THE CITY OF QUEBEC – Manon Rhéaume said just before the unveiling of a bronze statue in her honor that she had butterflies in her stomach, like when she broke barriers in hockey in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I don’t know if I’m more nervous today than I was for my game with the Tampa Bay Lightning or my first game at the Quebec peewee tournament,” Rhéaume said Wednesday. “These are the last two times I’ve had so many butterflies in my stomach.”
Seeing the work of artist Guillaume D. Cyr, the former goaltender must have felt the same kind of pride she did 29 years ago when she made hockey history with seven saves in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues.
“It’s extraordinary, super beautiful and impressive,” she said. “I see myself at the same age, literally. By the way, my hairstyle was all the rage back then.”
The statue, an initiative of Quebec City, immortalizes Rhéaume and former NHL player Sylvain Côté, when they were on the front page of the Quebec City International Pee-Wee Tournament, an event for 12 and under , between 1978 and 1984.
“I thank the city and the artist,” said Rhéaume. “It is a great honor. I am very touched.”
The commemorative work is part of allée Jean Béliveau, located near the Videotron Center, which honors the athletes who have marked the history of hockey in Quebec. There are also statues of Joe Malone, Beliveau and the Stastny brothers, Peter, Marian and Anton.
Rhéaume was a hockey pioneer, the first woman to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the first to play in the NHL.
On September 23, 1992, Rhéaume made hockey history by playing for the Lightning in a pre-season game against the Blues. She played one period, allowing two goals on nine shots.
Video: Manon Rhéaume: First woman to play in the NHL
The experience opened the doors to professional hockey for him in the seasons that followed. From 1992 to 1997, she played in the International Hockey League and ECHL, and also played for Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first Olympic Games to feature a women’s hockey tournament.
The unveiling of the statue reminded her of her hockey beginnings and how she must have convinced her father, Pierre, to let her join the boys’ team he coached.
“I will remember it all my life,” said Rhéaume. “We were at the table and my dad was wondering which player on his team he would put in goal for an upcoming tournament. I was already a training goalkeeper for my two brothers on our family’s outdoor rink and I took the opportunity to say: ‘Why not me?’ My mother didn’t like it very much at the time. She would have preferred that I did ballet or figure skating, but she finally agreed.
Pierre Rhéaume allowed his daughter to play with the boys. We know the rest of the story.
“It’s true that I didn’t want her to play hockey,” said Nicole, Manon’s mother. “Fortunately, Pierre was always there to take care of it because he was the coach.”
Manon broke prejudices, but not without encountering pitfalls in her path.
“One day, she must have been 9 or 10 years old, she took a bullet in the arm which gave her a big bruise”, says Pierre Rhéaume. “She said it hurt her. I told her she could choose between hockey or macrame. It had made her very angry. For her, macrame was out of the question. Hockey was his passion.
Manon suffered a multitude of bruises while she was climbing the ranks of her pioneer, and a few hard knocks.
Playing for Trois-Rivières in the QMJHL in 1991-92, she was hit in the head by a shot. He was fired by Philippe Boucher, who played 16 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman.
“We thought she was doing a little too much,” Nicole said. “But when she took off her helmet, we saw blood. She wasn’t exaggerating.”
Rhéaume said it took a long time to see the impact of the barriers she broke in hockey.
Now 49, she lives in the Detroit area, where she coaches the 12-and-under girls’ team for the Little Caesars hockey program. She gratefully embraces the growth of her legend and is seen as a lasting inspiration.
“I realized that my story touched and inspired people many years after my career,” she said. “I find it satisfying and I want to continue to be an inspiration.”
She was the pioneer, but knows that there is still a long way to go.
“Women’s hockey has evolved a lot over the years,” she said. “The next step would be the creation of a professional league, like there is in basketball. It would be nice if the girls could make a living playing hockey.
Several women have also held leadership positions in male professional teams. Rhéaume, mother of two boys, would she be tempted by an offer?
“Maybe someday, but right now I love what I’m doing,” she said. “I have the opportunity to give back to sport by training young girls. It’s super important to me. Hockey has given me so much. He taught me beautiful lessons in life. I also started to be a TV analyst. [RDS]. I can talk about hockey. I like that too.”