There has been a lot coming at hockey goalie Manon Rheaume since she signed a contract as the first woman ever to crack the ranks of major professional sports--since she’s been, as she says, “playing with the boys.”
Every day: aerobics, weights, six different kinds of sit-ups. Hundreds of letters to read, some from admiring men who have seen her picture on sports pages, some from women’s groups wanting her to speak. Photo shoots. Calls for interviews from Alaska, from Europe.
What would she compare it to?
“The goaltender has a lot of pressure and a lot of action. It’s why I love hockey,” she said in the French accent of her native Quebec. “And it’s like my life: I have a lot of pressure and I have a lot of action.”
She laughed. “Sometimes I need more than 24 hours in a day.”
The 20-year-old Rheaume (pronounced ray-OME) earlier this month signed a three-year contract with the Atlanta Knights, the top farm team of the National Hockey League’s expansion Tampa Bay Lightning. She received a reported $35,000 a year as a backup goalie.
So far, she has not played for Atlanta, which leads its division of the International Hockey League. But she was in the net for Tampa Bay during one period of a September preseason NHL game, stopping seven of nine shots by the St. Louis Blues.
“I’m very happy. When I was young, I never thought I could go that high. There was never a woman there,” Rheaume said in an interview.
Now there is a woman there: herself. She has said she tries not to think about the “first woman” issues, but accepts her status as a symbol.
Asked about a 14-year-old Montreal girl who challenged her disqualification from a boys’ team by citing Rheaume’s success, the goaltender’s mascaraed eyes flashed. “I’m behind her,” she said.
“When I was younger, at a certain level, I said, ‘They don’t want me to go higher.’ I didn’t stop. I tried to continue. If I had to say something to her, I’d say, ‘Don’t stop.”’
Even as a child, Manon was determined--and strong, said her mother, Nicole Rheaume, in a telephone interview from Quebec City.
“Manon was always too strong for the girls. She played with boys. Always,” she said in French.
Though she played baseball and tennis, skiied and danced, her mother said, she always returned to hockey. Her father, Pierre, coached and brothers Martin and Pascal played. Manon’s job: stop their shots as goalie.
“They’re very, very, very proud of Manon,” Mrs. Rheaume said of her sons. “There’s not a bit of jealousy.”
They watched their sister work her way up through Quebec youth hockey, to a championship where she was the first girl and got to meet her idol, goaltender Daniel Bouchard of the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques. He’s now retired in Atlanta. “He gives me some advice. It’s very nice,” Rheaume said.
Last year, she became the first female player to compete at Canada’s major junior level. This year, she went 3-0 in goal to lead Canada to the Women’s World Championship.
“Here’s someone that’s just saying, ‘Give me a chance. See what I can do.’ And I think she deserves that. She’s done it on her own until she’s 20 without getting any help,” said Gene Ubriaco, the Knights’ coach and a former coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Questions raised about Rheaume remind Ubriaco of those he confronted as coach of the U.S. National Deaf Team. “They told deaf kids they’d never play or be equal. Now they’re telling a woman she can’t be a goalie,” he said. “I just think it’s great that we’re going to try and prove everybody wrong. . . .
“Let’s see what she can do when she’s in the program and getting a support system like most boys have had.”
He’s placed Rheaume on a regimen of daily practice, extra skating and drills on the ice, and rigorous exercise each day.
She described it: “Every time I go on the ice I stay after.” One drill has her jumping up to stop the puck, then back down on the ice, over and over; another is to coordinate her moves with defense players when the puck is behind the net.
Then there’s aerobic exercise, such as climbing mechanical stairs, following by weightlifting for different sets of muscles each day.
“It’s not to become very big, but to make my muscles stronger,” said the 5-foot-6, 135-pound Rheaume. Each week, she tries to do more. “I do 30 of six different kinds of sit-ups,” having started with 20 each, she said.
“This year really is a year of catching up,” said Ubriaco, who added that Rheaume’s chances of playing depend on “fate,” meaning whether the two Knights goaltenders ahead of her are injured or called up to Tampa Bay.
“What she needs is building up, strengthening, just being involved with a hockey team on a whole different level, seeing what it’s going to take to play in professional hockey, the lifestyle.”
That last part, living the life of a public person, has taken some adjustment, Rheaume said.
Certain athletes in any sport get extra attention from the fans and news media, she said. “Now, it’s because it’s special that a girl’s playing with the boys.”
Over time, it’s gotten easier for her to dispense with the dumb questions: Does she have a separate dressing room? Doesn’t that create problems?
“The people on the team, they don’t see me like a girl with the boys,” she said. “They see me like a player with other players.”