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Manon Rhéaume Still Inspiring Young Women to Pursue Hockey Dreams

Almost twenty-eight years ago, Rhéaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game after she tended the crease for the Tampa Bay Lightning

by Mike Commito @mikecommito / LAKings.com

Manon Rhéaume laughs about what it would have been like if social media were around in her playing days. 

"I was thinking about that the other day. Can you imagine it when I played?" she asked. "It would have been so different."

When Rhéaume tended the crease for the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of an exhibition game, on September 23, 1992, becoming the first woman to play in the NHL, there's no question that she would have gone viral. 

Tweets from across the globe would have flooded her phone and her name would have been trending. By the time Rhéaume returned to the dressing room, she would have been overwhelmed by the amount of notifications that would have awaited her. 

The former goaltender says she is still trying to get a handle on social media these days, so it likely would have been overwhelming for the Lac-Beauport, Quebec native, who was just 20 years old at the time. 

Watch: Youtube Video

Although the media coverage leading up to the contest certainly underscored its historical significance, it seemed like just another hockey game for Rhéaume. 

"At the time I didn't realize that it was a big deal," she said. "I knew the media were making a big deal, but when you're young, you're just playing hockey because you love the game." 

For Rhéaume, her NHL appearance was just another example of her drive to play the sport at the highest level, something she had strived for her entire life. 

Growing up, playing hockey with her brothers and the boys in the area, Rhéaume learned pretty quickly that, despite her abilities, she was often cut from teams simply because she was a girl. 

Although it was frustrating for the youngster, she was undeterred. Rhéaume continued to work hard and hone her skills to prove she could compete with the boys. 

Instagram from @manonrheaume33: Throwback Thursday! Yes that haircut was in back then.....#girls #80s #80shair #goalies #goaliesaves #hockey🏒

It didn't take long for her to make a name for herself. In 1984, she became the first girl to play in the famed Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. Seven years later, she made history again, becoming the first woman to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, suiting up for the Trois-Rivières Draveurs.

When the Lightning came calling the following year, it was an opportunity Rhéaume could not pass up. 

"So many times when I was younger, I was good enough to make the top level. I was good enough to be on the team, but they didn't want me because I was a girl," she said. "When that opportunity came about I thought to myself, maybe if I would have got all those chances before, I would've played four years of major junior, but I didn't have all those chances before." 

While some had suggested that Tampa Bay GM Phil Esposito was just orchestrating a publicity stunt for the new expansion team, his motivations were of little consequence to Rhéaume. After being denied opportunities in men's hockey year after year, simply because she was a girl, she was not going to turn down the chance to play at the highest level. 

"At the end of the day, I knew it didn't matter why I was invited," she said. "I didn't want to live my life with regret. I didn't want to look back ten years later and ask myself what would have happened if I had gone there."

Tweet from @mikecommito: Manon Rh��aume became the first woman to play in any of the major professional North American sports leagues when she appeared in an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning on September 23, 1992 #GoBolts #InternationalWomensDay pic.twitter.com/WKTZgEWTVO

When Rhéaume arrived in Tampa Bay, she remembers there was a big bouquet of flowers waiting for her in her dressing room, along with a card. "It was from a radio station in Montreal and the card said go further, good luck to you, we're all behind you and you're not alone," she said. "When I got that, I realized a lot of people were pulling for me to be successful." It was at that point that the significance of the game began to dawn on her. 

As she walked from her dressing room to the ice, she was overcome with emotion. "My heart was beating so fast," she said. "I had never been so nervous in my entire life." 

But once she stepped out onto the ice, her nerves subsided. "The butterflies all went away and it was like I forgot I was playing in an NHL game," she said. "It was just like I was in the place I had been my entire life since I was five. I just went out and played hockey."

In her first period appearance against the St. Louis Blues, Rhéaume faced nine shots and valiantly stopped seven of them, giving up goals to Jeff Brown and future Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan. 

While it might have felt like just another game for Rhéaume in the moment, in the years that have followed, she has realized it was so much more. "I didn't know that it would inspire so many people," she said. "It was more later in my life that I realized it was a big deal and I did impact people with my story and inspired people to want to do the same."

Although her brush with the NHL was brief, Rhéaume inspired countless girls to pursue their hockey dreams. Almost twenty-eight years later, and she's still doing exactly that. Today, Rhéaume is the Girls Program Coordinator for the Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club and the head coach of the 12U girls team in Detroit. 

As someone who always chased her dreams, on and off the ice, Rhéaume imparts that same advice to her players as part of her teachings. "I always tell them to follow their dreams no matter what the dream is and to believe in themselves," she said. "Hard work and never giving up is what can make you succeed."

Rhéaume would know. That relentless pursuit is how she earned a gold medal at the Women's World Championship, a silver at the Olympics, and, ultimately, a piece of hockey history. While she doesn't know if we'll ever see another woman play in NHL, she's certainly not ruling it out.

"A lot of people thought one woman wouldn't be there," she said simply. Hopefully they are proved wrong again. 

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