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    She broke boundaries with Lightning stint

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 15, 2002

    Jan. 19, 2002: Pascal Rheaume, a forward for the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, set career highs and franchise records with four goals and five points in a single game against the Florida Panthers.

    That night, the spotlight had finally fallen on another member of the Rheaume family. And no one was happier than Pascal's older sister.

    "I got a message on my phone about the game," said Manon Rheaume, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I was so excited, I couldn't go to bed."

    There was a time when Manon was the focus of the media's attention. Her name was scrawled into the history books on Sept. 23, 1992, when she stepped on the ice to play goalie for the Lightning in a preseason game, becoming the first and only woman to play in a major men's sports league.

    The decade that has passed since Rheaume's debut has brought an explosion of women's sports: professional leagues in women's basketball and soccer, and women's softball and ice hockey have become Olympic events.

    Speaking from her office in Santa Ana, Calif., Manon Rheaume (pronounced MAN-oh RAY-oom) says it took her a few years to realize the impact her Lightning debut had on the sports landscape.

    "At that time, I was just going crazy," she said. "Too many things happening. But I realize now by the fact that they talk so much about me, that I really opened the doors of accepting more women into men's sports."

    Rheaume had broken down barriers since age 11, when she became the first girl to play in the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec -- hockey's equivalent of the Little League World Series.

    At 19, she became the first woman to play for a major men's junior hockey team in Canada.

    Her resume didn't earn Rheaume a free pass with the media. Her signing was widely perceived as a publicity stunt to boost interest in Tampa's fledgling hockey franchise. Attractive and likable, Rheaume was a public relations dream, attracting dozens of reporters to Tampa to watch her play part of one preseason game.

    "It happened so fast and without expectation that I don't think I had the chance to really enjoy every moment of it," Rheaume said.

    She said she never lost her passion for hockey, but the attention became more than she could handle. She appeared frequently in the media, from Late Night with David Letterman to MTV's House of Style. She was approached by Playboy to pose nude (she declined) and by publishers to write an autobiography (she accepted).

    And she developed ulcers.

    "I got burned out at a certain point, and the only time I really felt like I was able to get away was when I stepped on the ice," she said.

    In her 1992 appearance, Rheaume held her own, giving up two goals in 20 minutes against the St. Louis Blues. The Lightning's top goaltender, Wendell Young, gave up three goals in the team's 6-4 loss.

    Rheaume made an encore appearance for the Lightning in 1993 against the Boston Bruins, giving up three goals in one period.

    She spent the rest of her career in the minor leagues. Her best season came in 1993-94 -- a season split between the Knoxville Cherokees and the Nashville Knights of the East Coast Hockey League -- when she went a combined 5-0-1, allowing 3.91 goals per game.

    Rheaume then put ice hockey on hold for a few years, spending time in a fledgling professional roller hockey league. It folded after a few seasons.

    Two of her greatest triumphs, though, were still ahead. In 1998, she won a place on the Canadian women's Olympic hockey team, which won the silver medal in the sport's first year of Olympic competition in the Nagano games.

    Rheaume says it's a tossup on which was a better experience -- playing in the NHL or the Olympics.

    "The Tampa Bay experience was an amazing experience. I had the chance to step on the ice with the best players in the world," she said.

    "But the Olympics -- you have the chance to step on the ice and represent your country, and you know that you have your whole country behind you. It's just overwhelming."

    She now works at Mission Hockey, a hockey equipment company in California, as the manager of special events.

    She continues her work as an ambassador for women's hockey. In February, she returned to the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. This time, she was the coach of the first all-female club to participate.

    "That was a way to give back to young girls the chance to experience what I experienced myself," she says.

    When she stepped onto the ice, she received a standing ovation from the 10,000 fans. One of them, her brother Pascal, had tears in his eyes.

    Manon says part of her wishes she was in Pascal's shoes, playing every night against the top talent in hockey.

    But at the moment she is relaxing, away from the spotlight. Rheaume has a 3-year-old son, Dylan, who is already skating, and for now she is content to be a single hockey mom.

    Rheaume still straps on the skates a few times a week. She plays in a recreational adult league in California -- only now, she's a forward, not a goalie.

    "For me, it's new, it's challenging," she said. "... Playing forward, nobody expects anything from me. I can just play."

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