It happened so long ago that many people have forgotten that it even occurred by now. Many others likely do not know that it took place at all. But before the Tampa Bay Lightning had officially began their first season in the National Hockey League, they made history when Manon Rheaume, a pretty 20-year-old from Quebec City, settled into the crease and played 20 minutes in goal to become the first female to play professional hockey.
For much of 1991 and early in 1992, team founder and general manager Phil Esposito was busy assembling a squad of players that would become the Lightning, scheduled to begin play in October of 1992. Esposito left no stone unturned in his search for prospects, and when Lightning scout Jacques Campeau forwarded a tape of a goaltending prospect, Esposito watched it with interest.
“I thought the player was a little small for a goalie,” Esposito recalled. “But he moved well. He had good reflexes. I told Jacques we could invite the guy to camp.”
But, to the absolute delight of Esposito, who knew good publicity when he saw it, the “he” turned out to be a “she” and when the first ever training camp opened in early September in Lakeland, Florida, Rheaume was one of the 72 players gathered on the ice.
For Rheaume, who began playing in goal at the age of five and had already appeared in a major junior game in addition to leading the women’s Team Canada squad to a gold medal in the 1992 World Championships, the opportunity was anything but a play for publicity.
She was there to play hockey.
“My thought was, what a great opportunity to do a training camp with the best players in the world,” Rheaume recalled. “I decided I didn’t want to look back and be sad that I didn’t try. I didn’t care about being the first. I would do this if I was second, third or fourth. I always wanted to do things that made me better.”
When she arrived at training camp, Rheaume was surprised to find herself in the center of a media storm. All the national outlets were there, but her luggage and equipment weren’t. The airline had misplaced them.
That night the team gathered for a meeting and Rheaume had her first case of nerves.
“I walked into the room and I looked around,” Rheaume remembered. “Those big players were just sitting there and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing here’.”
The schedule for the next day called for fitness testing, but, due to the luggage mishap all Rheaume had were the clothes she was wearing. Esposito sent her to his daughter, Carrie, to borrow something to wear.
“So I go to see her and I was probably about a size six and she was a size two at the time and she gives me a pair of gym shorts. I could barely put them on. They were skin tight on me,” Rheaume laughed. “She gave me a t-shirt that they had made for the team – it said “Real Men Wear Black” so that’s what I had to wear for the fitness testing on the first day. I was so embarrassed. Every time I would meet one of the players I told them, ‘this is not me!’, but the media was there and they were taking pictures of all that. That was a really hard first day.”
The second day, which immediately began with an intra-squad scrimmage, was better.
There were six goaltenders in camp, with each scheduled to play one period. Rheaume, assigned the second period, faced 14 shots and stopped them all. In the press conference after the game, Esposito indicated that Rheaume might appear in an exhibition game.
“My legs just starting shaking,” Rheaume recalled. “I never thought I’d play an exhibition game. I figured I’d show up there, do the first week of camp and get sent down, so for me it was a big surprise.”
Surprise or not, on September 23, 1992 at the Florida State Fairground’s Expo Hall, the team’s first home, a crush of over 75 members of the media and more than 8,000 curious fans showed up to watch Rheaume face the St. Louis Blues and make history.
By this time, Rheaume was a veteran of more than 100 interviews during the 11 days of camp, on the bus ride to the rink she was more nervous than she had ever been in her life, before or since. But once she entered the locker room, a surprise from home made her relax.
“I had a big bouquet of flowers from a Quebec radio station and a card saying ‘you can do this, we’re all behind you,” Rheaume recalled. “It made me feel great. I had my parent’s support and my friend’s support but to have my home town sending me this and telling me that they are behind me, it made me feel better and helped take the nerves away.”
But the reprieve was only temporary.
“I remember the walk from the locker room to the ice,” Rheaume said. “It was the most miserable walk I have ever had. I could barely breathe, that’s how nervous I was.”
Once she reached the ice surface, all the butterflies disappeared and Rheaume focused on doing what she had been trained to do.
“I really forgot I was wearing an NHL jersey and playing in an NHL game,” she recalled. “When I stepped on the ice I did what I usually do when I play – I dared myself to stop the puck. It was amazing. After being so nervous, to feel how good it was to be on the ice.”
Her shutout vanished 121 seconds into the game when a 35-foot slap shot got past her, but when her 20 minutes in net came to an end Rheaume had faced nine St. Louis shots while stopping seven. With the scored tied 2-2 after the first period, her NHL career ended. When her replacement, the veteran Wendell Young, allowed two goals the crowd began chanting “we want Manon.”
The next day she signed a contract and left to join the Atlanta Knights, at the time the Lightning’s affiliate in the IHL. She went on to play for several minor league hockey clubs and again backstopped Team Canada to gold in the 1994 Women’s World Hockey Championships as well as the Silver Medal at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
Today, Rheaume lives in Michigan and is a full-time mom to her two boys, both of whom are involved in youth hockey. Her oldest son, Dylan, 11, has followed his mom into the net as a goaltender.
“I have to tell you,” Rheaume laughed. “It’s a lot easier to be a goalie than to be the mom of a goalie.”
In 2008, she formed the Manon Rheaume Foundation, which is dedicated to providing scholarships for young women to assist them as they seek to fulfill their aspirations. She also leads the women’s committee of One Goal, an association active in the U.S. and Canada which encourages participation in hockey among 4-8 year olds. In addition, Rheaume was named one of the Top 10 Female Sports Pioneers by Time Magazine.
After another appearance at the Bolts training camp in 1993, she has never returned to Tampa, though the city, and the experience, is never far from her mind.
“So many things have come from that,” Rheaume reflected. “I experienced tons of great things – things I would have never experienced if I would not have taken that opportunity. But I think the most important thing that came out of it is that I was able to make a positive impact on lots of young girls, and that made me feel good. To this day I think that is my best memory of the whole experience – how I was able to impact young girls and show them that they can achieve their goals and dreams.”
But back then, in the early days of the Tampa Bay Lightning, she was just a 20-year-old girl with long black hair who loved to play hockey.
“I had no clue that my life would change the way it did,” Rheaume explained. “To be honest with you, I didn’t understand the impact it would have until later in life. Now I have young girls coming up to me and saying, ‘you inspire me.’ I never imagined it would affect so many people’s lives. I had no clue.”