Sunday, 7 December 2008

A Pioneer

There is a significant date in history approaching us, and I want to draw attention to it because of the significance it has made on the game of hockey. That significant hockey moment took place on December 13, 1992 and not many people know about or remember it. The Atlanta Knights of the former IHL inserted then 20 year-old Manon Rhéaume into the game to start the second period against the Salt Lake City Golden Eagles, marking the first time a woman had ever played in regular season professional hockey game in North America. With the women's game evolving at a rapid pace, there's always a possibility that another woman can do what Rhéaume did. While I don't think it will happen for some time in North America, Hayley Wickenheiser has suited up for European men's teams already where they play a less physical game. However, I want to take a look at the woman who brought a ton of exposure to women's hockey in Manon Rhéaume.

Miss Rhéaume was born in Lac Beauport, Quebec on February 24, 1972. Manon is the middle child in the Rhéaume household, with older brother Martin and younger brother Pascal. Pascal Rhéaume is currently with the New Jersey Devils as a player, and has skated for the Devils, Rangers, Blues, Blackhawks, and Thrashers.

Rhéaume's hockey career started at the age of five when she played on the team that her father, Pierre, coached. Her mother, Nicole, would take her down to the rink where they would watch Martin play, and she wanted to play. There were no girls' teams in the 1970s that she could play on, so she played against the boys and worked her way through the different levels of youth hockey. Of course, there were boys who were better than her between the pipes, so she also played defence in order to keep playing. She started re-writing the record books at the age of eleven when she became the first girl to play in the International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament of Quebec. In 1984, she was allowed to practice with the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL! How cool is that?

In 1992, Rhéaume was chosen as a member of Team Canada after becoming the first woman to play in a QMJHL game when she appeared for the Trois Rivières Draveurs. Ironically, her most famous teammate from the Draveurs would be goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. With Team Canada at the 1992 World Cup, she posted a 3-0-0 record with two shutouts, a .957 save percentage, and a .067 GAA while leading Canada to a gold medal.

It was also in 1992 when Manon Rhéaume signed a tryout contract with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. Her first appearance in an NHL game took place in the pre-season on September 23, 1992 against the St. Louis Blues, allowing two goals. While she wasn't the goalie of record in that game, she did take a loss in her other pre-season appearance in 1993 against the Boston Bruins where she allowed three goals. Lightning general manager Phil Esposito demoted Rhéaume to the Lightning's minor-league affiliate, the IHL's Atlanta Knights after the 1992 training camp.

It was here where Rhéaume made some more history by participating in a regular season contest. And, thanks to YouTube, we have video of her appearance:

Rhéaume played a total of two games with the Knights before she was traded to the ECHL's Knoxville Cherokees to start the 1993 season. Manon made history here again when she became the first woman to record a win in the ECHL as she went 2-0-1 in four games with Knoxville. However, she was traded to the ECHL's Nashville Knights midway through the 1993-94 season. The trade didn't affect her play, though, as she went 3-0-0 in four games with the Knights.

In 1993, Manon Rhéaume returned to Team Canada and led the Canadian squad to another World Championship gold medal. She was named tournament MVP, cementing her place as Canada's premiere female goaltender of the early-1990s. However, she wasn't about to give up on her dream of playing professional hockey.

In 1994, the ECHL's Tallahassee Tiger Sharks were Rhéaume's next stop, and she only appeared in one period for the Tiger Sharks, allowing four goals and recording the loss. That would be the last ECHL game she ever appeared in, despite her 5-1-1 career record.

Rhéaume returned to Team Canada in 1994 where she backstopped the Canadians to another World Championship gold medal. She was named to the tournament all-star team in 1994 and MVP of the tournament, a testament to her abilities between the pipes. Her 3-0-0 record, 1.72 GAA, and MVP award proved she was Canada's best female goaltender at the time.

The IHL's Las Vegas Thunder brought her back for two games in the IHL during the 1994-95 season as the Thunder loaded up their roster with NHL players who were on strike. Rhéaume appeared in two games, surrendered three goals, and was 0-1-0 in Las Vegas. That would mark the last time that the IHL saw Miss Rhéaume, and she finished her IHL career with a 0-2-0 record.

The WCHL's Reno Renegades signed Manon Rhéaume for the 1996-97 season, and she played in 11 games for the Renegades. While her 5.65 GAA in eleven games sounds ridiculous, her goaltending colleagues on the Renegades were no better. Todd Reynolds played 29 games, and went 6-19-1 witha 6.37 GAA. Wayne Marion also played in 29 games, and he went 8-17-2 with a 6.43 GAA. Craig Crowe appeared in seven games, and went 0-3-1 with a 6.16 GAA. Lastly, Derek Christaens appeared in three games, and went 0-1-0 with an 8.81 GAA! Suddenly, Rhéaume's 2-3-1 record with her 5.65 GAA doesn't seem so bad whatsoever.

She wouldn't sign with another professional men's league after her stint in Reno. She did play a lot of hockey in the summer between 1993 and 1997. She was the first woman to appear in the Roller Hockey International league. From 1993-95, Manon Rhéaume appeared in five games for the New Jersey Rockin' Rollers. She was the first woman to record a win in the professional roller hockey league, but it couldn't keep her in New Jersey. She was sent to play for the Ottawa Rollerbladers in a trade in 1995. One game into her Ottawa career, she was traded to the Sacramento River Rats where she spent two seasons, playing in 11 games and recording one assist.

