Manon Rheaume was both a trailblazer and a maverick. An Olympic athlete as well as the only woman to play in an NHL exhibition game, she took on institutionalized discrimination within American society and fought prejudice on a variety of fronts. Manon Rheaume fought hard for what she believed in and has left an indelible imprint on the sports world, as well as on the wider North American society. An impressive athlete of star caliber, Manon Rheaume overcame a handful of obstacles to become a star quality athlete.
This brief biographical essay will begin with an overview of Manon Rheaume upbringing in rural Quebec and her early years growing up as a young woman determined to make it big in the male dominated sporting world. Finally, this essay will conclude with a concise overview of the legacy of Manon Rheaume and the impact that she has had on the international sporting world. She was a trailblazer who believed in the power of her abilities and believed that she could accomplish anything that she put her mind to.
This is her story.
A Young Manon Born in rural Quebec in a predominately French speaking part of the province, Manon Rheaume grew up in a working class household to parents Nicole and Pierre Rheaume. The middle child of a family of five, Manon grew up in French Quebec at a time when Quebecois society was undergoing significant changes.
The Quiet Revolution – a period of gradual yet intense social change in the Canadian province of Quebec – was underway and the society in which Manon grew up was undergoing significant changes.
With the passage of a variety of legislation aimed at increasingly the opportunities for the majority French-speaking population in the province and the well-documented flight of the minority, yet extremely influential English (“Anglophone”) population, Manon grew up at a time when the opportunities appeared to be boundless for French-speaking Canadians in the province (Rheaume, 1997). Lac Beauport, Quebec, approximately 25 miles from the provincial capital of Quebec City, was where Manon and her family lived.
A wintry climate for the better half of the year, Lac Beauport is best known for its ski hills as well as its cultivation of world-class skiers. Prior to the fame which Manon eventually brought to the region, little attention was paid to this idyllic eastern region of Quebec with the exception of a few internationally renowned skiers who called Lac Beauport home. Changes in Quebec Prior to the Quiet Revolution in Quebec the province remained heavily patriarchal and dominated by the minority English-speaking population.
In fact, in Lac Beauport and other region up and around Quebec City it was not uncommon for women to give birth to more than a dozen children as this was actively encouraged by the religious authorities, who along with the English population in Quebec, remained in control. If you look at another famous Quebecoise, Celine Dion, she also came from a poor rural Quebec background and her mother gave birth to more than a dozen children herself.
The Quiet Revolution released the majority francophone population from the clutches of the English-speaking/clerical hierarchy which came to dominate the society and gave more rights to women like Manon who sought a future unburdened by marriage and an intense social pressure to procreate (Coleman, 1984). Despite the changes going on in Quebec at the time she was born, hockey remained akin to a religion for the majority of the people in province at the time.
The Montreal Canadian – les Habitants – and the Quebec Nordiques (no longer an NHL franchise but extremely important for the national consciousness of the time) were the teams that Manon likely followed and looked up to. The province of Quebec has given the professional hockey world including perhaps the most well known French-Canadian hockey player ever, Rocket Maurice Richard. A remarkable athlete, who from a very young age wanted nothing more than to have the opportunity to play the sport that she loved, Manon Rheaume was determined to make her mark as a young goalie in Lac Beauport (Rheaume, 1997).
All that she ever wanted was a chance to play hockey and in the conservative rural community in which she grew up, Manon found little opportunities to play and compete. Beginning her hockey career at the bright old age of 5, Manon got her first stat on the team that her father coached. Working twice as hard to prove herself through the ranks of the atom, junior and pee wee leagues, Manon played on boys teams and had to overcome intense skepticism and both latent and overt sexism within her community.
An excellent goaltender with an uncanny ability to keep net and prove her worth on the ice, Manon Rheaume was forced to play a variety of positions just to have an opportunity to compete. Although an excellent goaltender, she also played the positions of defence (woman) just to prove herself. Despite being passed around the rink, her natural abilities as a goaltender were acknowledged at a young age (Rheaume, 1997). A Star is Born
Manon Rheaume finally got her chance to prove herself in front of an international audience when in 1992, she was invited to the training camp of the newest team to join the ranks of the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Playing in her now famous exhibition game under intense media scrutiny against the St. Louis Blues on September 23, 1992, Manon proved her worth and became the first female ever to play in the world’s foremost hockey league, the NHL.
After that game, she was sent down to the farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Atlanta Knights and began a series of journeyman (or woman! ) positions throughout the minor leagues of the NHL. Playing for Atlanta, Nashville, Las Vegas and Tallahassee, Manon spent the next few years traveling the southern United States as one of the few females in professional hokey and a trailblazer in the sport. It was at this time, in 1993, that Manon sat down and decided to write her memoirs.
Manon: Alone in Front of the Net was autobiographical and provided insight into the life of the lone female professional hockey player at the time. For Manon, overcome with intense media scrutiny and the pressure she felt, Manon: Alone in Front of the Net provided candid insight into the challenges she had experienced to break down the gender barriers which unfortunately remain so prevalent in professional sports today (Rheaume, 1997). Tired of traveling and looking for a new challenge, Manon Rheaume joined Canadian Women’s hockey team in the 1998 Olympics.
Again, media scrutiny followed Manon wherever she went and she has the unofficial captain of a Canadian team which managed to exceed all expectations placed before it during the Olympics. Accordingly, the Canadian Olympic team won every game in which Manon was in net and only lost one game in the tournament. Their loss came to Team USA and these two teams met again in the Gold Medal match; this time Manon was in goal. Unfortunately Team Canada lost that game 3-1 and a shot of a dejected Manon made the headlines across the world.
Despite this unflattering shot, Manon remained an international figure and undeniably an important female athlete who will go down as a trailblazer in the annals of sport. Following her foray into the male-dominated sporting world, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) decided to highlight Manon’s unique accomplishments to the world of sport through a unique documentary which charted the trials and tribulations of this remarkable woman. In a feature-length documentary entitled Manon Rheaume: Woman Behind the Mask, the National Film Board of Canada had this to say about Manon Rheaume:
Having endured intense media pressure and the loneliness of the road, Rheaume returns to play for the Canadians in the first Olympic women’s hockey series. Combining grace and determination, Rheaume emerges as a trailblazer for women in hockey: a sportswoman who balances life and marriage with her drive to play the game she loves (National Film Board of Canada, 2000). Concluding Remarks The description provided by the National Film Board of Canada adequately sums up the extraordinarily features of Manon Rheaume and the exceptional nature of this proud, Canadian woman and athlete.
Growing up in a rural setting which was patriarchal and heavily influenced by the teachings of the church, Manon decided to go at it alone and do what she felt was best. She was both a trailblazer and a maverick and as the only woman to play in an NHL exhibition game Manon Rheaume will forever be remembered as a remarkable woman who set the stage for the women around the world to achieve what they want. Her legacy will always be that she was the first woman to play professional hockey and this is an indelible legacy to leave on the international sporting world.
Believing in the power of her abilities, she proved that she – and millions of other women like her – can accomplish anything that they put her minds to.
Coleman, WD. (1984). The independence movement in Quebec, 1945-1980. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. National Film Board of Canada. (2000). Manon Rheaume: Woman Behind the Mask. Toronto. Rheaume, M. (1997). Manon: Alone in Front of the Net. Toronto: Harper Collins Canada.
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