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Manon Rhéaume – Ice Breaker

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1980s, Beauport, Quebec. Pierre Rhéaume walks into a local ice rink with his child, ready to coach them and their team in a game of “pee-wee” hockey. The child wears their hat low, obscuring their features as they make their way to suit up in their pads and helmet, ready to tend the goal. Few people knew why such secrecy surrounded the goaltender who took to the ice already wearing their mask. Those that did, understood the need for such cloak-and-dagger tactics. The rules of the league wouldn’t allow the child to play, this was a boys league, and Pierre’s daughter Manon wanted to play hockey, by any means necessary.

Born in 1972, in Beauport, Quebec to Pierre and Nicole, Manon Rhéaume was a lover of hockey from as young as the age of five, when her brothers would ask her (not that I imagine she had much of a choice) to tend the goal while they practised their shooting. “If I wanted to play with them, I had to get in net” she said in a 2022 interview with Sports Illustrated. Rhéaume says that those early days of shot stopping were the reason she started playing hockey and that she owes everything that followed to her brothers. Shortly thereafter, she began asking her dad, the coach of a local “pee-wee” hockey team to let her play. Pierre encouraged his daughter, but knew that the untrodden path for a girl in a boy’s hockey league would be difficult, he knew that criticism and judgement would follow. In anticipation of this, he would bring his daughter to the rink with a hat pulled low and tell her to keep her goalie mask on both on and off the ice. Rhéaume said of her father, “My dad told me, “People aren’t ready to see a girl play on a boys’ team yet. But don’t let that stop you.” So I put my mask on before I stepped on the ice. Everybody was just so excited to see a new goalie, and by the time they realised I was a girl it was too late to complain about it.”

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Rhéaume suited up for her debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sure enough, the doubters came to call Rhéaume’s abilities as a goaltender into question. Many jealous parents would come to Pierre and tell him that their son should be in goal, after a stellar performance practising on the driveway. Coach would oblige them, telling his daughter that she wouldn’t be playing in goal the next game. Of getting benched, Rhéaume said “The other parent had told him, “My kid is so good. I think he should play goalie.” So my dad started him. We lost the game 13–3. After the game, all the other parents went to my dad and said, “We want your daughter back.” My dad just knew how to make sure that people accepted me. And that’s how I was able to make it to where I did.”

Rhéaume’s doubters only seemed to spur her on, and further fuel the fire that was her love of the game of hockey. She continued her youth career and made history when she took part in the 1984 Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament, becoming the first girl to play for the Charlesbourg Peewee, a boys team, thereby becoming the first girl to play in the 25 year history of the tournament. In doing so, she joined the likes of previous tournament legends such as Guy Lafleur, who attended the competition from 1960-64, and Wayne Gretzky, who once managed to net 26 goals in a single participation. Rhéaume continued her schooling career, and enjoyed playing youth-level hockey, but the professional hockey options for a woman at the time were limited at best. Despite Canada having organised women’s hockey games as far back as the late 1800s, It wasn’t until the formation of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) in 2007 that Canada had a unified, nation-wide hockey league. Even upon the league’s formation, from 2007 to 2017, players did not earn a salary but instead had their travel time, uniforms, equipment and coaches covered by the league. A new National Women’s Hockey League launched in 2015 in the United States as the first women’s league to pay a salary. Back in the 1990’s, with Rhéaume’s options in the women’s leagues being limited to amateur level, her dreams of a career playing hockey were over. Manon Rhéaume would have to shatter the glass ceiling once again, and find her way into a men’s hockey league, and the Trois-Rivières Draveurs would be the hammer with which she would smash it. 

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Rhéaume on the bench with her Tampa Bay teammates.

