The most important thing to Manon Rheaume is that she will never have to look back and wonder what might have been.
The 20-year-old goaltender became the first woman to play in one of the four major pro sports leagues Wednesday night when she played the first period for the NHL expansion Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game.
She faced nine shots and gave up two goals in the St. Louis Blues’ 6-4 victory and then was offered a chance to play in the Lightning’s minor league system.
“I was very nervous. I didn’t think about being the first woman. I thought about doing my best and concentrating on the puck,” Rheaume said, adding that she plans to accept the offer to play in the minors.
“I’ve never practiced every day. My junior team practiced two days a week. I don’t know what I can do if I practice every day.
“I love hockey. That’s why I’m here. When you have this passion, you want to go higher and see what you can do in the big game.”
Rheaume led the team onto the ice to a standing ovation from the crowd of 8,223 in Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, which seats about 10,000.
She made her first save 40 seconds into the game. Jeff Brown scored from just inside the blue line at 2:21 and Brendan Shanahan knocked the puck in from in front of the net 14 minutes later.
In between goals, Rheaume was steady if unspectacular. She made only one save that wasn’t routine, stopping Nelson Emerson from point-blank range on a power play by dropping to the ice and blocking the puck with her left leg.
Rheaume left after the first period with the score 2-2 and was replaced by Wendell Young, who gave up the other four goals.
Tampa Bay General Manager Phil Esposito said the Lightning wants to sign Rheaume to a contract and assign the French Canadian to the club’s minor league affiliate in Atlanta.
“We want her in our organization for a long, long time. That is if Manon wants to,” Esposito said. “I can’t wait to see her in training camp next year. . . . The question is how much can she progress. I think she can play.”
Asked if he thinks that one day she could be good enough to make an NHL roster, the Hall of Famer said: “If she progresses like we’ve seen. Yeah, she can.
“There are not many 20 year-olds--men or women, who can play goal in the NHL, especially those who haven’t had the experience. She has God-given talent. You don’t just stand in (goal) like that. You have to have talent to do that.”
The opportunity to play, not the historical significance, was what made the night so special for Rheaume, who began playing hockey with her brothers as a 5-year-old and often dreamed of reaching the NHL.
Esposito admits that publicity was one of the major factors in the decision to invite the 5-foot-6, 130-pounder to training camp. Still, he says she was deserving of a shot at pitting her skills against those of NHL players.
“I thought she did very well under the circumstances,” Esposito said. “I remember my first NHL game, and I don’t know how she did it. I was more nervous for her than she was for herself. She handled it beautifully.”
Rheaume, who helped the Canadian women’s national team to a first-place finish in the 1992 World Championships, says her performance in practice and intrasquad games proved she belongs.
“I mean, I can skate. I can stop a puck. I haven’t been an embarrassment,” she said.
Rheaume also made history last season when she became the first woman to play in the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League. She gave up three goals in 17 minutes before being injured and leaving the only game she played for the Trois-Rivieres Draveurs.
She has been slowed in training camp the last week by a hamstring and groin injury. Gordon Hurlburt, Tampa Bay’s strength and conditioning coach, cleared her to play against the Blues after a 90-minute practice on Tuesday.
In a publicity stunt in 1968, would-be jockey Penny Ann Early played for one second in an ABA regular-season game for the Kentucky Colonels. Early, 25, signed to a one-game contract, played for one second against the Los Angeles Stars on Nov. 27. She inbounded the ball in the second period and the Colonels immediately called a timeout and removed her from the lineup.
Ann Meyers, who attended the Indiana Pacers’ NBA camp in 1979, is the only other woman who has tried out for a team in one of the four major pro sports. However, she never appeared in a game.