Manon Rheaume Remains an Inspiration to Female Hockey Players

Manon Rheaume broke down barriers when she became the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game. She still wishes more people talked about how well she played during her training camp with the Lightning.

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Jun 19 2015, 2:15pm

Photo by Tom Seaton-The Associated Press

Manon Rheaume's place in history as the first and only woman to play in an NHL game will forever be solidified. She still feels people never talked about the training camp she had with the Tampa Bay Lightning correctly, though.

Rheaume broke down barriers for women hockey players everywhere, and that's how her legacy may very well be defined. At 20 years of age, with her share of doubters, Rheaume went to Tampa Bay to be part of the Lightning's very first training camp. More than 20 years later, as a film on her is in the works, her success during those memorable weeks in 1992 remains an afterthought to many.

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"At first, when (Lightning coach Terry Crisp) found out I'd be coming to training camp he didn't really agree with it. He said to Phil Esposito 'This is hard enough. We have a brand new team, we're trying to build hockey here,' and he admitted he was not supportive at first," Rheaume tells VICE.

"But he also said, and it's something not a lot of people talked about, when we did the camp we were divided into four teams and did a few quick tournaments to pick the team. And I finished with the third best goals against average and save percentage in that tournament. And that's what he mentioned. He said 'No one ever talks about that,' and I thought 'Thank you!' No one ever talks about that but that's all I ever thought about, was my actual performance in training camp. I did play well during the training camp. For whatever it's worth, it's still a big deal that no one talks about."

People will soon begin talking about Rheaume again as Between The Pipes, a film based on her book Manon: Alone In Front of the Net, begins production. The film will tell the story of Rheaume's younger life up to her time in Tampa Bay.

There is more to Rheaume's hockey legacy, however, than just one training camp over twenty years ago. She won a pair of gold medals at the women's world hockey championship in 1992 and 1994, and a silver at the 1998 Olympics. When women's hockey was featured at the Winter Olympics for the first time, Rheaume was fittingly on the ice.

Rheaume's career, however, wasn't strictly glamorous. She bounced from the ECHL to the IHL to the WCHL, playing for teams even the most studious of hockey historians would be hard-pressed to identify, from the Knoxville Cherokees to the Reno Renegades. She posted a 5.65 GAA during an 11-game stint with the Renegades.

In the eye of the storm, Rheaume might not have understood the way she was changing the game.

"If I look back at my experience and when I played, I didn't always realize the impact I had on people and how I had a positive impact on some people," she recalls. "It's only been later in life when I've had people come up to me and say 'My daughter wants to be like you. You're such an inspiration,' that made me realize that I inspired people and that's probably the most satisfying thing I did, to know that my story helped other people."

Rheaume is still involved with youth girls hockey in Michigan, coaching a select team that regularly travels to Europe for tournaments. She's gotten a firsthand look at the rise of women's hockey worldwide.

"Girls are getting better. It's coming, I wish it was sooner but they're getting closer and closer every year," she says.

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If at first Rheaume was taken aback when New York City-based actor and writer Angie Bullaro approached her about the film idea, it didn't take long for the feeling to dissipate. A visit from Bullaro to Rheaume's home in Michigan helped her understand that the film could have a far-reaching impact.

"When she said she wanted to inspire people, that got me right away," says Rheaume.

But first, if Bullaro's portrayal of Rheaume was going to be accurate, she'd have to suit up and learn her way around a net. Rheaume was tasked with showing Bullaro the ropes—and it didn't come easy.

"The first time we met up for a goalie lesson, she texted me and said 'Should I bring a sweatshirt to wear over my gear?'" recalls Rheaume.

"And I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be terrible.'"

Eventually, Bullaro began to get the hang of things and has continued to take goalie lessons in New York City in anticipation of a 2017 release date for the film. Her determination to learning the position has impressed Rheaume so far.

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Rheaume admits that her tryout for the Lightning was derided as nothing more than a "publicity stunt" and even then, she encountered difficulty. She had to be the first and last off the ice to accommodate the rest of the team, but her pursuit to continue her journey was ingrained in her core and hardened by the past.

Coaches would acknowledge her skill throughout her minor hockey career, but still ask her parents not to bring her to training camp. It was a secret her parents kept to themselves, still allowing Rheaume to face adversity and come out a stronger person.

"When I got invited to Tampa Bay, I said 'I don't care why they invited me. I'm going for it.' Because at the end of the day I still have to prove myself," says Rheaume.

"It's one thing to be invited but you still have to go out there and face those shots every day. I knew that it didn't matter why. I didn't want to live my life with regret. I had to do it."

And she was good while doing it. More importantly, she has remained an inspiration to women hockey players worldwide.