November 26th, 1991. The 19 year old Rhéaume made history for the second time in her short life by stepping out the ice for the Trois-Rivières Draveurs, becoming the first woman to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Despite only featuring for one game for the Draveurs, her contribution to the game was greater than just turning up to play, she was showing that girls want to, and can, play hockey. Gaston Drapeau was the one who spotted Rhéaume’s talent, and being the team’s head coach and general manager, he invited her to training camp. “People had said no to me so many times because I was a girl that when someone gave me a chance I said ‘Yes, I’ll take it,’” Rhéaume said. “It was a chance to experience hockey at a higher level.” 

Rhéaume’s inclusion at training camp may have come as a surprise to some, but not to her younger brother Pascal, who was playing with the Draveurs at the time and went on to win the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003. “It was normal for me,” said Pascal, now an assistant coach with the Trois-Rivières Lions. “I grew up with Manon. She had been playing with boys since novice hockey.” Manon posted the 3rd best goals-against average of the six goalies that attended the camp and earned her chance to play in a pre-season game against the St. Jean Lynx. “The guys were pretty excited in the dressing room,” recalled Norman Flynn, the Lynx coach at the time. “They couldn’t wait to fire shots at her to see how she would do. A dressing room can be a macho place and the guys were saying there was no way she was going to shut us out.” 

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Rhéaume in one of her appearances for Team Canada, for whom she won two gold IIHF medals and an Olympic silver.

Despite proving herself in training camp and a good performance in the preseason, she was sent down to the second tier Louiseville Jaguars of Louiseville, Quebec. She was not sent down in disgrace, even drawing praise from Head Coach and GM, Drapeau. And when starting goaltender Jean-Francois Labbe had been injured in September of the regular season, Rhéaume was recalled to serve as backup to future NHL goalie Jocelyn Thibault. After two games on the bench, she was called into action with 12:28 remaining in the 2nd period of a game against the Granby Bisons, in front of a home crowd of 2,025 people. “We had a really good team but the Bisons, not so much,” said Thibault, now general manager of the Sherbrooke Phoenix, the recently resurrected iteration of the team previously known as Trois-Rivières Draveurs. “The plan was to get a comfortable lead and then send Manon in.” The comfortable lead never came, and Rhéaume was swapped into a fiercely contested 5-5 game. “It was a risky bet,” said Gabias. “I was nervous. It ended up OK, but each time she stopped a puck we were on the edge of our seats. We didn’t want her to get blown out.” Her first test came from future NHL player Philippe Boucher, a defenceman with a cannon of a shot. “I came across the red line and took a shot and the puck hit her pads and stopped on the goal line,” said Boucher. “We all wanted to be the first to score on Manon. We were 17 or 18 years old. Manon was the star that night, but we wanted to have our part in it.” Rhéaume allowed three goals on 17 shots before a shot from Patrick Tessier shattered her mask and forced her to exit the game with a nasty cut over her eye. Despite the team’s eventual defeat, she was named as the third star of the game, and her entry into the history books was written. “I was just very grateful to Mr. Drapeau for inviting me to camp,” said Rhéaume. “The night he let me play, he put aside the fact that I was a girl and looked at me as a goaltender.”

