Buffalo Beauts forward Emma Ruggiero is just beginning her coaching career. She is also playing in her rookie NWHL season.
Within a span of five months, Ruggiero graduated from Buffalo State College where she had captained the Bengals, signed her first professional hockey contract to join her hometown Beauts, and accepted a position as an assistant coach with the Kenmore/Grand Island Girls Varsity Hockey Team.
A native of Amherst, New York, Ruggiero has found a means of keeping hockey in her life after college, and sharing her passion with young women only a few years her junior.
“One of our head coaches, Matt Miller, was an assistant coach for my dad since 14U,” Ruggiero said. “I’ve known him for a good chunk of my life. Last fall he came up to me during one of my little sister’s games and asked me if I had any interest in coaching. Honestly, after Buff State I didn’t have any set plans but I knew I wanted to stay in hockey. I said, ‘Absolutely!’.”
Ruggiero’s NCAA career with the Bengals spanned from 2015-16 through the 2018-19 season. Within 100 games played, she compiled 28 goals, 24 assists, 52 points and 119 penalty minutes. A scrappy little forward, but capable of putting pucks home too. Ruggiero’s finest output came in her senior year when she went 14-10-24 in scoring across 25 games.
That solid swan song at Buff State paved the way for Ruggiero to be pursued by the Beauts. Word was released on Aug. 7, 2019 that she had officially joined the NWHL team. Of the 22 players signed to the Beauts roster, Ruggiero was the ninth to be brought aboard for 2019-20 season.
Finding a Connection With the Kenmore/Grand Island Players
The Western New York Girls’ Varsity Ice Hockey Federation is currently celebrating their 10th season of play. Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, was one of the five founding teams that helped officially form the league. The nearby town of Grand Island would partner up with Kenmore in 2015-16 to create today’s current version of the club.
Ruggiero, who attended Sacred Heart Academy for her high school years, was herself a product of WNY Girls Fed. So were current Beauts teammates Erin Gehen, Ana Orzechowski and Nikki Kirchberger. This makes Ruggiero’s coaching return to her old stomping grounds even more special. She is directly helping young players to follow in the footsteps of both she and her fellow Beauts.
“I think about it a lot,” she said. “I think about what I’m saying, and if me being there is actually making a difference. It’s a staff of four dads besides me. I think for some of the girls, me being around might be an ease for them. It’s different for them – I’m younger, I’m a girl, and I’ve played hockey. I played high school hockey – I’ve been in their shoes eight years ago. I think it’s an ease to them that I’m around.”
Through their first seven games of the 2019-20 season, the Kenmore/Grand Island team is in the middle of the standings with a record of 2-4-1.
What She Brings Over From the Beauts
For those who have not seen her play before, Ruggiero is a pleasure to watch on the ice. At 4-foot-11, she is a spitfire on skates and barrels into corners with a devil-may-care style. Possessing powerful legs, Ruggiero is among the fastest skaters on the Beauts (if not the fastest), and needs but a stride to hit top speed. With a very compact form and a low center of gravity, Ruggiero is terribly difficult to knock off the puck.
With Buffalo’s numbers game keeping her out of the lineup for the first seven contests, Ruggiero has been in the Beauts lineup for three straight. She made her NWHL debut on Nov. 23 during a 5-3 loss at home against the Minnesota Whitecaps. Now it’s difficult to see her ever being out of the lineup again.
Ruggiero followed up the loss with a fine performance the very next day. In a dramatic come-from-behind 4-3 win by Buffalo, Ruggiero went 6-2 in the face-off circle, blocked a shot, had two takeaways and registered a shot on goal.
Hockey folk have taken notice of her efforts, particularly her forechecking and puck battles.
As solid as her early performances have been, Ruggiero is still a very young professional and is in the process of learning the NWHL game. Hockey isn’t always as simple and by the numbers as it looks. Ruggiero’s own experiences as a Beauts rookie are permeating into her work as a coach. This has enabled her to closely connect with her own players, and to help sculpt the approach she takes as a coach.
“It’s funny because I was just yelling at my girls the other day to hit the net,” Ruggiero said. “When I played in my first weekend with the Beauts, I had two chances and I missed the net on one of them. As I was yelling at them ‘Hit the net! It’s not that hard! Pick up your head!’, I kind of sat there for a second. I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve played two games so far and I didn’t hit the net when I had two shots.’ It reminded me that the game is not as easy, especially with how fast it goes. I can stand on the bench and say’ Do this!’ or ‘Do that!’, but if I put myself in their shoes, I realize that it’s not that easy sometimes.”
Determination and Hustle
Ruggiero is every bit of a “Charlie Hustle” out on the ice. Drive and determination are certainly must-have ingredients, but Ruggiero acknowledges that confidence goes very much hand-in-hand with player performance. When an individual believes in herself, it can make all the difference – especially in a game where making split-second decisions is a requirement.
“When I tell a player to take it across the blue line,” Ruggiero said, “I think back to when I was quarterbacking my travel team. I’m not a defenseman. My dad and Coach Matt (Miller) would tell me to ‘walk it’ along the blue line. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t’. I didn’t have the confidence to walk the blue line like our defensemen who do it every single game. As a coach, I get to put myself in my players’ shoes and know that it’s not that easy.”
Right there is the crux of our conversation with Ruggiero. Because she is young coach, because she is so close in age and experience to her players, she is able to better connect with them and see situations through a lens that is very closely calibrated to theirs. That is the “ease” that Ruggiero pointed out earlier.
It Comes Down to Confidence
The Buffalo Beauts have 14 games remaining in the regular season, and hopefully a deep playoff run to follow. It can take NWHL newcomers some time to hit their stride and to find their footing. Ruggiero works her butt off in practice, and provides unique options for the Beauts coaching staff due to her style and speed. That being said, she has not hit stride just yet – we know that there is a lot more that she is capable of.
The same held true for her at the collegiate level. After seasons of four, three and seven goals respectively, Ruggiero exploded for 14 as a senior and as team captain. With experience comes confidence, and with confidence the points are soon to follow.
The same goes for coaching. Ruggiero is instilling a conviction within her Kenmore/Grand Island girls that is every bit as important as teaching them to hit the net or walk the blue line.
When asked what the most critical concept is to promote within her players, Ruggiero responded:
“Confidence. Help them to find confidence in themselves. That’s something that I still struggle with as a professional. There are some days where I look at myself after practice, and I feel that it was a great practice. Then there’s other days where I think, ‘Nah, that wasn’t good.’. I wish that I had the confidence that half these girls on the team do. I think that confidence really makes you the player that you are.”
Being a Coach for the Long Haul
The game of hockey is greatly innate in Emma Ruggiero. Her father coached her for many years, as he has for all of her siblings. It has been a family affair for their household.
Ruggiero has now grabbed her own set of coaching reins. She has an opportunity to make a difference in the lives and hockey careers of her own players. With her capacity as the young coach that also plays for the Beauts, she is able to approach the teachable aspects of the game in a way that is uniquely her own.
Coaching is a calling, and Ruggiero likes the feel that it brings her. She is invested in her players, and is all-in when it comes to being an integral part of their continued growth.
“I talk about it a lot with our head coaches,” Ruggiero said. “We are a really young team – I think there’s only three or four 11th and 12th graders on our team, and the rest are 9th, 8th and 7th graders. We talk about how next year we’re going to be stronger and better, and then the next year after that.”
“And I want to be around for that next year. I want to be around the year after that. If I can keep going, I would love to because being on the ice with the players for an hour every day and being on the bench with them, I did not realize that I would love it as much as I do.”