Sunday, September 23, marked the 20th anniversary of the first woman to play in any of the major professional North American sports leagues. It happened during an NHL exhibition game when the St. Louis Blues faced the Tampa Bay Lightning. Manon Rheaume, a French-Canadian, who spoke little English at the time, may have started out as a publicity stunt for the expansion team, but it didn’t take long for many of her teammates or for the members of the Blues to take her seriously. While her time in the NHL may have been short-lived, Rheaume handled the pressure of playing in an NHL game along with the constant hounding of the media with the grace and guts that it takes to be a good goaltender.
Rheaume played just one period of that historic game and stopped seven shots while allowing two goals, one of which came on a nasty one-timer from St. Louis fan favorite Brendan Shanahan, who told NHL.com, “I do remember that it was a legit goal [I scored]. It was a one-timer from the heart of the slot, I got everything on it. It was one of those goals where it was a quick play; I was shooting the puck well at that time. I think Jeff Brown scored the [first] goal and that might have been a softy, but I do remember mine was a legit goal and nobody could really blame her — or any goalie — for that one. It was a great pass. I was in a scoring spot. I one-timed it. I got everything on it and put it where I wanted to.”
Many of her former teammates thought she held up well under the pressure and many looked out for her, including former Blues defenseman, Marc Bergevin, who was a captain on that first Tampa team. “It was fun having her around. For me being French-Canadian, I kind of talked to her quite a bit, and she handled herself very well. I played with her brother [NHL forward Pascal Rhéaume] later on in St. Louis, and I remember telling him that his sister did very well.”
Rheaume never played in another NHL game after that. At 5’3, she may not have had the size that most NHL goalies had, but she had the skill that was comparable to others in her profession. Her former coach Terry Crisp thought it was a joke when GM Phil Esposito brought her into camp, but Crisp said of the six goaltenders he had in camp that season, she was probably third best on the depth chart.
Rheaume now lives in northern Michigan and watches her two sons play hockey. By the way, the Blues ended up winning that game 7-5.