Manon’s NHL breakthrough
by Andrew Podnieks|23 SEP 2022
Manon Rheaume poses in full uniform with her sons Dakota (left) and Dylan (right).
Thirty years ago on this day, Manon Rheaume made history. Never before or since has a woman played in one of North America’s top pro men’s sports leagues, but on 23 September 1992, the 20-year-old Quebecker started in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a pre-season game against the St. Louis Blues.
Rheaume had been recruited by Tampa’s attention-grabbing GM, Phil Esposito. The Lightning were an expansion team for the 1992/93 NHL season and played their home games at Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. But if Rheaume’s appearance was a publicity stunt, it was a well-earned one. She had been the first girl to play at the prestigious Quebec Pee Wee tournament at the age of eleven, and in 1991/92 she had been the first woman to play junior hockey in the QMJHL, with Trois-Rivieres. And in the spring of 1992, she backstopped Canada to gold at the second IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. So, she earned her chance honestly.
She played only the first period for the Lightning and stopped seven of nine shots, giving up goals to Nelson Emerson and Brendan Shanahan. Rheaume later won gold with Canada in 1994 and also played at the 1998 Olympics. She also played in men’s pro leagues for several years, notably the IHL, ECHL, and WCHL. She also tended the goal in the Canadian women’s hockey league with the Minnesota Whitecaps.
Just a couple of months ago, she was hired by the Los Angeles Kings as a prospect advisor, adding to her lengthy resume of success and going where few have gone before.
In readying herself for the 30th anniversary of her historic NHL appearance, Rheaume talked with about the past, and the present and future.
When every September 23 rolls around, do you think about that game in 1992?
Rheaume: It’s funny because I see it as a reminder I’m getting a year older! It’s like having two birthdays every year. But it’s always special because it makes me re-live that moment that literally changed my life. I was a young girl from Quebec, going to the Tampa Bay training camp, didn’t speak English. If I hadn’t been invited, I probably would have gone to university and become a school teacher. I don’t know what my life would have looked like. Instead, I got to play hockey for the rest of my life. It’s the best job you can have, being involved in the game.
As the years have gone on, do you see that game differently from five, ten, twenty years ago?
Rheaume: I always think about the walk from the dressing room to the ice, the way I felt. I can re-live it. But I think what has changed over the years is to realize the impact that I had on people, people who come up to me and tell me that game was such an inspiration for their daughter or my son. I was talking to someone at the rink the other day, and at the end he said his brother had a poster of me on his wall. But while I was playing, I didn’t realize that. It took me years to realize the impact.
Women’s hockey has improved astronomically in the last 30 years. Why has there never been a second goalie after you?
Rheaume: When I started playing, there were very few girls playing. I had no choice but to play with the boys. There was no such thing as college hockey for women. I only got a chance to play for the women’s national team around the time I was invited to play junior hockey with the boys. Today, young girls have many options to play at NCAA college or a Canadian university. And to play on the national team, you have a way better chance if you’re playing women’s hockey than men’s. But last year two girls got drafted, one in the OHL (Taya Currie), one in the Q (Eve Gascon), so it’s still happening. And yes, the game on the women’s side has improved a lot, but what about the men? I look back at the video from ’92, and I looked like the men! Now, if a goalie is under six feet, forget it. They don’t look at you. And the size and speed of the players. The skill is so much greater for the men than 30 years ago.
One of your sons, Dylan, is a goalie and played at the men’s U18. Did you coach him at all?
Rheaume: I think I helped him more with the mental side. He was like me in that he had to face adversity. For me, it was being a woman. For him, it was being a smaller goalie. He was always told he’d never be drafted because he wasn’t six feet tall. So he had to be perfect. It was the same for me. But looking back, I think people didn’t know how to handle having a woman on the team. I’d win a game, and not play for another three weeks. It was the unknown, and people not wanting to deal with the unknown.
Today’s the women’s game has a wealth of talent. If you were an NHL GM and could invite one player to play in a game, who would it be?
Rheaume: Oh, no, that’s not fair! There are a lot of great female goalies in Canada and the U.S. and all over the world. I can’t name any names! But with size and bodychecking, if another woman was to get a chance, it would be a goalie. But what I like about the women’s game right now is how hard they compete on the ice and how they are working together off the ice, growing the game, giving women the chance to play hockey for a living. They’re really trying to make that happen. And if players from Europe are going to catch up, they need to come to North America and play together and improve. They are all one when it comes to growing the game.
If the women had a viable and respected league, would you want to be a part of that in some capacity?
Rheaume: I would always be open to getting involved, but now I’m with the L.A. Kings and really excited about this next step in hockey and learning different things. But you never know. They need to get to a certain place first. I got the chance to call a few PWHPA games on TV last year, and that was great, to see those players work together.
What exactly is your role with the Kings?
Rheaume: I’ll have about ten draft picks that I’ll visit by Christmas, watch them play, and report back to the team. We have some great guys who work on their development, and I add a different perspective, a different view, on and off the ice, and help them with their journey. The ups and downs start when you’re a kid and never stop. Once you’re drafted it doesn’t get easier; it gets harder. When I look back, I think my biggest strength was mentally. I was able to make sure nothing around me was affecting me on the ice. And I think I can take that and help the prospects face adversity or help them when they feel too high and don’t know it won’t last. I’ve learned a lot as a player, as a coach, as a mom of two players. I can put all this together and help.
And why specifically L.A.?
Rheaume: I knew some people. Luc Robitaille is from Quebec and I got a chance to play in his camps, and I met Rob Blake and Nelson Emerson over the years. And my kids have an agent who sends kids to training camps out there. I’d have conversations with them, and over the last couple of years with more women being hired, that opened the door. So I was in the right place at the right time.
You’re from Quebec but have lived in the U.S. for quite a while. Do you feel more Canadian or American?
Rheaume: Actually, I have dual citizenship! But if I do the math, I’ve lived longer in the U.S. than Canada, but I played in Canada and it’s where I was born. Both my sons played for the U.S. and I played for Canada! And I’ve coached a lot of girls who went on to play for the U.S. national team [including Kendall Coyne Schofield], but I also know a lot of the Canadian girls. I love both countries and want both to do well, so I’m in the middle. But I played for Canada, so that’s always going to be a huge part of my pride. I went back to Quebec not long ago and took my sons, and we skated on the ice together, which was a lot of fun.