Tampa Bay Lightning

Manon Rhéaume shatters the gender barrier

Sunday, 09.23.2012 / 12:16 PM / Best of the Web
By Arpon Basu  - NHL.com Correspondent

On Sept. 23, 1992, Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in any of the major professional North American sports leagues when she appeared for a period in an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the St. Louis Blues. Leading the Lightning onto the ice in the franchise's first home game against a veteran-laden Blues squad, Rhéaume stopped seven of nine shots and left the game after one period with the score tied 2-2.

Though Rhéaume would never see another minute of NHL action -- and despite the fact she was brought in largely as a publicity stunt -- her presence at Lightning training camp in 1992 provided a massive boost to women's hockey and inspired a generation of girls to pick up the sport, a growth that has continued unabated for the past 20 years.

Today, Rhéaume is a hockey mom living in Northfield, Mich., following her two sons from arena to arena as they chase their own hockey dreams. She also started the Manon Rhéaume Foundation (http://www.manonrheaumefoundation.org/) to help girls reach their athletic goals and encourage them to participate in sports.

On this 20th anniversary of Rhéaume's historic game, NHL.com takes a look back at one of hockey's most unforgettable moments through the eyes of people who lived it. Part 1: Rhéaume starts her journey.

Manon Rhéaume, Tampa Bay goaltender

"I played in one Major Junior game with Trois-Rivières [in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League], but I was their third goaltender so I was practicing with them sometimes during the year while I was playing Junior A in Louiseville that season. I was backing up Jocelyn Thibault in that game, I think, and we were winning by a big score. But when they started coming back, the coach looked at me and sent me in net. I think I finished the second period and I started the third, but I got a slap shot in the third period and it cut my mask. My cage broke and it cut my eye. As I'm playing, I could barely see because the blood was coming in my eye, but I didn't know I was cut at the time and I was wondering what was going on. I kept playing until the whistle, and when the whistle blew I took my helmet off and I had blood all over me. They had to take me out of the game to get stitches."

Phil Esposito, Tampa Bay general manager

"I was up in Montreal looking at players and we went to this Junior B (actually Junior A) game and somebody said they wanted me to see this player. I saw the guy and I didn't think he was very good. I said, 'I like the little goalie.' I didn't know it was a woman, and neither did my scout. I said, 'I want to go talk to that goalie. He's got something.' So I go down to talk to him and she walked out. I nearly flipped. I said, 'Oh my God, she's gorgeous. Who is that girl?' They said, 'That's the goalie.'"

Rhéaume

"I was done playing in junior and I was working at RDS [a French-language TV station] in Montreal, trying to make money to go to university. My first assignment was the [1992] NHL Draft in Montreal, I had to work and help out with the interviews there for RDS. That's when [Lightning scout] Jacques Campeau introduced me to Phil Esposito, and he mentioned to Phil that I was the girl on the tape, and that's when Phil sat down with me and asked if I wanted to go to camp."

Esposito

"I said, 'Would you like to come to training camp for the Tampa Bay Lightning?' Right there. She said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, you're in. Come down to camp.' I said there were no guarantees and I don't think you'll make it to the NHL, but maybe we can put you in the East Coast Hockey League or the American Hockey League. That's what happened. … Did I use her? Absolutely -- to get publicity and everything else for our franchise. We had CBS, NBC and ABC and CBC down for the opening of our first training camp."

Cammy Clark, Lightning beat writer, St. Petersburg Times (currently with Miami Herald)

"Espo knew he had a virgin hockey market and he was brilliant at marketing it. There would have been excitement anyway because it was a new team, but she added this extra layer that brought national attention."

Rhéaume

"At that time, I didn't really care what his intentions were. There were so many times in my life that people said 'No' to me because I was a girl. The first year that I finally had a coach that would give me a chance to play AA -- which was the top level in Quebec -- was in Bantam. I played two years of Bantam AA, and after that year every single goaltender got invited to a Midget AAA camp except me. They told me they didn't want a girl there. So I had to take a different route. But if you're not playing Midget AAA in Quebec, forget about playing Major Junior. At a young age, that's just the way it is. So I had to take a different route to Major Junior, and it was very difficult. So at that time, when someone was offering me a chance to do this, I didn't really care why."

Clark

"We just met casually over that summer and had an interview for a couple of hours in Montreal where she just talked about everything, her life, her fears about coming down to Tampa, at that point there had been a $75,000 offer for her to pose in Playboy -- so we just talked about everything.

"She's tiny, that was my first impression. She was smaller than me. I played college basketball and I'm 5-foot-8, but I think she was only 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds and I had no idea how she was ever going to get on the ice with a bunch of big guys.

"She was very humble, she definitely wasn't cocky. Her English was pretty limited, and my French is non-existent, so the vocabulary we had to use was pretty simple. But I think she was amazingly calm. I would have been terrified, but I didn't see her being fearful. I think with her it was more not knowing what to expect, and I think that might have even helped her a little bit. If she really knew what she was in for, I think she would have been terrified."

