As the athletic world celebrates the 30th anniversary of Manon Rhéaume’s debut as the first – and only – woman to play in an NHL game, Manon joins Legends of Sport to chat with Andy about a life of rising above and leveling up. She reflects on her career beginnings, early inspirations, struggles and strengths as the only woman in the room, Olympic victories, experience on the Tampa Bay Lightning and current joys of coaching, broadcasting and inspiring others.
Manon grew up in a hockey family with a former professional athlete grandfather, a youth coach father and multiple hockey-playing brothers. Her family set up games on a backyard pond, and when her father needed a goalie for a boys’ team, Manon, after years of being the target of her brothers’ shooting practices, was more than prepared.
“I got to play hockey at the rink with the boys, but I never saw a woman playing in the NHL or anywhere else… I was just playing hockey, like my brother… every year I wanted to get to the next level and to the next level,” Manon said. “We were at the rink five to seven days a week.”
Manon found love for the game as a goalie, which only further isolated her. She loved the pressure.
“It’s a lot of pressure. And you can change the outcome of the game way more than any other players… you’re the last line of defense there… that pressure… I really, really like it. When I started playing (goalie) and really loving it and started having success at it, that’s when I’m like, ‘this is what I want to do’,” Manon said.
Manon quickly developed her skills with constant practice and self-competition, but traditional institutions prevented her from playing at a higher level. She took the home-grown approach, competing with her siblings, attending a few goalie camps and training at makeshift home “camps” when others would not accept her. On the international Peewee team and major hockey juniors, Manon was the first and only girl on the ice. The social inequalities and physical disadvantages only pushed her to play harder.
“I had to be quicker. I had to be strong mentally. And I had to work hard. It was just in the fact that I was only female. And a lot of people didn’t believe in me and said ‘no’ to me when I was younger. And I think that made me work harder. And that became my motivation to be better and prove people wrong,” Manon said. “Being the only girl playing the guys… it was an advantage, that’s what made me work harder and really keep going.”
“The bigger the moment was, the bigger I was playing… I think it was my mental strength that really helped me through it.”
Throughout her career, Manon was labeled as an outsider, yet she continued to be invited to training camps and with her family’s support, forged her path until she had custom small goalie gear for the men’s professional league.
“My dad would never tell me that I had no chance… I would go into camp and even if I performed well, I would get cut… I was disappointed, I’d cry… But the next day, I would ask my dad to come down in the basement and then shoot pucks at me and ask my brother to go practice more… Every time… someone was saying no, to me, it was a motivation to work harder…. I think it happened three years in a row. But by the fourth time, when I finally made the highest level… I was… the number one goalie on the team playing the big games, because I worked so much harder than everybody else to finally make that team,” Manon said.
Manon went on to describe the difficulties and excitement of playing in preseason games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993, before her long career in the IHL, ECHL and WCHL men’s pro leagues. “When I got invited to Tampa, a lot of people said to me… ‘You don’t have the same experience and the guys, they’re only inviting you because you’re a girl’… And yes, I don’t have the same experience as the guys. And because they didn’t allow me to go play at the highest level, I had to take a different path.” Manon impressed team officials with her play in a mini-tournament where she finished with the third-best save percentage and goals against average. It was that performance which earned her the opportunity to make her historic debut in Tampa Bay’s preseason game against the St. Louis Blues. This “first” experience was both trying and strengthening.
“For a goalie anyway, you always feel a little bit lonely. Because you’re by yourself on the ice…And we’re more like a target… You were there to stop the puck… But for me, it was obviously different, I had my own locker room, that’s where I would get dressed. And I would come to the locker room with everybody else five minutes before the game started,” Manon said “I felt a lot by myself back then, but I love the sport so much that it didn’t bother me… I just went, I was on the ice, I was part of the team.”
After the game, Manon became an international inspiration. She talks about her guest appearance on David Letterman and how she was not aware of the late-night show’s popularity or the significance of her appearance until years later.
As Andy and Manon discuss their love for professional hockey, Manon said that as a child, there were no female players to look up to at the next level. She looked to her hometown team, the Quebec Nordiques, and found a role model in goalie Gaétan Boucher, who in a full circle moment, was at Manon’s first NHL game. Manon noticed years after her historic NHL start for the Lightning that she was beginning to be viewed as a role model. “It was really cool to see that I didn’t only inspire young women…Men and other people came up to me and said, ‘You know, I was in the men dominated field… you really helped me.’”
Manon went on to play for the Canadian Women’s National Team, winning gold in the 1992 and 1994 World Games and silver in 1998 at the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey competition.
“I used to watch the Olympics every year. And I remember every time Team Canada would come out, I wanted to see how they’re dressed and I would get so excited to see all the athletes walking around,” Manon said. “When we did the opening ceremony I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time we walked around like it was… such an amazing moment.”
Manon continues to use her love for the game to inspire the next generation. At the time of the podcast recording, Manon was a broadcaster for the Detroit Red Wings Bally Sports team and Canadian sports channel, RDS. She compared the broadcasting experience to playing a game, with pregame “butterflies” and constant desire to improve. She also served as head coach for the Red Wings’ girls program from its inception, which allowed her to see many players’ journeys from early youth to international competition. In 2020, Manon’s story was told in “Breaking the Ice,” a children’s book which she hopes can inspire young people to dream “about doing something that nobody thinks they can do.” The book is currently being adapted into a film. This past summer, Manon took on a new role, joining the Los Angeles Kings operations staff as a Hockey Operations/Prospect advisor.
In this episode of Legends of Sport, hear Andy and Manon discuss the world of hockey, forever changed by Manon’s groundbreaking spirit and skill and celebrate the anniversary of a day she changed the game forever.
“That anniversary every year… That can remind someone that… you don’t need to fit a mold to do something you want to do. You can be a different gender, you can be a different race… if you really love something, and you’re good at it, and you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to… Every year when people talk about it, all I’m hoping is that I inspired a few people to go after their dreams.”