Manon Rheaume realizes her NHL debut was ‘not just another game’

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Manon Rheaume gets ready to make her professional debut against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1992 at the Tampa Fairgrounds in Tampa. Rheaume, 20, is the first woman to play in one of the four major pro sports leagues. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Manon Rheaume’s heart stopped feeling like it was going to explode out of her chest when the puck dropped.

The 20-year-old goalie had just broken the NHL’s gender barrier, but she’d managed to convince herself that this 1992-93 pre-season game between her Tampa Bay Lightning and the St. Louis Blues was just another game.

Then the whistle blew.

“They got a power play right away,” Rheaume told Sportsnet, from her home in Michigan, laughing. “I’m thinking to myself: ‘Oh, great. Starting on the PK. Here we go!’ But it was a great way to get into the game, and that first save was huge.”

The moment was bigger than huge, really. And it happened 25 years ago today.

That’s when Rheaume, from Beaufort, Que., became the first (and still only) woman to play in an NHL pre-season game, and the first woman to play in a major North American pro sports league, inspiring countless female hockey players in the process.

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“It’s unreal to know it’s been that long,” said Rheaume, who’s now 45, the mother of two boys (her oldest is also a goalie) and the coach of the u-12 AAA Little Caesars girls’ team.

In her NHL debut, Rheaume played one period and let in two goals on nine shots.

The first goal bothered her until about five years ago, when a friend showed her a recap of the performance, which was the first time she’d seen it. She noticed Jeff Brown was actually at the top of the faceoff circle when he put one past her. “I thought he was way out. I looked at it and I was like, actually, that was not that bad,” she said, laughing. “It took me 20 years to feel better about that goal.”

After the first period—the only one she’d play that season for the Lightning, though she played in a second exhibition game for Tampa Bay the following year—Rheaume was skating around before the start of the second, when Stephane Quintal, a member of the Blues, told her, “Great job, and congratulations on what you just accomplished.”

“That was pretty cool,” Rheaume said. “It was someone from the other team, and I didn’t know how everyone was really reacting to all of this. It was really nice to see that support.”

And from the stands, too. Women were standing and cheering for Rheaume in a market that knew very little about hockey, a market that was just being introduced to the game ahead of the Lightning’s inaugural season.

Rheaume had been invited to the team’s training camp after a Lightning scout spotted her playing in the only game she’d ever suit up for in the QMJHL. The Lightning’s then-general manager, Phil Esposito, thought this goalie was a little small, but liked the skill he saw. Then he found out she was a girl—and Esposito decided this could be a way to get Floridians excited about hockey.

Publicity stunt or not, Rheaume wasn’t turning down the opportunity.

“It didn’t matter to me why I was invited,” she said. “When I was younger, so many times people said no to me to play at a higher level, like AAA, because I was a girl. So, this time around if they said yes to me because I’m a girl, I’m taking this opportunity. At the end of the day I still had to prove myself and perform on the ice.

“To go to a training camp at the highest level possible, I was given the chance to do it and I didn’t want to have any regrets,” she added. “A lot of people said, ‘Aren’t you afraid to look bad?’ I told myself, if I don’t try, I’ll never know.”

Rheaume showed up to Lightning training camp wearing the same flimsy shoulder pads she’d been using for years, and every day she had new bruises on her arms.

“I wanted to be able to be quick and move fast, and all the new gear was so big and bulky, and it was limiting me,” she said. “My dad added a plastic part on the front, to the chest part. And I think every session I was on the ice, the trainer was adding padding to my shoulder pads. We found a way to be creative.

“You look at my shoulder pads today and people would think I was crazy having played with those,” she said, laughing.

On Day 1 of training camp, there was a mini tournament, and Rheaume finished with the third-best average among the goalies invited. But the media didn’t focus on that. “I did very well, but it was funny, people were not talking about my performance,” she said. “They were just talking about the fact that I was the only female there.”

She says her teammates didn’t treat her that way. After that first save in her debut, Rob Ramage skated by and tapped her on the pads. “To me it was, ‘OK, they’re treating me like any other goalie,’” she said.

And Rheaume felt like any other goalie at the time, too. But in the years that followed, she started to understand the effect of what she accomplished with the Lightning.

“Back then, I didn’t realize the impact I would have on young girls or people in general or even boys that play hockey,” she said. “Later in life, having parents come up to me and say, ‘You’re such an inspiration for my daughters.’ Even still today, young kids are doing projects on me at school because they read about me. They were not even born. That’s when I realized what I did had a positive impact on people.”

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She laughs thinking about what it would be like if this moment were happening today, in the age of an explosion of social media, and with much more coverage of hockey in Tampa Bay.

“I cannot imagine,” she said. “They had tons of media there, but it was nothing compared to what we see today. We were still getting fan mail in the mail—people actually mailing letters. I don’t think that exists, most people just Tweet now,” she added, laughing. “It was pretty cool to have experienced that way back then.”

Rheaume went on to win an Olympic silver medal for Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first to include women’s hockey. But she never felt pressure like that first game with the Lightning.

“It’s truly the most nerve-racking moment of my life,” she said. “I knew my performance was so important. It was not just another game that you just go and play in.”

No, it wasn’t. It was historic.