In September of 1992, Rhéaume was invited to make history once again when she was asked to take another step upwards, into an NHL team. Phil Esposito was the general manager for the new expansion team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. He asked to speak to Rhéaume after the game to extend an invite to their upcoming training camp because “I liked the way ‘he’ played.” Esposito wouldn’t be aware that the goalie he’d requested an audience with after the game was a woman until they spoke in person. “When they brought her out I said ‘Are you kidding me?’ This beautiful young woman comes out and I said ‘How would you like to come to training camp for the Tampa Bay Lightning?’” Esposito said, recalling their first meeting. Rhéaume gratefully accepted the offer, on the insistence that she be treated like any other player at training camp, even joining the other players in the locker room once she had suited up for practice. By all accounts, she held up well at camp, performing to the usual best of her abilities. Esposito knew that he had found an attraction to his new team in a non-traditional hockey market, but to Rhéaume this chance meant far more. It was a chance to be an inspiration to girls across North America, who desperately wanted to play hockey like their brothers did. Her debut came in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues, playing one period and allowing two goals on nine shots faced. Her small amount of ice time was more than enough to set the hockey world alight with the buzz surrounding the female goaltender, earning her several appearances on national television shows. But more importantly, more women attended the game than usual and Rhéaume became the inspiration for the startup of a number of girls hockey programs in the region. Tampa Bay coach Terry Crisp said he was impressed with her ability and commented; “She earned everything, She earned the right to be there through her hockey. Her first shot, Brendan Shanahan came over the blue line and blasted one and she gloved it. The crowd went wild.” Of her time with the Lightning, she said; “Now, looking back, I realise how big of a deal it was. When I was young and got invited, it happened so fast and I didn’t realise really the impact I would have on people, on history, on everything when I went there. I just went because it was amazing to play at the highest level. Now, looking back, no other female has done that, and not only in hockey, but the four major sports.” “Through the years, having so many people come up to me, telling me that I inspired their daughter or son, or someone saying, ‘I had your poster on my wall,’ that makes me realise my story impacted a lot of people in a positive way.”

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Rhéaume’s game with Tampa Bay was intently watched by a number of girls, many of whom were inspired to become hockey players themselves.

Rhéaume was later assigned to the Atlanta Knights of the IHL, played two games and became the first woman to play in a men’s league regular season professional game before being demoted to an ECHL club. She played 24 men’s pro games in many different leagues over the years between 1992 and 2009, throughout North America. But her greatest achievements came with the Canadian national team, she was part of the team that won two IIHF Women’s World Championship gold medals in 1992 and 1994, making the All-Star team on both occasions before winning silver with team Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. For a while she played in the men’s Roller Hockey International League, before initially retiring from professional hockey in 1997. She did return to professional play in the men’s leagues as well as eventually playing in the Western Women’s Hockey League for three games over two seasons with the Minnesota Whitecaps. Rheaume’s time spent in the leagues changed the landscape for women hockey players of the future, with many future professionals citing her as their inspiration. One of the most decorated women’s hockey players of all time, Hilary Knight, had this to say of Rheaume; “It gave us a glimmer of hope, I just remember it was sort of like, growing up, outside of the Olympics, all we had to watch was the NHL. It’s similar to what it is now, but we’re obviously a part of growing the visibility of the [women’s game].” In June 2021, history was made again when 17 year old Taya Currie became the first woman to be drafted into the Ontario Hockey League, a player that  Rhéaume had a huge influence on. Rhéaume said this of Currie in a 2022 interview with Sports Illustrated; “First, I wanted to congratulate her, because it was such a great accomplishment. The way she was playing, she deserved it. It was not, ‘Oh, we’ll invite you to camp.’ She got drafted.”

“I also told her that I’m here if she ever needs to talk with someone. When I went to Tampa, I had nobody to talk to who could understand what I was dealing with. Taya played in a tournament in Michigan with her boys team when she was younger. I was coaching my youngest son’s team at the same tournament. She asked me to take a picture with her. When I talked with her again, after the draft, she reminded me and showed me the photo.”

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Rhéaume with future history maker and OHL draftee, Taya Currie at a youth hockey tournament.

Rhéaume is still the only woman to ever play in an NHL preseason game. However, several women’s hockey players have participated in the NHL All-Star game, from demonstrations, to officially competing in the skills competition. Her hockey life continues to this day, in 2021 she was hired by Bally Sports Detroit as a reporter for the Detroit Red Wings and to date is helping to run the girls hockey program for Little Caesars, an organisation associated with the Red Wings, and coaches the under-12 girls team. On July 7th 2022, Rhéaume was hired by the LA Kings as a hockey operations and prospects adviser. “I’ve always been passionate about hockey,” she said. “I spent my life in arenas and I’ve played at the professional level. To have a chance to earn a living in the sport I love, I couldn’t ask for more.”

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