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The First Woman of Hockey: How Manon Rhéaume Made HERstory

Courtesy of Chris O’Meara/AP Photo

Hockey has been largely dominated by men for years. With its rough and intense nature, women and girls have often been discouraged from participating. However, recently that has begun to change. More and more women have become involved in major roles in hockey as coaches and executives. The PWHL’s inaugural season began in January to give women the opportunity to play professional hockey, and has been immensely successful. However, 32 years ago, there was one woman who completely changed the game. Manon Rhéaume was the first woman to play in the NHL, and she still continues to be a trailblazer in women’s sports today.

Manon had always grown up in the rink. Her father owned an outdoor rink and coached a local hockey team. She started skating when she was three years old, and when she was five, she asked her father if she could play in a game. In one youth tournament, her father was in need of a goaltender. He subbed Manon in and she was hooked. She loved the atmosphere and the competition. Even though she tried other sports such as figure skating and ballet, hockey was her first true love. “I didn’t just play hockey,” she said. “It was my passion.”

Manon continued to play throughout her childhood, becoming the first girl to play in the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament of Quebec and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. She played actively with boys and was a force in the pipes. Her coaches said that she was a tough player. Though she was an impressive player, she was not always respected by the hockey community.

Courtesy of B Bennett/Getty Images

When she was in her late teens, she took a hiatus from playing the game and went to work at a TV station. In 1992, she was covering the NHL Draft when she met Phil Esposito, who was the president and general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Esposito had seen Manon play on tape, and he was impressed. He asked her to come to training camp and train with the team. “I thought he was joking,” she later said. Even though Esposito later admitted that the only reason he invited her was to gain publicity for the Lightning, Rhéaume was still excited for the opportunity. “I told myself, ‘so many people said no to me because I am a girl. I don’t want to live my life with regrets. Now I have a chance to play at the highest level. I’m going to take that chance.’”

Courtesy of the Canadian Press

Training camp was a hard experience. It is normal at NHL training camps for experienced players to pick on the rookies. However, because Rhéaume was a woman, they were extra hard on her. The Lightning coach at the time, Terry Crisp, would not even talk to her. Even though he had said it was only for publicity at first, Esposito began to change his stance on Rhéaume. He saw her as a dedicated worker who truly had a shot to make it in the hockey world. Rhéaume eventually did get her shot. On September 23rd 1992, she was the starting goalie for the Lightning in the first period of an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues. She stopped seven out of nine shots, and when she left the net, both teams were tied at 2-2.

Courtesy of the Canadian Olympic Committee

After the preseason, the Lightning offered her a contract to play with one of their minor league teams, the Atlanta Knights. In her first season with the Knights, Rhéaume was the first woman to start in a regular season hockey game. She also played for other minor league hockey teams throughout the 90s, including the Knoxville Cherokees, the Nashville Knights, and the Tallahassee Tiger sharks of the East Coast Hockey League, as well as the Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League. In 1998, Rhéaume added another accolade to her career, winning an olympic medal. She represented Team Canada in the women’s ice hockey tournament during its inaugural year. She led her team all the way to the finals, where they lost the gold medal game to the United States.

Courtesy of Iconsportwire/Getty Images

Though it has been many years since these accomplishments, Rhéaume still continues to exert her influence over the hockey community. In 2022, she suited up to play in the breakaway challenge at the NHL All Star Skills Competition, where she was a respected guest. She has also started the girls program with the Little Caesar’s Hockey Club in Farmington Hills, Michigan, where she is a coach. Rhéaume seeks to inspire young girls and help them in their hockey journey. She says, “Young girls need to see it to believe it… To be able to have dreams and knowing that ‘if I play those sports, then I can make it to the olympics or I can become a broadcaster one day.’”

Courtesy of Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Manon Rhéaume has paved the way for women and girls all over to break into the hockey community. Her message of showing that young girls need to “see it to believe it” has influenced women and girls to help encourage each other to reach their goals on and off the ice. She also paved the way for professional women’s hockey, which has taken the US and Canada by a storm this year. Manon Rhéaume has shown that hockey is not just for him, but that hockey is for her as well.

Courtesy of Casey Brooke Lawson/Tampa Bay Lightning

Edited by Giana Robertaccio

Social Media Content Created by Caroline McGuinness

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