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"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.
Tampa Bay Lightning founder and president Phil Esposito was very clear about why he invited Manon Rhéaume to training camp in 1992.
It was a publicity stunt.
Considering the NHL was expanding into Florida for the first time, where the sport hadn't taken off yet, the idea wasn't terrible. It certainly drew a lot of attention.
Rhéaume, though, wasn't bothered by the ploy. She was more than willing to jump at the chance to join the Lightning — something that later made her the first woman to play in a major American sports league.
“When I got invited, I didn’t really care why I was invited,” Rhéaume told Yahoo Sports. “I was getting the opportunity to play at the highest level. I just remember so many times people said no to me because I was a girl.”
‘I realized they didn’t want a woman there’
Rhéaume had been playing hockey ever since she was a kid. The Lac-Beauport, Quebec, native loved the game, and was always trying to make it on the best teams possible.
Oftentimes, that meant trying out for boys teams — something she finally convinced her dad to let her start doing. Yet when she wouldn’t make those teams, her dad would always shield her from the real reason why.
“[My dad] never told me that. So I wouldn’t know,” Rhéaume said. “I would go to camp and I would get cut, and then it would just motivate me to work harder and try to make it again the following year. I did that three years in a row.”
Finally, Rhéaume made it onto the team with the boys and worked her way up through the ranks to the highest level in the league.
When it was time to take another step to Bantam AAA, one of the top levels in the youth programs, she was denied once more.
“Every goalie that played that level got invited except me because I was a girl,” she said. “But at that point I was older and I realized, ‘OK, I was one of the best goalies at that level and I’m not getting invited.’
"I realized they didn’t want a woman there, so I had to take a different path than most of the guys.”
‘I almost felt like I was not alone playing’
Rhéaume was 20 when she got the call from Tampa in 1992, which came after her gold-medal performance with the Canadians at the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships.
Right away in Florida, Rhéaume was thrown onto the ice in a scrimmage tournament.
“I just knew that the first time I stepped on the ice was probably the most important moment for me,” she said. “And we didn’t have a practice. We went right ahead into that mini tournament … I felt that day, it was the coolest feeling. I still can see it after that game. I had a force with me playing. It wasn’t just me playing. Something, the adrenaline was so high, I almost felt like I was not alone playing. “
She didn’t let up a single goal in that scrimmage, the only goalie on the team to do so — which earned her a spot in the team’s first exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues.
While she was well aware that not everyone wanted her to be there, Rhéaume found a special surprise waiting for her in her personal locker room ahead of that scrimmage.
It was a bouquet of flowers from a radio station in Montreal, wishing her good luck.
“It was really cool because I felt like some people were supporting of what I was doing,” she said. “As much as I heard some media like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t deserve to be there,’ and all that stuff, a lot of people were supporting me in what I was doing.”
Though she allowed two goals during her single period in the exhibition game, and was eventually released from the team, Rhéaume found peace playing in the game that day. The nerves and weight of what she had accomplished as the first woman to ever appear in a game in the four major American sports leagues quickly disappeared.
“I felt like my heart would come out of my chest. Like that’s how much my heart was beating,” she said. “But the coolest feeling when I stepped on the ice, the butterflies went away. I forgot that I was making history — and I didn’t even think that I was making history when I went there … I was just like playing a hockey game.”
Rhéaume finally recognized for her performance
In the years that passed since that game in 1992, Rhéaume's story has changed a bit. It’s not so much the fact that a woman played in a hockey game, but rather the fact that she earned her spot on the team — something she wanted for the longest time.
Because, whether people wanted to admit it or not, she earned her spot on the ice.
“People were more talking about the fact I was a female and the first female to play in the NHL or even in the four major sports,” Rhéaume said. “Nobody really talked about the performance that I had to have in camp to be able to play in the exhibition game. Today, in this whole women’s movement and people really seeing the woman for what they’re able to do, people are talking about my performance.”
Now, the 49-year-old lives in the Detroit area and is working as a coach in the Detroit Red Wings’ youth organization. That “publicity stunt” the Lightning pulled by signing her not only helped her to land a spot on the Canadian national team — where she helped them win a silver medal in the 1998 Olympics in Japan — but it gave her a life in hockey.
And it’s made far more of a difference than she could have ever imagined.
“I didn’t realize that my story would have such an impact on people, that I would be inspiring not just young girls but even guys to go after their dreams even when people tell them no, to keep going,” she said.
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