Playing goal was as natural to Manon Rheaume as breathing.
She didn’t intend to be the only girl on her youth teams, the first girl to play in the famed Quebec International Pee Wee tournament and the first girl to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. There weren’t many options for girls to play hockey in the 1980s and 1990s. She had to compete against boys if she wanted to play at all, and she was determined to play.
She also didn’t intend to make history, but she couldn’t say no when the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning invited her to their training camp after she had helped Canada win gold at the 1992 women’s world championships. She played one period of an exhibition for Tampa Bay against St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1992, becoming the first — and still only — woman to suit up for an NHL game.
“I never even thought I would even play in the NHL. It wasn’t even a dream of mine,” said Rheaume, who played one period of an exhibition against Boston a year later and spent several seasons playing in men’s minor leagues. “I just happened to stumble into it.”
Thirty years later, she has made it to the NHL. Not in uniform but as a member of the Kings’ player development department, one of many accomplished women who have been hired for meaningful roles on NHL teams the past few years. Rheaume, mother to hockey-playing sons Dylan St. Cyr, 23, and Dakoda Rheaume-Mullen, 15, joins a staff that also includes scout Blake Bolden, the first Black woman to play in the now-defunct National Women’s Hockey League.
It’s not that teams and leagues are becoming “woke.” They’ve belatedly realized admitting women into their stale, restricted old boys’ club adds knowledge, perspective and experiences that can invigorate the sport.
Rheaume’s sons had participated in summer camps in Los Angeles and she knew Kings President Luc Robitaille through charity work and mutual friends. Their conversations took a serious turn when she indicated she wanted to work for a team after spending years organizing successful girls’ hockey programs in Michigan and doing analysis for RDS, a French-language TV network in Canada.
Robitaille recognized a fit. “I personally find, same with Blake Bolden, that these girls are overachievers. They work really hard, and when you get them in your organization, they bring that attitude,” he said. “It’s amazing to see. To me, I think there’s huge value.
“Manon, with her background and how much work she had to do and fighting against adversity to get to the level she got, there’s certainly a lot that could be taught to those young players.”
Rheaume, 50, isn’t replacing goaltending guru Bill Ranford. Her title is player operations/prospect advisor. She watched the Kings’ prospects during training camp, building relationships she will reinforce by visiting them when they’re with their junior team. She also participated in a Special Olympics ball hockey clinic, and Robitaille plans to feature her in community and women’s hockey-focused events this season.
Working with the Kings’ young players is ideal for Rheaume, who was familiar with many of them from tournaments her sons played in.
“It’s really meeting our draft picks and getting to know them and see if I can see or feel something about those players. More like as a mom,” she said. “Having two kids that play, I know when things go wrong, they call me. I don’t know if it’s easier to talk with me than their dad. I feel like I’m bringing that side of it.”
She never imagined having this job because there were no women in positions of great responsibility in hockey. But as she inspired little girls — and little boys — to follow their dreams, she can now inspire them to look beyond the rink toward careers in the game.
She’s in good company. The Vancouver Canucks employ two female assistant general managers, Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato and former college player Emilie Castonguay. Standout U.S. Olympian Meghan Duggan is director of player development for the New Jersey Devils, where Kate Madigan is the assistant GM. Meghan Hunter is an assistant GM for the Chicago Blackhawks, who hired Kendall Coyne Schofield as a player development coach. Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, who has a place in the Hall of Fame and a medical degree, is an assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Alexandra Mandrycky, a data specialist, is an assistant GM of the Seattle Kraken.
“All those women that played at a high level, even if they don’t make it to the NHL, they’re able to contribute to an NHL team in a different way with their ideas and their knowledge of the game,” Rheaume said.
Could a woman play in the NHL? Coyne Schofield and others have excelled in skills contests at NHL All-Star weekend but they didn’t have defenders lining them up when they competed. “They’re very skilled. Let’s say we put that in a body-checking situation — it’s a little different,” Rheaume said.
“You can ask me, could I have played in the NHL way back then? Doing a training camp is one thing. Doing a full year, facing those shots, I was bruised all over after a week. Physically, I didn’t have the same strength as a man possessed.
“But I cannot say that a woman could never play there, because you never know. You could have a woman that’s super strong, super fast, or a female goaltender that is big and very agile and can play at that level. Nobody thought I would be able to do it in camp, so that’s why I would never say no.”
Because she said no to those who doubted her so many years ago, other women have had the opportunity to say yes to significant roles in a game that can’t be for everyone if it doesn’t let everyone have a say in its present and its future.