TAMPA — It’s been 30 seasons since Manon Rheaume broke the gender barrier by playing goaltender for the Lightning in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues during Tampa Bay’s inaugural season, becoming the first woman to play in any of North America’s four major pro sports leagues.
Rheaume made another preseason appearance for the Lightning in 1993, was a two-time gold medalist at the women’s world championships, a 1998 Olympics silver medalist with Canada and played 24 games in three men’s minor pro leagues from 1992-97.
This season, after spending the previous seven building a prestigious girls hockey program in Detroit, she was hired by the Los Angeles Kings as hockey operations/prospect advisor.
Rheaume was in town this month to attend the Lightning’s alumni weekend and inaugural Hall of Fame ceremony. We caught up with her to discuss her impact, the growth of the women’s game, her new position and what Lightning founder Phil Esposito, who invited her to training camp in 1992, means to her.
This conversation is edited for length and clarity.
What is it like for you to see the women’s game grow so much, and how much do you feel a part of that growth?
“I feel like when I started playing hockey, I played with boys. They had no girls hockey. And I was in Quebec, and there hockey was everything. So it’s incredible to think that today young girls at 5 years old can start playing hockey. They have amazing girls hockey tournaments everywhere. The national team, those women, they are amazing athletes. I see them off the ice and to see the training they go through to be the best they can be. It’s exciting to see the fact that (Canadian women’s national team star) Sarah Nurse is on the (cover of the) EA Sports NHL 23 game with (the Ducks’) Trevor Zegras. Those are cool moments for the women’s game. That’s what’s going to help to grow the game. When we look at hockey, we want to grow the game. And there’s the ability to grow it a lot more on the girls and women’s side, because there are more boys playing all over the place. So I think that to see those women getting positions on TV or with a team or being on an EA Sports cover, I think that helps young girls to believe they can dream and could be one of them.”
Before getting the job with the Kings, you spent the last seven years with the Little Caesars girls hockey program in Detroit. How did that prepare you for this next step in the men’s game?
“That program, that was my vision, and hiring coaches and budgeting everything and everything that I was doing. Then I was listening to all the new GMs in the NHL and listening to Martin St. Louis when he got hired (as head coach) in Montreal, and he was talking about his vision. That was the same vision that I had with my program, and that’s what gives me confidence to go after a job like that. I think the same way, I see the same things. I grew up doing all this. For me to get that job, it’s because other women got hired prior to me. Ten years ago I never thought of working for an NHL team, because no women were working for NHL teams. And that’s kind of like a ripple effect. And I guess me being in Tampa in ‘92 probably opened the door to other women.
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“I think everything that I was doing all my life as a coach, as a mom of two hockey players that play at a high level, as you know a player myself, it prepared me to be able to help those young players. Being drafted is one thing, but the road to make it to the NHL, it’s a very challenging one and you’re going to have ups and downs, and my role is more getting to know the kids, listening to them. .... What I really love about when I did the girls program — and I still advise with the girls program because it was my baby, I did it for seven years — but it’s to see the young girls that come in and along the way they face adversity and you’re there and you help them through, and then they get to U-19, they get a D-I scholarship, they get invited to the U.S. National Team. It’s a satisfying thing to know that you were part of helping there. And I guess it’s really the same thing with guys. You know their strengths and weaknesses, you follow them and you see the growth throughout the year.”
You narrated the video tribute to Lightning founder Phil Esposito for his Hall of Fame induction, and in it you shared what he meant to you. How impactful was he to your journey?
“Yeah, he changed my life, and I think he changed the lives of so many people. Growing up, a lot of people said no to me because I was a girl. And even if I was good enough, they would pick a boy. And along the way I continued to grow, because I always had that one person that gave me a chance. One coach in bantam who said, ‘I’ll take the best player,’ and then after that I had one coach in juniors who said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance.’ And Phil was one of them, because he took a chance on me. And it’s funny, because I remember one comment, after that first time on the ice when I didn’t allow a goal, he made the comment on the press conference that, ‘The way she played today, you may see her in an exhibition game.’ And I remember being, like, ‘He really just said that?’ He took a chance to put me in an exhibition game, and if it would have not gone well, that would have been on Tampa then. For me, same thing. I had a lot of pressure just for me. And he used to say, I don’t know who was the most nervous, him or me. I think we were probably both equally nervous, but he took a chance and I’ve stayed in touch with him. He meant so much to me, and to see what he did here for this community, when they asked me to do the narrative, I was honored. When I read the whole thing, I had tears in my eyes. I wanted to do it. But I was so nervous about doing it, because he meant so much to me and I wanted him to know that.”
It’s been 30 years since you played in an NHL game. When will another woman play in the NHL?
“I don’t know, and you never know, because a lot of people thought that it wouldn’t ever happen when it happened to me. I think the difference today is they have so much opportunity on the women’s side. I look back now sometimes and I wish I was playing now that I could go to play college hockey for four years, play on the national team, where they make good money now. We were making nothing on a national team back in ‘98. And those women now, they’re making good money playing on that national team and they get to play several Olympics and things like that, and now they’re creating this pro league. I would never take back what I experienced. Don’t get me wrong. But to see like the opportunity that women have now, I think that most of the women, they want to be the best that they can be on the women’s side.”
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