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Her Goals Are Now Sprinkled With Gold

It seemed like nothing more than a publicity stunt when Manon Rheaume played one period in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 23, 1992, becoming the first woman to play in a professional hockey game.

The Lighting’s motives might have been less than pure, but Rheaume didn’t do it for the fame. Nor did she disappear when the spotlight faded.

The 25-year-old native of Charlesbourg, Canada, remains dedicated to her craft, trudging through hockey’s minor leagues and playing roller hockey last summer in Sacramento to stay sharp.

Because of her perseverance, she may add a few more “firsts” to her resume: She could become the first female goalie to win a gold medal in the first women’s Olympic hockey tournament, to be held in February at Nagano.

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Such distinctions, however, mean little to her.

“It doesn’t matter how people look at me. I love playing the game and I want to play hockey, and that is what is most important to me,” said Rheaume, who played well in Team Canada’s second-place finish in last week’s Three Nations Cup, a major Olympic warmup.

Rheaume was in goal for Canada’s 3-0 loss in the final, but she wasn’t to blame. That she was in net at all was a triumph for her, since she had been cut from the Canadian national team before the world championships last March after a poor training camp.

“She didn’t show up prepared, she didn’t show up hungry, she didn’t show up ready to earn a spot,” Canadian Coach Shannon Miller said of Rheaume’s earlier failure. “She got a pretty strong message and came back with fire in her belly and hunger in her heart from the first day of [Olympic] camp.”

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Rheaume attributed her earlier struggle to not having enough time to adjust to the women’s game after having played against men with Reno of the West Coast Hockey League.

“The shots are different, the speed is different and the release is different,” she said. “Since there’s no body checking [in women’s hockey], women keep the puck longer in front of the net. The timing is very different.

“It was hard to go from facing men to facing women. This time was different. Three months before training camp, I started playing with women so I would be ready.”

Her strategy worked, helping her compile a 9-2 record and a 2.40 goals-against average on Canada’s pre-Olympic tour.

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“She’s playing at a world-class level. Both our goalies are,” Miller said of Rheaume and Lesley Reddon.

Rheaume hasn’t decided whether she will go back to men’s hockey after Nagano and again try to play in the NHL.

“Right now I’m just thinking about the Olympics,” she said, “because this is the first time for women and it’s very important for us to win the gold medal.”

GOAL-ORIENTED

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is concerned about widespread complaints that the decline in scoring has produced boring, unappealing games.

Among the remedies suggested by the five-man committee he appointed to study the situation: moving the nets out, allowing longer passes through the neutral zone by removing or ignoring the red line, and allowing players to precede the puck into the offensive zone but not to take two-line passes.

“People are offering a variety of explanations, from ‘Goaltending never has been better,’ to ‘The best defensive hockey the world has ever seen,’ to ‘The neutral zone trap,’ and we’re actually looking at it very closely,” Bettman said.

“We’re going to have a series of meetings and see whether or not there will be a need for next season to tinker with the flow of the game and see if it needs to be opened up.

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“Just because scoring is down doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not all teams are using the neutral zone trap and you’ve got to decide whether the neutral zone trap in itself is responsible for the decline in scoring. It could be good defense, it could be that power plays seem to be anemic for whatever reason. . . .

“We may do some tinkering for next season to open it up. You never need to get dramatic because this is a great game, even if somebody thinks there is a potential problem or that scoring is off by half a goal. The foundation of the game is strong. You tinker with it, and if that’s not enough, you tinker a lot more. You do a gradual response and that’s what we’re going to look at.”

Let the tinkering begin. Soon.

HAND IT TO HIM--PLEASE

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The scoring woes that held left wing Kevin Stevens to 17 goals in 89 games over two seasons with the Kings have followed him to New York.

“My hands,” he moaned. “I don’t know where they’ve been.”

His hands aren’t the problem.

To be effective, Stevens must use his size and strength, go to the net, set screens and pounce on rebounds, which he has been doing lately on a Ranger line with Pat LaFontaine and Tim Sweeney. But when he’s passive he’s a liability, and Coach Colin Campbell has put him on the fourth line or on the bench.

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“I’ve got to play on the first two lines because we use our checking line as our third line,” said Stevens, who was sent to New York for Luc Robitaille last summer. “Eventually they’re going to have to play me somewhere. I’ll just grind it out and see what happens. It’s awful hard to play only five, six, seven shifts a game.”

GO TO . . . HOBOKEN

New Jersey Devil owner John McMullen’s timing is perfect--perfectly awful.

He overshadowed his team’s 1995 Stanley Cup drive by threatening to move to Nashville unless the state gave him economic concessions, and he did it again last week by announcing a plan to build an arena in Hoboken. So what if his lease at the Continental Airlines Arena runs through 2007?

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The Devils have a championship-caliber team and can’t fill their current home. How could they fill a bigger arena that would have more luxury boxes and higher ticket prices?

The Washington Capitals have discovered a new address doesn’t bring full houses, and they’ve been at the MCI Center a few weeks. By some estimates, only 7,500 to 8,000 people were in the seats for their game against Florida on Thursday.

DAILY PLANET

Defenseman Al Iafrate’s nickname is “Planet,” but he’s important enough to the San Jose Sharks to be a universe unto himself.

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The Sharks were 17-17-4 in games he played last season and 10-30-4 in games he missed because of back problems. This season, they’re 5-1-2 since he returned from back surgery and 9-17-2 without him.

SLAP SHOTS

Fans may not notice much difference, but the departure of Bill Robertson, the Mighty Ducks’ director of communications and an employee since their inception, is bad news. He’s another quality person driven away by the tyranny of club president Tony Tavares--can you say Ron Wilson?--and yet another example of how the Ducks sacrifice excellence for profits and ego. Robertson will be a vice president of the Minnesota expansion team. . . . The Philadelphia Flyers’ new black uniforms aren’t classic but at least players no longer resemble overripe pumpkins. It will take more than a new jersey, though, to make Ron Hextall look like a Stanley Cup-winning goalie.

Edmonton defenseman Kevin Lowe hasn’t been able to get rid of an inner-ear problem. He might have to retire because doctors haven’t been able to end his dizzy spells. . . . Ottawa right wing Daniel Alfredsson, who broke a bone in his leg last week, may not be ready to play for Sweden in the Olympics. . . . Former Florida Coach Doug MacLean will join ESPN2’s crew as an analyst for tonight’s King-Colorado Avalanche game at Denver. It’s a one-shot deal, but he may be considered for playoff duty.

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ESPN’s hockey ratings for its first nine games this season were .65, or about 475,000 homes. Ratings at the same time last year after 11 games were .7. . . . Toronto’s power play is 0 for December, fizzling in 38 attempts over 10 games. . . . John Rigas, a minority owner of the Buffalo Sabres, is negotiating to buy out the Knox family and take control of the club. There have been whispers he will bring back Ted Nolan, who lost a power struggle with goalie Dominik Hasek and wasn’t rehired.


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