NHL pioneer goalie Manon Rheaume inspires female hockey players in Metro Detroit

Detroit News

Twenty-eight years after she stepped on the ice for the Tampa Bay Lightning and became the first woman to play in the National Hockey League, Manon Rheaume sees the influence of her ground-breaking game more than ever before while coaching a new generation of female hockey players in the Detroit area.

It was this week in 1992 (Sept. 23) when the 5-foot-7, 135-pound Rheaume stopped seven of nine shots in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues in Tampa, Florida. No other woman has played in any of the four major sports: the NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB.

“It took me years to figure out that my story inspired people,” said Rheaume, now 48, living in Northville and in her fifth season as head coach of the girls’ under-12 team and female hockey coordinator with the Little Caesars’ program.

“When I was in Tampa Bay, I thought it was just a hockey story but it’s a story about having a passion for something and never giving up and breaking barriers and going after dreams, even if all the odds are against you.”

Rheaume was back on the ice and coaching at Oak Park Ice Arena this past weekend, wearing a black protective COVID-19 mask instead of her familiar goalie mask. She’s won four straight state titles and half of the players on the nationally ranked under-16 team which she coached in 2016 have commitments to play Division I hockey.

“The girls look up to her,” said Flint native Brian Rolston, the director of Little Caesars amateur hockey and a Stanley Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils who swept the Detroit Red Wings in the 1995 final. (Rolston had an assist and was plus-2 in the Cup-clinching 5-2 win in Game 4 in New Jersey.)

“She represented her country (two-time world champion with Canada and silver medalist at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano) and she was the first female to play pro. At the same time, she has a good command of how she wants the girls to play. She wants them to be creative and develop their skills as they move up.”

Off the ice, Rheaume’s influence on youth hockey will be on full display next month when a children’s book, “Breaking The Ice,” is released Oct. 20 and a movie, “Between The Pipes,” is scheduled for production in the summer of 2021.

The author of the book and the actress playing Rheaume in the movie is Michigan native Angie Bullaro, who learned how to skate growing up on the east side of Detroit and later attended Regina and Stevenson high schools.

“Her message really resonates with people, especially today if you’re not the right gender, the right sexual orientation or ethnicity or if you don’t have the right education or background,” Bullaro said. “All these things that society and our peers tell us we can’t achieve, she went through that and did it anyways.”

Rheaume’s message resonated with Kim St-Pierre, the first female goalie to be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame earlier this year in the 2020 class. St-Pierre remembers getting up in the middle of the night in 1998 to watch her idol Rheaume in the Olympics. That was the first year that women’s hockey was included in the Winter Games.

St-Pierre went on to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist, five-time world champion and joined Jarome Iginla, Kevin Lowe, Doug Wilson and former Red Wings Marian Hossa and Ken Holland as this year’s inductees.

“That’s when it hit home,” Rheaume said. “Kim absolutely deserves to be there. She was an amazing goaltender for Team Canada. Technically, she was so strong and helped build the sport and put women on the map. Just to know that she looked up to me and is now in the Hall of Fame, then I did my job of inspiring other people.”

Rheaume said it would be an “honor” just to be considered for the Hall of Fame and it would be “great” if it happens. However, she says it’s not something she thinks about and points out that “every single woman in there now deserves it.”

Eight women (Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Danielle Goyette, Angela Ruggiero of St. Clair Shores, Geraldine Heaney, Cammi Granato, Angela James and St-Pierre) are among the 289 players in the hall located in Toronto.

Rheaume’s journey to the NHL and the development she says of her “mental toughness” began with a conversation around the kitchen table at her family’s home in Beauport, Quebec. She was 5 years old and her father, Pierre, needed a dependable goalie for his young team of male hockey players.

“I said, ‘Why not me?'” Manon Rheaume said. “I did it all the time for my brothers (Martin and Pascal). At first, he was not sure but when he and my mom (Nicole) agreed to let me do this, he said first we’re going to practice in the basement.

“One of the first pucks he shot hit me in the shoulder and it really hurt. He said if you want to do knitting, it’s not going to hurt. But if you want to play hockey, sometimes the puck is going to hurt so get used to it. I knew if I wanted to do this sport and be the only girl with a group of guys, I’m going to have to be tough. That’s when my mindset changed.”

Rheaume eventually became the first female goalie to play a game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League alongside her brother Pascal with the Trois-Rivieres Draveurs in 1991, but not before a lot of bumps and bruises along the road during her trailblazing career.

“Back then, it wasn’t normal for a girl playing hockey,” she said. “Some coaches and parents didn’t want a girl on the team. That was an ego thing because boys should be better. When my grandmother (Cecile) saw boys getting their little hockey jackets, she knit me a sweater and a cute little hat so I would match the team but I would stay feminine.

“I remember one game, I made a big save on a player who had a breakaway and we wound up winning the game. At the end, we were shaking hands and he just punched me in the stomach. My first year pro, one player would take slapshots at my face every single practice. I was a rookie, a girl, I was French Canadian which made it harder because they couldn’t understand anything. I just had to take it. I never complained.”

Rheaume says her parents have told Bullaro about some off-ice “mean” and “awful” things that were said behind her back. (“We often joke that she knows more about me than I know about myself,” Rheaume said. “The other day, I asked her, ‘When did that happen?’ And, she said, ‘Oh that happened this year.’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right.'”)

