Manon Rheaume: Tampa Bay Lightning marketing ploy, face of women's hockey

20 years ago today, the Tampa Bay Lightning put a woman into an NHL preseason game. That woman, of course, was goaltender Manon Rheaume. And she was the very first woman to break the gender barrier in the NHL.

Despite the fact that it was a marketing scheme thought up by then Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito, Rheaume played well - allowing only two goals on seven shots in her one period of play in that game against the St. Louis Blues. (The goals scorers were by Jeff Brown and Brendan Shanahan.) She was probably average for what most female hockey players go these days, listed at 5'7", 130 lbs. Considering that the trend right now in the NHL are for goalies to be as tall as possible (hello, Anders Lindback), back in the day, you really just had to be agile more than large.

And, not only that, but she was pretty - still is pretty, actually. She showed that it was possible to be an attractive woman and still play a rough sport. That may not seem like much to people now, but it was a big deal 20 years ago when there was still this idea in many places that "butch" women only did well in sports. That if you were remotely feminine or attractive that you were supposed to be a cheerleader or something like that.

(You have no idea how many men, whenever I told them I played hockey back then, automatically assumed that I was a lesbian - which I'm not.)

Rheaume's NHL preseason start coincided with when I started watching hockey. I don't remember now if she was part of the reason why we did this, but a group of us girls who were watching the local major junior team at the time - the Tacoma Rockets (now the Kelowna Rockets) of the WHL - decided that we wanted to play hockey, too. We thought that since it was so fun to watch, it must be just as fun to play.

So we started our own women's hockey team in Tacoma, Washington. At the time, we were told by USA Hockey that we had the largest women's hockey organization on the West Coast, which isn't saying much since there weren't many women's teams on the West Coast in the early 1990s. The next closest women's team was in Seattle, which is over 30 miles away from Tacoma.

But most of us knew who Manon Rheaume was. And we kept tabs on where she was playing and how she was doing. It wasn't because we all harbored some inner desire to play goalie, but because she was the only visible woman who played professional hockey at the time.

No one that I played hockey with ever thought that she'd make the Lightning. And no one ever thought that any woman had a legitimate chance at playing in the NHL. But she was given a chance, however concocted and fleeting it was, which was more than anyone else we knew of could say. And she was given more chances to play professional hockey in the minor leagues afterwards, as was Erin Whitten, who was another female goaltender who played professional hockey.

And it's a real shame that neither of them are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, despite their groundbreaking careers, too.

The publicity worked both ways, however. While Rheaume gave the Lightning a certain level of publicity, she also gave women's hockey a huge boost in visibility. Up until that point, no one had really known that women could achieve such a high skill level in this sport. When, obviously, they could.

Again, no one I played hockey with ever expected to make it professionally. But, female role models in hockey were pretty much non-existent at that point in time. Male hockey players are nice and all, but women's hockey is a different type of game that's played in a different kind of way. Being able to look at someone of your own gender, doing something similar to what you're doing, was a very powerful thing.

Even though Esposito was looking for nothing but free marketing when signing Manon Rheaume, he inadvertently gave girls and women everywhere who played hockey a role model when there hadn't been one before. Manon Rheaume didn't just prove that women could play with the men, but that you you didn't have to look or be a certain way to play a rough sport. That was an eye-opening revelation for so many girls and women.

So, thank you, Mr. Esposito. You may have thought it was all about marketing a new team in a non-traditional market at the time, but you gave so many girls and women inspiration to play hockey. In a way, you could be considered one of the key people who helped make it possible for women's ice hockey to become a gold medal Olympic event in 1998.

And all because of Manon Rheaume playing for the Lightning for one period 20 years ago today.