Manon Rheaume became the first – and so far, only – woman to ever appear in an NHL pre-season game when she suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning 23 years ago. Her story will hit the big screen in an indie film about her life that will begin filming in the winter.
TAMPA – Just the other day, Manon Rheaume went to get the oil changed on her car at a garage near her home in suburban Detroit. While she sat in the waiting room, one of the grease monkeys came out from the back with the work order in his hand. “He was looking at the name and he looked at me and said, ‘Are you the hockey player?’ ” Rheaume said. “He was like, ‘I used to have a poster of you on my wall.’ And I was thinking, ‘This is weird, you know?’ ”
Weird perhaps, but still gratifying for the first and only woman to ever appear in an NHL pre-season game. Rheaume’s world changed forever after she stopped seven of the nine shots she faced Sept. 23, 1992 for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the St. Louis Blues. She went on to play for eight different men’s teams in four minor leagues over the years, along with a team in Austria. She founded a foundation, worked in hockey and is raising two hockey-playing boys, one of whom is on the fast track with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. And starting this winter, filming will begin on Between the Pipes, the story of Rheaume’s life from the time she started playing hockey at five to when she appeared with the Lightning.
Rheaume was at Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final as a guest of the Lightning and did the rounds promoting the film, of which she is an associate producer. She had not been in Tampa since the fall of 1993 when she played in her second of two exhibition games with the Lightning and a lot has changed since then. In 1992, the Lightning was an expansion team looking to make a splash in the marketplace and was owned by Phil Esposito, whose chutzpah and promoting skills managed to both get Japanese investors to put their money into a hockey team and to convince the NHL’s board of governors to let him in.
Since then, the Lightning has won one Cup and is playing for another. Rheaume went on to play on both men’s leagues and won two World Championship gold medals and an Olympic silver medal for Canada. Now at 43, she has coached both her kids in Detroit and still plays beer league occasionally as a forward. She still answers fan mail that somehow still makes it to her house. One day her son, Dylan, came home with a library book that had her picture in it.
“What I didn’t realize when I played was the impact that I had on young people, especially girls,” Rheaume said. “And it’s only over the years, getting fan mail and people coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re such an inspiration for my daughter or my son,’ or ‘My son did a project about you in school,’ that I did realize, ‘Like, wow, I did impact some people.’ It took me a long time to realize that and it makes me feel good. It’s probably the most satisfying thing I did over the years.”
When Rheaume met with independent film writer and producer Angie Bullaro a year ago to talk about making a film of her life, they hit it off right away. Bullaro will also play Rheaume in the movie and has been getting a crash course on goaltending from former NHLer Steve Valiquette, who is also an associate producer for the movie. In a trailer for the film, Bullaro says she was compelled to make the movie.
“Manon’s story is unbelievable…all I kept thinking was, ‘I have to tell this story,’ ” Bullaro said. “Manon’s journey, it changes you. It changes the way you think about life, about yourself, about your dreams.”
Rheaume still remembers the first game in incredible detail. She recalls coming down the runway at the makeshift arena at the Tampa Fairgrounds feeling like her heart would beat out of her chest. “But the funny thing is, as soon as I stepped on the ice I was relaxed and I felt so good,” she said, “because I was in my happy place.”
Rheaume got to play in the game in a relief role, stopping seven of nine Blues shots. The funny thing is, she didn’t watch any tape of the game for more than 20 years. During that time, it always gnawed at her that Jeff Brown scored on her from what seemed like a long way out. Here she was, carrying the torch in hockey for so many women, and she felt she had let them down by allowing a bad goal. “(Brown) took the puck and he crossed the blueline and he was at the top of the circle and took a slapshot,” Rheaume said. “And I looked at it and I said, ‘That was not as bad as I thought.’ It took me 20 years to feel better about myself.”
Rheaume effectively retired after playing 11 games for the Reno Renegades of the defunct West Coast League in 1997. (She did play one game for the Flint Generals of the also-defunct International League in 2008.) Rheaume also became the first player to marry her teammate when she and Gerry St. Cyr were married. The two had a son, Dylan, who is now 16 and Rheaume has another son, Dakoda, who is eight and goes by Dakoda Rheaume.
Dylan is following in his mother’s skate grooves as an elite goaltender. As part of the renowned Detroit Honeybaked organization, St. Cyr made the cut for the under-17 team for next season with the USNTDP. Right now, he stands 5-foot-8 and his mother hopes he can get up to the 5-foot-11 height of his father. Rheaume’s younger brother, Pascal, who played 318 NHL games, is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, so there is hope there yet. Rheaume’s hope for St. Cyr is that he improves over the next two seasons and gets a scholarship. The best part of the scenario is that the program will move to Plymouth, Mich., next season, about two minutes from her home.
“He’s growing and he’s learned to play big,” Rheaume said of St. Cyr. “If you watch him play, you don’t think he’s the size he is. You think he’s bigger. He changed his style to play like a big goalie and this kid, he really wants it.”
Dakoda, meanwhile, played for two teams last season, one as a forward and the other as a goalie, before choosing to play forward with the Honeybaked program starting next season. Rheaume had coached Dakoda’s team, but will take a year off next season so she can follow Dylan more closely with the U.S. program. “When Dakoda chose forward, I was so happy,” Rheaume said. “It’s too stressful (with a son as a goalie). I don’t think I could have done it with both boys.”