Bullaro, who was motivated to follow her dream to become an actress by watching “A League of Their Own,” a 1992 movie about the first female professional baseball league (“League” director Penny Marshall of television sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” fame also was an executive producer of Rheaume’s movie until Marshall died in 2018), said Rheaume demonstrated “amazing humility while in the spotlight.”

“Players and coaches did some really terrible things that wouldn’t fly at all now,” Bullaro said. “When I was writing the script, I said, ‘You got to tell me.’ She doesn’t want to throw anyone under the bus, though. Even when you listen to her interviews, she focuses on the positive. That’s really powerful. She took it and kept on going. I’m very lucky to tell her story.”

Critics say Rheaume’s 20-minute preseason appearance against the Blues (former Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan scored on a one-timer for one of St. Louis’ two goals) and a subsequent exhibition game against the Boston Bruins in 1993 were publicity stunts by Hall of Famer and Tampa Bay president and general manager Phil Esposito.

The Lightning (now tied 1-1 in the 2020 Stanley Cup final against the Dallas Stars) were an expansion team in a non-traditional NHL market in 1992 and Esposito acknowledged he was hoping for extra media attention which came in the form of national TV network coverage, including an appearance on “Late Night with Dave Letterman.”

“When I hear it was a publicity stunt, that drives me crazy,” Bullaro said. “Do you want to know who else was at that training camp? Brent Gretzky, Wayne’s brother. I’m sure he was a fabulous player but he was a Gretzky and he put butts in the seats.

“At first, Phil Esposito didn’t even know she was a girl. When he found out, he was adamant. She had the skills, moves, reflexes. She still had to perform out there. She was on a mission.”

Rheaume, who dressed in a separate dressing room before the first scrimmage in a mini-tournament at the Lakeland Civic Center in Lakeland, stopped all 14 shots in 20 minutes and finished with the third best goals against average among the eight goalies. (“She was unbelievable,” Tampa Bay starting goalie Wendell Young said).

“In the end, it doesn’t matter why they invited me,” Rheaume said. “I still had to prove myself there. I didn’t want to live my life with regret and ask, ‘What if?’ I’m going to go for it. That’s what I tell the kids when I coach them. You cannot be afraid to take a chance.

“What is the worst thing that can happen? If I don’t play well, they’re going to say, ‘Oh it’s because she’s a girl.’ The best thing that can happen is that I was able to have a really good training camp and play in an exhibition game and no one could say she didn’t belong there. The game was tied 2-2 after one period. I was really happy with what I had done.”

Rheaume wound up signing a three-year contract with the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League as the third goalie and emergency backup. In her first full game against the men in 1993, she allowed six goals on 31 shots against the Cincinnati Cyclones.

In five seasons in the minor leagues, she played 24 games with the Knoxville Checkers, Nashville Knights, Las Vegas Aces, Tallahassee Tiger Sharks, Las Vegas Thunder and Reno Renegades. In 2008, she came out of retirement to play for the Port Huron Icehawks during an exhibition game against the Flint Generals and made a brief appearance with the Generals in a game against the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

“What she did was unheard of,” said Rolston, who was with New Jersey’s farm team in 1992 where he was a teammate of Pascal Rheaume, who scored 39 goals in a nine-year NHL career. “I was very impressed that she could play at that level and I’m not surprised she’s a role model. She’s a mentor for girls and a strong leader.”

Rheaume said that goaltending experience has helped her become a better coach in the Little Caesars program, which has produced 83 state titles including the U12’s four consecutive championships and 21 national titles since 1968. Little Caesars also just added three alumni from university teams to help coach during the pandemic season: Mellissa Channell (Wisconsin), Brooke Kudirka (St. Cloud) and Kari Schmitt (Ohio State).

“When you’re a goalie, you see the game differently,” said Rheaume, whose 21-year-old son Dylan is a goaltender at the University of Notre Dame. (Dakoda, 13, is a defenseman playing bantam major AAA in Michigan.) “The game is in front of you. I may not have been a defenseman or forward but I know how I like them to play in front of me.”

The U12s have a number of tournaments coming up this year, including the 2 Nations Prep Series in Taylor on Oct. 23-25, the CCM World Invite in Farmington Hills on Nov. 3-15 and the Burgh Girls Fest in Pittsburgh on Nov. 27-29. Rheaume said her focus now is on “developing girls first, on and off the ice” instead of “trying to win at all costs.”

“My goal when they asked me to take over the program was to have an organization that works together from the bottom up,” said Rheaume, who started her own hockey foundation in 2008 to help provide scholarships for young women to fulfill their aspirations.

“It’s really satisfying to see the girls develop from U12 to U19. It’s important not to sacrifice their development to win some early games. Some people might ask, ‘What are you guys doing?’ We ask them not to give the puck away and be creative and that takes time. In the long run, they’ll be better players and winning usually comes with that.”

Get to know Manon Rheaume

Born: Beauport, Quebec

Age: 48 (Feb. 24, 1972)

Residence: Northville

Hockey highlight: First female to play in the National Hockey League. Goaltender stopped seven of nine shots in Tampa Bay’s exhibition game against St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1992.

Coaching highlight: Led the Little Caesars’ U12 girls to four straight state titles.

Book launch: Children’s book, “Breaking The Ice,” chronicling Rheaume’s hockey journey, to be released Oct. 20. The movie, “Between The Pipes,” written by Angie Bullaro will be in production in summer 2021.

mfalkner@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @falkner

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