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Manon Among Boys : Professional Hockey’s First Female Player Makes First Start Tonight for Minor League Team

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Efforts to get Manon Rheaume to change her hair color for a television commercial were futile. No amount of money could get her near the peroxide.

It’s the same when it comes to modeling appearances at local malls. If the clothes don’t fit--her image, her personality--she won’t wear them.

“I’m simple,” she says. “I’m me. When I dress or something, I don’t want to look like someone else. I want to look like me.”

And, finally, when Playboy called, she turned down the magazine’s offer of $75,000, making it clear that she wouldn’t consider any modeling opportunities with them, even if there was another zero after the five.

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“If someone offered me 3 million to do that, I don’t want to do it when I’m going to feel bad afterward,” she said. “It’s not in my values to do that.”

If it all sounds like the typical travails of a high-fashion model, ordinarily, the perception would be correct.

But, professionally speaking, Rheaume has more in common with Chris Terreri than with Christie Brinkley.

Manon Rheaume makes her living trying to stop small, rock-hard disks of vulcanized rubber traveling at more than 100 m.p.h. She plays perhaps the most difficult position in all of sports--hockey goaltender--at the sport’s second-highest level.

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Rheaume’s entry into this previously exclusive men’s club has been historic. Last fall, she became to first woman to play in an NHL exhibition. Tonight, she will become the first woman to start a regular-season professional hockey game, tending goal for the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League against the Cincinnati Cyclones.

The Knights, who average 7,383 fans, are expecting a sellout crowd at the Omni, which holds 15,179 for hockey. There have been about 30 additional media credential requests, including television crews from Japan and Canada.

Basketball star Nancy Lieberman-Cline is the only woman to have played in a men’s professional league. She was with two teams in the now-defunct U.S. Basketball League. And before Rheaume, Ann Meyers had been the only woman to try out for a major league team when she signed with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers in 1979. But she never played in a regular-season game.

Rheaume broke the NHL’s gender barrier last September by playing one period for the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition against the St. Louis Blues. She gave up two goals and stopped seven shots.

Those 20 minutes of fame led to a roster spot with the Lightning’s minor league affiliate in Atlanta, which, until now, has been little more than a glorified season ticket. Rheaume has sat out every Knight game expect one--a Dec. 13 meeting with Salt Lake City, during which she played 5 minutes 49 seconds, stopping three of four shots.

Knight Coach Gene Ubriaco, who once coached the Pittsburgh Penguins, handed her a cigar after that game, but Rheaume chose not to light up.

With the exception of those two quick turns in goal, it has been a waiting game for Rheaume. She has honed her skills in practice, playing the grunge role, being the last goaltender on the ice, facing any player who wants to work on his shot.

In February, Ubriaco promised--conditionally--that he would try to get Rheaume into a game during the final week of the season. He glanced at the team’s calendar and mentally circled the final two dates of the season, home games against the lowly Cyclones.

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“She says she’s waited 20 years to get the chance,” Ubriaco said then. “She can wait a little longer. Our organization almost deserves it for being so patient. They have not put any pressure on me. No one has and we’ve been able to do what we want to do. I always said the team comes first.

“I know she’s very eager. I’ve been around enough goalies.”

Ubriaco smiled and thought about it.

“There are women,” he said. “There are men. There are goaltenders.

“Then there’s her.”

Rationally, Rheaume knew she wasn’t ready. Her season was designed for learning, to help her catch up to the others. At 5 feet 6 and 130 pounds, she needed to gain strength and improve her stick-handling skills.

Rheaume, the athlete, had a harder time on the sideline. No matter the level, goaltenders want to play, and she was no different.

“I have to catch up from the years where I couldn’t practice every day,” said Rheaume, who turned 21 in February. “Before, I only practiced twice a week. They (her teammates) played junior (hockey) for four years and they practiced every day.

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“I can’t say it’s frustration because I have (had) a great experience here and I enjoy what I do. My sport is hockey. I don’t do this to be the first woman and I was very surprised to have all the attention.”

Rheaume receives about 500 letters a week, appears at autograph card shows almost weekly and has some major endorsement deals, both in the United States and Canada. She signed a three-year contract worth $35,000 a year with the Knights, but her endorsements are believed to be in the $250,000-$500,000 range. Book and movie deals are in the works.

“I guess I would say it has exceeded my greatest expectations from when we started last fall,” said Rheaume’s agent, Steve Bartlett. “I think it’s the fact that she’s breaking ground, to go where no one has gone before, to quote ‘Star Trek.’

“What I give her so much credit for is hanging in there. It’s the worst job in hockey, practice goalie. If you had asked 100 hockey people, I think 95 would have said she wouldn’t last past Christmas.”

There have been a few difficult moments. The issue of being the first woman was the focal point of her arrival and it led to some anxious moments during her first news conference.

The outgoing Ubriaco stepped in and took control when a reporter went over the edge of good taste.

“This guy said his wife was a runner and there are certain days when she can’t run,” Ubriaco said. "(Rheaume) handles everything so darn well and she started to say something.

“He persisted and finally I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I have players--let me tell you!--there are certain days they can’t play!’ ”

Everyone laughed, and the tension dissolved.

Rheaume is aware that she has helped increase exposure to women’s hockey in Canada, where 50,000 play the game. But she readily says that this is not a crusade for women’s rights. What started on a Canadian pond with her brothers Martin and Pascal when she was 5 has turned into a career.

“If I can help other women to do something, I enjoy that,” she said. “I don’t do this to be the first woman. I just play hockey, to do my job. It’s not a big deal for me to be the first woman. If they have 10 girls before me and I have the chance to do it, I’m going to think the same way. But if I can help other women, it’s good.”

Along with her game, Rheaume’s English has steadily improved. The native of Lac Beauport, near Quebec City, spent last summer working on her communication skills in both French and English, realizing the benefits of bilingualism.

Rheaume will discuss her outside opportunities. She speaks about her new life in Atlanta. But she grows animated when talking about her progress on the ice, proudly reciting workout routines.

“I’ve gained 2% of muscle and I lost 4% of fat,” she said. “I’m stronger on the ice. I feel my reflexes better, the timing is better. I have to work more. I have to be patient, since it’s just my first year. But it’s better than at the beginning. I have to work around the net.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Knights were criticized in some quarters for signing Rheaume. It was called a publicity stunt, even though the novelty didn’t hurt anyone and only brought more attention to an attention-starved sport.

Said Ubriaco: “If we were using her for publicity, let me tell you, she already would have played. We gave her a three-year program and we are going to work it out. She’s working really hard and the team is doing well.

“Most of the credit has to go to the players. They have accepted her. They’ve gone along with her. We haven’t exploited her here. She’s just another player.”

With her test tonight, Rheaume will try to become a celebrity with credibility. Until now, she has been a celebrity first and an athlete second.

“They see me every day,” she said of her teammates. “I’m dressed like another goaltender. And I have my own dressing room, so it’s not a big deal. They treat me like another player.”

Of course, not all minor league goaltenders have movie projects in development. Already, Rheaume has had an impact beyond hockey, spreading into the movie business.

Said Bartlett: “I’m sitting here looking at a press release with the story line for the sequel to ‘The Mighty Ducks.’ And they will have a female goaltender. I won’t say there’s a direct relation. But . . . “

As for the title of Rheaume’s own movie, there’s one floating around from a previous work. And it’s appropriate, since she is making her first start in April:

“Manon of the Spring.”


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