Hockey Hall of Fame season is upon us and while this year’s class has already been confirmed, it’s worth noting that something happened 25 years ago that changed the way a lot of people thought about the sport: Manon Rheaume stepped into the crease for the Tampa Bay Lightning for an exhibition game, becoming the first woman ever to play in the NHL.
Then-GM Phil Esposito has been pretty open in past interviews that a big part of Rheaume’s start was to drum up interest in his new expansion team, but the 21-year-old did end up stopping seven shots out of nine against the St. Louis Blues. And what is undeniable is how Rheaume changed the conversation about women’s hockey. She famously appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman after her brief sojourn with the Lightning and was one of the marquee names in the 1998 Winter Olympics – the first to feature women’s hockey. While her resume as a player was pretty solid, here’s the Hall of Fame argument for Rheaume: she should go in as a builder.
And lest you think I’m alone on this, I’ll fill you in on something: there is a movement to get Rheaume in as soon as next year and members of the Hall of Fame’s selection committee are indeed interested.
The builder’s category in the Hall of Fame is rather undefined. You have a lot of NHL owners (particularly of the Calgary Flames) and hockey lifers with legendary track records (Scotty Bowman, Jimmy Devellano). But you also have those who made their marks in other sections of the sport – Brian Kilrea is one of the most famous junior coaches of all-time, spending almost his entire career with the Ottawa 67’s. Ed Chynoweth held similar reverence in the WHL.
Currently, there are four women in the Hall with another getting inducted this year; all five were players.
In Rheaume, you have a personality that transcended the boundaries of the game and opened up opportunities for future generations. While countless others made major contributions to the women’s game, none garnered the same headlines as the one-time Tampa goalie. So I got her on the phone for a retrospective.
“I cannot believe it’s been 25 years,” Rheaume said. “It feels like yesterday. Back then, I didn’t realize the impact it would have on my life or on other people.”
Growing up in a hockey-mad family in Quebec, Rheaume simply wanted to play when she was a kid. The fact she could stop pucks pretty well helped keep her on track and thanks to one junior game with Trois-Rivieres in the QMJHL, she came onto Esposito’s radar. The exhibition match against the Blues was a media sensation – and a lot to take in for a young player whose English was secondary to French.
“I didn’t even know who Letterman was,” she said. “It really changed my life.”
Rheaume played some games in the low minors against men after her time in Tampa, but she has kept very busy since hanging up the pads professionally. Her son, Dylan St. Cyr, is a freshman netminder at Notre Dame (and putting up some pretty good numbers early on) and Rheaume was going out to see him every weekend.
She now lives in Michigan and is coaching the next generation, with the Detroit Little Caesar’s under-12 girls team. That squad will make history when they take on a group of all-star girls from Quebec at the famed Quebec International Peewee Tournament, the first time in the showdown’s 59-year history that a game will not feature a boy’s squad. Canadian Olympian Caroline Ouellette is coaching the opponents from Quebec. Befitting of someone with such a passion for the sport, Rheaume finds herself at the rink quite often these days. “Basically, I have two days off a month from hockey,” she said. “I don’t know any better.”
Where would women’s hockey be today without Rheaume? It’s not necessarily a question I have an answer for, but merely by playing in an exhibition game, she became a trailblazer. Hailey Wickenheiser ended up playing against men in Finland years later, while Shannon Szabados played a couple seasons in the Southern Pro League more recently. But there always has to be a first and Rheaume planted the flag. The fact she didn’t stop there makes her resume all the more intriguing.