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Rheaume's impact on women's hockey still being felt

Goalie became first female to play in NHL game more than 26 years ago

by Tracey Myers @TraMyers_NHL / Staff Writer

When Lyndsey Fry was a little girl, she would make the same wish each year on her birthday: become the first woman to play in the NHL.

But at age 10, Fry found out goalie Manon Rheaume already had done that, playing one period for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 23, 1992, about a month before Fry was born.

Fry, who won a silver medal with the United States women's ice hockey team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and is a special adviser to Arizona Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen, remembers being angry.

"I very vividly remember my 10-year-old brain saying, 'Well, she didn't count because she was a goalie and I'm a forward. So it's different,'" Fry said with a laugh. "But even for it to spark that fire in my heart was significant. And as much as it made me mad, to know that it was possible and know there was no limit to what we could do, that was really significant for me as a kid."

It's been more than 26 years since Rheaume played in that NHL game; she also played one period in a preseason game against the Boston Bruins in 1993.

Rheaume is struck by the impact she's made on current players.

"Now, looking back, I realize how big of a deal it was," said Rheaume, who is the girls program coordinator/under-12 girls coach for the Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club in Detroit. "When I was young and got invited, it happened so fast and I didn't realize really the impact I would have on people, on history, on everything when I went there. I just went because it was amazing to play at the highest level. Now, looking back 26 years, no other female has done that, and not only in hockey, but the four major sports.

"Through the years, having so many people come up to me, telling me that I inspired their daughter or son, or someone saying, 'I had your poster on my wall,' that makes me realize my story impacted a lot of people in a positive way."

Video: Rheaume on being first female goalie, playing for TBL

The impact has been felt by NHL players too. Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford grew up in Chateauguay, Quebec, about three hours from Rheaume's hometown of Beauport, Quebec.

"That was big news," Crawford said. "I think everyone was kind of wondering if she was going to make the team or not. It was crazy. She was pretty good too, so that was amazing news."

U.S. women's forward Hilary Knight couldn't recall when she first heard Rheaume's story, but she knows that when she did, she was inspired.

"It gave us a glimmer of hope," said Knight, who won a gold medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and at Sochi. "I just remember it was sort of like, growing up, outside of the Olympics, all we had to watch was the NHL. It's similar to what it is now, but we're obviously a part of growing the visibility of the [women's game]."

Rheaume coached U.S. women's forward Kendall Coyne Schofield, defenseman Megan Bozek and goalie Alex Rigsby, among others, with the Wisconsin Wild. Coyne Schofield played boys hockey in the Chicago area before she started playing for Rheaume at age 12. She didn't know her coach's story until her parents had her read Rheaume's book, "Manon: Alone in Front of the Net."

"I thought it was the coolest thing ever that she was going to be my coach and had played in the NHL," said Coyne Schofield, who won gold at PyeongChang and silver at Sochi. "To that point in my career, I was playing so much boys hockey that I wasn't familiar with the girls world besides (former U.S. women's forward) Cammi Granato. She was that other familiar face who was playing the game. I followed her a lot during my girls career because she was such a great role model and helped me with what I needed to get to that next level."

No woman has played in an NHL game since Rheaume.

But Knight and teammates Amanda Kessel and Meghan Duggan demonstrated their skills at 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend at Amalie Arena in Tampa, with Knight posting a time in accuracy shooting that would have challenged most of the men.

Coyne Schofield, U.S. women's forward Brianna Decker, and Canada women's forward Rebecca Johnston and defenseman Renata Fast participated in various skills competitions at 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend at SAP Center in San Jose, with Coyne Schofield finishing seventh in the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater competition and Decker completing the puck control event with a performance similar to Knight's.

Video: Manon Rheaume: First woman to play in NHL

"To be on the ice with all the best hockey players in the world, and players I've watched growing up, was a dream come true for me," said Johnston, who won gold at Vancouver and Sochi, then silver at PyeongChang. "Also, to compete in the same skills as they were doing was a pretty special moment. Just to showcase women's hockey was a big moment. We're very fortunate that the NHL allowed us to participate and be on the ice with them."

Now to take the women's game a step further. There are two professional women's leagues in North America, the National Women's Hockey League in the U.S. and the Canadian Women's Hockey League, but players say combining into one league is necessary.

"Ultimately, we need the NHL. We want the NHL shield and we need to come together in order for us to operate under the umbrella of the NHL," Coyne Schofield said. "It would just be incredible for our sport."

Knight said having one league would change a lot of things.

"The first thing that comes to mind is the level of competition," she said. "You'd get the top players in one league; it's really high caliber. Not to say that it isn't right now, but we could do better. Visibility is key. Why are we forcing fans to choose between two leagues? It doesn't make sense. If we can get the fans going and excited about one league and their favorite team, it'll go a long way."

Women's hockey has come far and is still progressing. Rheaume is appreciative of the impact she's made, from her former players who became Olympians to the girls she's working with today.

"I coached some of them when they were 12 years old, and now they're playing in the Olympics," Rheaume said. "When I had a chance to meet them when they were younger, they were looking up to me and they wanted to follow their dreams. To see them achieve that is nice.

"I've had a positive impact on young girls," Rheaume said. "It's the most satisfying part of everything I did."

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