley and Ryan Getzlaf? Or with women’s standouts Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Caroline Oullette and the goalie tandem of Charline Labonte’ and Kim St. Pierre?
After that, perhaps Russia, but “I don’t think you can overlook any team that’s going to be there,” Parise said. Ruggiero says the women also will have to be alert to Sweden, which recently beat Canada in the Four Nations Tournament.
As for Team USA, Parise bit when asked: if you were general manager of the team, who would you pick for a starting six?
“I might get myself in trouble here. … (Ryan) Miller’s having a great season in Buffalo there, in the nets, but (the Islanders’ Rick) DiPietro’s always there, too. … I think you put (Chicago’s Patrick) Kane, (the Rangers’ Scott) Gomez, and I would put Dustin Brown (of Los Angeles) there, too. Then maybe (Montreal’s Mike) Komisarek and (Detroit’s Brian) Rafalski on point.”
Others mentioned during the conversation included Peter Mueller of Phoenix, Patrick O’Sullivan of Los Angeles, Drew Stafford of Buffalo and Chris Drury of the Rangers.
As for himself, “I think I’m more of a third-liner,” Parise said.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the Olympics. I’ve always wanted to represent my country. It made me think about it a little more-so (when) we went to Vancouver at the beginning of January. You can tell, already, the excitement that’s there. You can see the buildings going up and it’s really going to be a great place to have it. I just hope I’m there to play.”
With Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson taking over from Ben Smith as coach of the U.S. women, Ruggiero thinks several Badgers could join him in Vancouver. She’s particularly high on goalie Jessie Vetter, while also mentioning Hilary Knight, Erika Lawler and Meaghan Duggan. Minnesota freshman twins Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux could be in the mix.
For her part, Ruggiero said, “to be able to play in a fourth Olympics and, hopefully, win a gold medal, getting back to the top of that podium, means everything to me. It is the reason why I’m still playing.”