In 1998, after having been cut from Team Canada in 1997, she returned more focused and regained one of the two goalie spots on the team. While she would back-up Danielle Dubé at the Nagano Winter Olympics, Team Canada earned the silver medal as Team USA defeated Canada 3-1 in the gold medal game with Rhéaume in net.

Rhéaume officially took the 1998-99 season off as she was pregnant with her first child. She also married roller hockey player Gerry St. Cyr, and Dylan was added to the family shortly after. She attempted to return to Team Canada in 1999, but she was cut during camp. Rhéaume officially announced her retirement from the Canadian National Team on July 8, 2000 at the age of 28.

"I always said that the day I lost the fire to play goalie was the day I would retire from the Canadian national team," Rheaume said in a statement released by Mission Hockey where she works as head of global marketing for women's hockey. "Never did a day go by that I woke up dreading having to train, go to practice or play in a game. I feel I'm at a stage in my life where it's time for a new challenge."

She continued to play hockey, suiting for the Montreal Wingstars of the National Women's Hockey League. However, she played as a forward, not a goaltender. She joined the league in its inaugural season in 1999, and her team finished in second place in the Eastern Division behind the Ste-Julie Pantheres. The Wingstars bounced back during the 2000-01 season, going 30-6-4 to take first place in the Eastern Division. However, an early playoff exit to Ste-Julie ended the Wingstars' season.

After the 2001 season, Rhéaume focused on her job with Mission Hockey. For three years, she lived in Irving, California and helped Mission market women's hockey and develop equipment for girls. In 2005, she worked in Milwaukee as the director of girls' hockey/marketing for POWERade Iceport, a large complex that features rinks for ice hockey, figure skating, and roller hockey. She has coached teams and helped out as a goaltending coach at the University of Minnesota, but has since moved to Michigan where she works in marketing with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. She divorced St. Cyr, but has since remarried and has added a second son to her family.

Surprisingly, at the age of 36, Manon Rhéaume began skating with the newly-formed IHL's Purt Huron Icehawks in order to restart her career. She started in net in the October 10, 2008 pre-season game against the Flint Generals, playing the first period. The partnership between the Icehawks and Rhéaume will include appearances throughout the season, both in a marketing capacity and possibly in a playing capacity. A third reason reason Rhéaume accepted the invitation to the IceHawks' camp was so that she could begin preparations for returning to the Women's National Hockey League with Minnesota this season as well as staying in shape for charity events.

"Since I'm going to be playing in the WNHL and different charity games throughout the year, I want to be playing at the highest level possible," said Rhéaume. "I'm in the best shape of my life, and this opportunity with the Icehawks allows me to train at a high level of competition."

As an aside, Port Huron defeated Flint 8-6 in that pre-season game. 1282 fans showed up for the game - close to regular season attendance marks for Port Huron - and a lot of them were young girls who came to see Rhéaume play. They witnessed Rhéaume stop eight of ten shots in her 20 minutes of work.

"It was amazing to see that," Rhéaume said. "I didn't expect that many people. There were a lot of young girls that said it was their first hockey game."

Aside from her work with the Icehawks, Rhéaume has started the Manon Rhéaume Foundation which works "to inspire young girls to reach for their dreams while overcoming obstacles and, through her Foundation, to provide scholarships for young women to assist them as they seek to fulfill their aspirations". Rhéaume's goal for the first year is to target three girls: one from the metropolitan Detroit area, one from Port Huron and one from Quebec.

"I have never forgotten where I come from," Rhéaume said to The Gazette's Stu Cowan. "At home, I only speak French to the kids because I want to make sure that they do speak French.

"When I look back at everything I did in hockey, the most satisfying part of it was having people come up to me and say I was an inspiration for their daughters. It's very satisfying to hear that you made a difference in someone's life, and I wanted to take that to the next level, not only inspiring those girls with my story, but starting a foundation to try and help them out."

Her inspiration for the foundation was actually another Olympian: 42 year-old US swimmer Dana Torres who competed in Beijing this past summer.

"I look at what she did at the Olympics and she was an inspiration for me," Rhéaume said. "I've been working out a lot for the last 22 months since my second son was born. I know how difficult it is to work out at that level and go back home afterwards and take care of the kids all day and all night. It's not like it was before kids when I could go home in the afternoon and take a nap. To be able to balance your family time and your couple time and your workout, you have to be very disciplined and have a good schedule."

It's phenomenal to see how devoted Manon Rhéaume is to both her family and to her foundation. "The First Woman of Hockey" has shown throughout her career a "stick-to-it-ness" that should inspire all girls to follow their dreams.

"Women's hockey has come a long way, and we have to be very thankful for where it came from," Rhéaume added in her interview with Mr. Cowan. "Young girls now can go to college, they can play for the Olympic team, so it's a big step. I think every year we're taking steps. If you're a girl who plays hockey, I think eventually (induction to the Hall of Fame) is going to happen. But some people have to make that decision, and I think in time maybe that's something that's going to happen."

And I believe that's something that should happen sooner than later.

If you want more information on the Manon Rhéaume Foundation, please check out the website. You can also call the foundation at (517) 487-9320 if you want some additional information, or snail mail them at the following address:

Phil Lewis
c/o The Rossman Group
920 N. Washington Avenue
Lansing, MI 48906

The Rossman Group also has a website where you can contact them if you'd like.

Congratulations goes out to Manon Rhéaume for the success she has already had, and good luck to her in the future. If anyone can be an inspiration to young hockey players anywhere, Manon Rhéaume's story is one that should be told.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Manon was in Lac Beauport...

Anne ;-)