Rhéaume

"There were two different feelings. I had people telling me, 'Are you not afraid to look bad out there?' But I had other people totally supporting me in this. I trained really hard that summer to get ready for camp and be in good shape. But when I got there, it was obviously overwhelming. But the bottom line was I had two things I told myself. The first was that I didn't want to live my life with regrets, so I didn't want to not do this and then 10 years later say what if I would have done it. The second was that people were saying they only invited me because I was a girl, but I had to prove myself there. It's one thing to be invited, but I still had to go out there and skate and practice with all the attention that I had. It was a lot of pressure, and I think people forget about that. I had to perform so the team didn't look bad and I didn't look bad."

Clark

"I had started my career not too long before as kind of a pioneering female sportswriter, and I remember going into an NFL locker room at the exact same age as she was (20 years old) and being totally terrified of being a female sportswriter in a male world. Even though she would be a teammate and not an outside reporter, it was a hostile world out there for women at that time. It was not nearly as accepting for women to be involved in professional sports as it is today."

Terry Crisp, Tampa Bay coach

"Working with Phil [Esposito], every day was an adventure. Every day you got up and said, 'OK, what's he going to do now?' When he brought [Manon] in I said, 'What the heck? What are you doing, Phil? We're in the NHL!'"

Esposito

"Him [Terry] and my brother [assistant GM Tony Esposito] … they weren't so happy. They said, 'What are you, crazy?' I said, 'Guys, we're an expansion team. We're not going to win [anything] anyways. We need the publicity.' Why do you think I drafted Brent Gretzky in the third round [of the 1992 NHL Draft]? We had to get people in the building. My whole strategy was once we get them in the building to see the game, we've got them. I did what I had to do. No matter what it took, we were going to get it done."

Rhéaume

"I basically didn't have any interaction with [Crisp]. From what I understand -- and I didn't find this out until after -- but he wasn't exactly in agreement on having me there. That's what I heard after, but he never made my life miserable or made my life great. He was just doing his own thing coaching and he never really talked to me. He was not bad with me at all; I didn't even know he wasn't really into it. It was only when I heard Phil Esposito's interviews afterward that I found out he didn't really want me there. But he never made me feel like I wasn't wanted there. I was happy with that, because I didn't want to feel like I was any different than anyone else there."

Clark

"Espo obviously brought her there as a publicity stunt. It was brilliant marketing on his part; he had a fledgling team with what we used to call a bunch of rejects and expendables, so there weren't any really big names to excite people. She was the big ticket to get people excited about the franchise. So all the newspapers, television stations, radio stations were there -- and not just in the local market, but nationally, and everybody from Canada. David Letterman had called. She was just huge. It was hard for her because her time was not her own, and she didn't speak English very well and she struggled with that. So she was being pulled in a thousand directions, plus the fact she didn't want to embarrass herself in goal."

Wendell Young, Tampa Bay goaltender

"I think she did an excellent job; she did a much better job than any of the males would have under that microscope. She was hitting a new frontier in hockey, representing women in hockey and she put it all on her shoulders. With the scope of the amount of people who were watching, we would have never had that media frenzy if she wasn't there. I talked to her quite a bit about it, but every day you just saw this stack of demands for her. There was just an enormous amount of people clamoring for her. But she handled it unbelievably. She came in as a pro and treated everything that way. She treated it as a job; she came to camp like anybody else trying to get a position. But she had extra stuff to deal with, and she did it well. But once she got on the ice, it was all about hockey."

Peter Taglianetti, Tampa Bay defenseman

"The first year of expansion we're all down there not knowing what to expect. We all knew Phil and Tony Esposito, and Terry Crisp and [assistant coach] Wayne Cashman are down there, so they're all hockey guys, but we also knew that it was going to be a tough situation down there -- expansion teams never do too well. But going into Florida was even a tougher job because there were some people down there from the north who knew about hockey and followed hockey, but we had to get native Floridians interested, which meant getting on the front page of the newspaper and getting some radio time, TV time, the whole nine yards. So, we all understood that when they brought Manon into training camp, it was technically a publicity stunt to get media there from around the country. We also understood that she was in a tough situation -- and we tried to look out for her. The media was all over her, she couldn't go anywhere in the arena or at the hotel without 30 or 40 people following her. A few times we would grab her and throw her in our car so she could lose the media people. She was in a very tough situation."

Rhéaume

"The day I showed up there, I already had a pile of fan mail from all across the world -- not just the U.S., not just Canada, everywhere. I got mail every week asking for interviews on TV shows that I had no clue about. I mean, David Letterman, I didn't even know who he was! Now that I live in the States I say, 'Wow, I was on that show? That's such a big deal!' But I was just young, from Quebec, and I never watched that show and I never had any idea of the whole U.S. television and media world. So it was really overwhelming -- the 'Today' show, 'Good Morning America,' '20/20,' all those shows that I can't believe now how big they are, they wanted to interview me.

"My biggest concern with getting all the attention was that I didn't want to be treated differently than any other player. I didn't want practice to be interrupted because a camera guy wanted to step on the ice and do some kind of feature. So as much as the team loved that, because obviously it was great publicity for them, I wanted to be treated like the other players. That was the part I had the hardest time with, not doing the actual interviews, but to try and not feel that I was different than everybody else."

Young

"I think everyone took it great. The more media that's around -- even if it's for somebody else -- they're still watching your games, watching your practices, watching your scrimmages. So the guys took it well and everyone treated her like one of the guys, one of the players, and it didn't take long for Manon to prove herself that she was worthy of being at our training camp."