DETROIT – Manon Rhéaume was the first woman to ever play for the National Hockey League, and she did it nearly three decades ago.
Rhéaume’s hockey career has been about a lot of firsts. Most of the time, she was the only woman on a team full of men and because of that she changed the sport forever.
As has been the case for her entire life, Rhéaume is most comfortable in a pair of skates.
“I loved playing with my brothers at home. The three of us were playing so I was at the rink every single day,” Rhéaume said.
Rhéaume’s father was a hockey coach in their hometown in Quebec. One day the team was short a goalie.
“The first time I went on the ice my dad wanted to make sure no one judged me because I was a girl. So he put a helmet on me before we got to the rink,” Rhéaume said.
She was fantastic between the pipes, but keeping her gender a secret didn’t last long. To play hockey, even in Canada, was a tall task for a girl back then.
“Every year I was going and trying out a higher level. Most coaches telling my dad, ‘We will never allow a girl on the team. Don’t bring her here,'” she said.
It only took one coach to see her talent and give her a chance. That led to more opportunities, rising in the ranks. She went from bantam, to midget, to the major junior level. Rhéaume always impressed on a team full of boys, but didn’t always get respect.
“The media was saying, ‘See, she’s a girl ... She got hurt.’ Come on, if I’m a boy, the cage was still break,” Rhéaume said.
After another year Rhéaume thought she was done with the sport and went to work at a TV station. She was on assignment at the 1992 NHL draft when she met Tampa Bay Lightning general manager and President Phil Esposito, who had seen her play on tape.
“He realized I was female and said, ‘Would you like to come to training camp?’ And I thought he was joking,” she said.
Esposito would later say it was a publicity stunt, to garner more attention for the expansion team, but Rhéaume didn’t care why.
“I told myself, ‘So many people said no to me because I was a girl. Don’t want to live my life with regrets. Now I have a chance to play at the highest level. I’m going to take a chance,'” she said.
Everyone assumed she would only last a day, but Rhéaume was so good Esposito one-upped himself and had her start an exhibition game. On Sept. 23, 1992, she played against the St. Louis Blues.
“I remember the walk from the locker room to the ice. My heart never beat so hard,” Rhéaume said.
Rhéaume, then 20 years old, played the first period of an NHL game. She stopped seven of nine shots and got out of the period with a 2-2 tie. Rhéaume would later sign a minor league pro contract and play with men for six years.
Fast forward to 2020, Rhéaume is still the only woman to ever play in one of the four major professional leagues. She is now the director of the girls program for Little Caesar’s Hockey Club.