Twenty-five years ago Manon Rhéaume made ice hockey history and, though she didn’t realize it at the time, became a pioneering figure in women’s sport.
On September 23, 1992 a then 20-year-old Rhéaume suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an NHL exhibition game against the St Louis Blues.
In doing so she became the first and only woman to play in any kind of NHL game and also the first woman to play in any of the major professional North American sports leagues.
“When I was in Tampa Bay, I didn’t realize the impact it had on women,” Rhéaume told the Tampa Bay Times last month.
“I didn’t understand I would have a positive influence for someone who has dreams.
“Parents come up now and tell me even their boys had posters of me on their wall — if she could do it, I can do it. I realize now it was a big deal.”
The goaltender already had the accolade of becoming the first woman ever to play in a men’s Major Junior hockey game before she tried out with the Lightning in 1992.
The Florida franchise, which had only been founded in that year, signed the Quebec native as a free agent before handing her the groundbreaking opportunity against the Blues.
She only played one period on that important night – allowing two goals on nine shots – but once those 20 minutes were over she soon discovered this would be a story she would have to tell for the rest of her life.
Rhéaume had managed to smash straight through the glass ceiling.
“I remember the walk from my locker room to the ice,” she told the Huffington Post in 2015, reminiscing on that first NHL game.
“It was probably the most stressed I’ve ever felt in my life. I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest.
“But the most amazing thing is that when I stepped onto the ice, the whole pressure went away, and I didn’t realize [the significance of] what I was about to do — I was just out there on the ice ready to play a hockey game.”
Rhéaume only played in one more exhibition game for the Lightning after that – against the Boston Bruins the following year – but her name had already been etched in history.
She also became the first woman to play in the IHL (International Hockey League) and further achievements came her way in women’s ice hockey – in 1992 and 1994 she starred in Canada’s gold medal victories at the IIHF World Championships and she also won a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
“I think [women] that are able to be such great athletes, so competitive, so successful, getting such attention — they help all female athletes in general,” Rhéaume added in her Huffington Post interview.
“Any woman that does something amazing, and I think the Williams sisters are amazing that way, just help young girls who have dreams and want to follow their dreams.
“The way I looked at my experience is I didn’t want to have any regrets.
“I didn’t want it to be years from now and to say, “Why didn’t I try it?” So I think [I would tell them to] live life without regrets, and try things, and make things happen — people aren’t going to hand things to you in life, not only in sports but also in work, in school.
“You need to make things happen, and not be afraid to go for it.”
Written by Alasdair Hooper