Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Fennelly: Lightning's Manon Rheaume made history 25 years ago Saturday

The name is part of Lightning history, hockey history, sports history.

She was a sideshow. She was an inspiration.

But it wasn't King versus Riggs, the "Battle of the Sexes."

All Manon Rheaume wanted to do was play.

"When I was in Tampa Bay, I didn't realize the impact it had on women," Rheaume said by phone. "I didn't understand I would have a positive influence for someone who has dreams. Even parents come up now and tell me even their boys had posters of me on their wall — if she could do it, I can do it. I realize now it was a big deal."

Twenty-five years ago today, Sept. 23, 1992, Rheaume, a 20-year-old goaltender from Quebec, played 20 minutes in an exhibition game at Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, stopping seven of nine St. Louis Blues shots for the expansion Lightning. She became the first woman to play in one of North America's four major men's professional sports leagues.

Yeah, it was a big deal.

Talk to Alex Rigsby, a goaltender for the U.S. women's hockey team, which has been training in Tampa Bay and will play Lightning alumni, including Vinny Lecavalier and Dave Andreychuk, on Sunday at Amalie Arena after the Lightning-Panthers preseason game.

MORE MANON: The first goal she gave up with the Lightning tortured her for 20 years.

"Manon was my idol growing up," said Rigsby, 25, who played for the University of Wisconsin and who was born eight months before Rheaume made history. "I thought she was the coolest thing. I read her book. I did school research projects on her. She was actually my coach when I was playing part time with the girls in Milwaukee. I played with the boys growing up. Manon was awesome. She was all about having fun, getting the best out of us."

Having fun. That is what it was all about in 1992. That and making a splash for the NHL's first Florida team. Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, who ran the Lightning after helping secure the franchise, brought Rheaume to that first Lightning training camp.

"Why Manon?" Esposito said. "Because we needed our names in the paper, that's why. It worked. We made her a millionaire, and she really helped us be on the map."

What people forget is the 5-foot-7, 130-pound Rheaume had the third-best goals-against average of any Lightning goalie during camp.

"I don't think a lot of us thought she'd make it into a game," said Brian Bradley, a center on that first Lightning team and the franchise's first All-Star. "But Manon, she worked her tail off and earned a lot of respect from the guys."

And there was Manon-a-mania.

Rheaume was asked to appear on Letterman. She did.

Playboy asked her to do a pictorial. She did not.

She was pulled every which way, and the demands were so great that she developed ulcers.

She never played in another NHL game, but she spent six years in the minor leagues. She won a silver medal with Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first Olympics for women's hockey.

Rheaume wrote a book, Manon: Alone In Front Of The Net. And all these years later, there is a feature film on Rheaume in the works, Between the Pipes. She won't play herself but will have a cameo role.

She is 45, a single mom. Rheaume and her two sons live near Detroit, where she works with the Little Caesars youth hockey program and Detroit Red Wings youth hockey. She oversees four girls teams.

"I have two boys, so this is my girls fix," Rheaume said, laughing.

She still does speaking engagements. The No. 33 Lightning jersey she wore the night she made history hangs in a closet at home. Her 18-year-old, Dylan, is a goaltender. He won gold with the United States at the 2017 under-18 world champion­ships and is a freshman at Notre Dame. Rheaume's 10-year-old, Dakoda, is a defenseman.

"I'm at the rink every day, either coaching or with my kids," Rheaume said. "It's my happy place. It always is. That night of the exhibition game, I was nervous heading to the ice. It was nerve-racking. But when I got out there, it was a happy place."

No woman has played in an NHL game since Rheaume. She thinks she can explain that.

"There's so much more for women," she said. "I was the only girl back then playing with the boys. Now you can go national team. You can go college, D-I college. There are so many other chances."

Sept. 23, 1992.

"I was truly there to play hockey, no other reason," Rheaume said. "But I maybe helped some women with their dreams."

Alex Rigsby is pumped about playing the Lightning alumni Sunday.

"It will be so much fun to play against the guys," she said.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

     
     
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