My heart was beating so hard, I felt like it was coming out of my chest. But the coolest thing was, as soon as I got on the ice, the butterflies went away and I was just playing a hockey game.-Manon Rheaume
The first woman to play in a North American professional sports game
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
On September 23, 1992, a young female goalie named Manon Rhéaume suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues. The moment was historic, as Rhéaume became the first woman to play in any of the major North American professional sports leagues. She played one period, allowing two goals on nine shots.
Long before her appearance with the Lightning, Rhéaume was already breaking new ground as a woman trying to play in a male-dominated sport like hockey. A March 2020 story published on NHL.com reported that in 1984, Rhéaume became the first female to play in the renowned Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. She would make history again in 1991 when she became the first woman to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, playing goal for the Trois-Rivières Draveurs.
Of course, many critics believed Rhéaume’s association with Tampa Bay was merely a publicity stunt. Former NHL great and Hall of Famer, Phil Esposito, was then the Lightning GM. He stated the reason why he signed the 20-year-old goalie from Lac-Beauport, Quebec—telling the Tampa Bay Times: “Why Manon? Because we needed our names in the paper, that’s why. It worked. We made her a millionaire, and she really helped us be on the map.”
The Tampa Bay Times also reported that Rhéaume had the third-best goals-against-average of any Tampa Bay goalie during camp. Although Rhéaume making the team was perhaps a long shot, she deserved a chance to prove herself. Former Lightning forward, Brian Bradley, was a member of the Lightning’s first team and also the team’s first All-Star; Bradley recalls his doubts about Rhéaume before seeing how hard she worked. “I don’t think a lot of us thought she’d make it into a game,” he said. “But Manon, she worked her tail off and earned a lot of respect from the guys.”
However, not everyone was embracing Rhéaume’s history-making moment. E.M. Swift voiced his displeasure, in an article written for Sports Illustrated on September 28, 1992: “Is her playing goal in Tampa a breakthrough in women’s sports? Sorry. I call it manipulative and sexist, a desperate attempt to sell a bad hockey team to an uninitiated Southern city […] It doesn’t hurt the publicity-seeking Lightning that [Rhéaume] is pretty and that she was reportedly was offered, and turned down, $50,000 from Playboy for a photo layout.”
Nevertheless, despite the criticism Rhéaume faced, it would not overshadow her accomplishments. Wendell Young, a former Tampa Bay goalie, respected Rhéaume’s courage and resiliency. “I think she did an excellent job; she did a much better job than any of the males would have under that microscope,” he told NHL.com. “She was hitting a new frontier in hockey, representing women in hockey and she put it all on her shoulders. With the scope of the amount of people who were watching, we would have never had that media frenzy if she wasn’t there [….] But she handled it unbelievably. She came in as a pro and treated everything that way. She treated it as a job; she came to camp like anybody else trying to get a position. But she had extra stuff to deal with, and she did it well. But once she got on the ice, it was all about hockey.”
Rhéaume would become a household name; as she made numerous public appearances including appearing on Late Night with David Letterman in 1992. She won gold medals at the IIHF Women’s World Championship (1992 and 1994). Rhéaume also won a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan—the first-year women’s hockey was included at the Olympic Winter Games.
Years later, Rhéaume admitted the road to becoming a professional female athlete was never easy. She encountered frequent criticism and especially sexism simply because she was a woman trying to play hockey—a sport generally dominated by men. But Rhéaume credits her father, Pierre, who taught her at a young age to be resilient—and never give up. “A lot of people ask me, [how] did you make it that far, when everyone was saying no?’” Rhéaume said in a 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated. “A big part of it is my parents. My dad was not afraid to put me in a situation where he knew I’d be failing. He was never going to stop me from being in a situation where I may not make a team.”
In March 2021, Rhéaume, in an interview with Spectrum Bay News 9, recalled how nervous she felt before playing in goal for one period for the Tampa Bay Lightning. “That walk from the locker room to the ice, never in my life have I been so nervous,” she said. “My heart was beating so hard, I felt like it was coming out of my chest. But the coolest thing was, as soon as I got on the ice, the butterflies went away and I was just playing a hockey game.” But at the time, Rhéaume was focused on trying to stop the puck—rather than being preoccupied with making history: “I think it took me years to realize how big of a deal it was.”
In September 2021, Rhéaume was honoured in Quebec City with the unveiling of a bronze statue. “I realized that my story had touched and inspired people many years after my career,” she told NHL.com. “I find it satisfying and I want to continue to be an inspiration.”
Today, Rhéaume works as a public speaker; and is also an analyst on RDS, a French-language television network. In addition, she is the coordinator of the Little Caesars’ female hockey program that is affiliated with the Detroit Red Wings. Rhéaume coaches the under-12 team as part of her role. She tries to instill to her players the lessons she was taught as a young woman—to always work hard and try your best—telling NHL.com in March 2020: “I always tell them to follow their dreams no matter what the dream is and to believe in themselves. Hard work and never giving up is what can make you succeed.”