QUEBEC CITY — Manon Rheaume said just before the unveiling of a bronze statue honoring her that she had butterflies in her stomach, like when she broke down barriers in hockey during the 1980s and 1990s.
“I don’t know if I’m more nervous today than I was for my game with the Tampa Bay Lightning or my first game at the Quebec City pee-wee tournament,” Rheaume said Wednesday. “These are the last two times I’ve had so many butterflies in my stomach.”
Seeing the work of artist Guillaume D. Cyr, the former goalie must have felt the same kind of pride she did 29 years ago when she made hockey history with seven saves in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues.
“It’s extraordinary, super beautiful and impressive,” she said. “I see myself at the same age, literally. By the way, my haircut was fashionable at the time.”
The statue, an initiative of Quebec City, immortalizes Rheaume and former NHL player Sylvain Cote, at the age when they were the talk of the Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament, an event for kids 12 and under, between 1978 and 1984.
“I thank the city and the artist,” Rheaume said. “It’s such a great honor. I am very touched.”
The commemorative work is part of Jean Beliveau Lane, located near Videotron Centre, which honors athletes who have impacted the history of hockey in Quebec City. There also are statues of Joe Malone, Beliveau and the Stastny brothers, Peter, Marian and Anton.
Rheaume was a hockey trailblazer, the first woman to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the first to play in the NHL.
On September 23, 1992, Rheaume made hockey history by playing for the Lightning in a preseason game against the Blues. She played one period, allowing two goals on nine shots.
The experience opened the doors of professional hockey for her in the seasons that followed. From 1992-97 she played in the International Hockey League and the ECHL, and also played for Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first Olympics to feature a women’s hockey tournament.
The unveiling of the statue brought back memories of her hockey debut, and how she had to convince her father, Pierre, to let her join the boys team he coached.
“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” Rheaume said. “We were at the dinner table and my father wondered which of his team’s players he would put in goal for an upcoming tournament. I was already serving as a practice goalie for my two brothers on our family’s outdoor rink and took the opportunity to say, ‘Why not me?’ My mother didn’t like that very much at the time. She would have preferred me to do ballet or figure skating, but she eventually agreed.”
Pierre Rheaume allowed his daughter to play with the boys. We know the rest of the story.
“It’s true that I didn’t want her to play hockey,” said Nicole, Manon’s mother. “Luckily Pierre was always there to take care of it because he was the coach.”
Manon broke down prejudices, but not without encountering pitfalls on her way.
“One day, she must have been 9 or 10 years old, she took a shot on the arm that gave her a big bruise,” Pierre Rheaume said. “She said it hurt her. I told her that she could choose between hockey or macrame. That had made her very angry. For her, macrame was out of the question. Hockey was her passion.”
Manon endured a multitude of bruises as she made her pioneering climb up the ranks, and some hard knocks.
Playing for the Trois-Rivieres in the QMJHL in 1991-92, she was struck on the head by a shot. It had been fired by Philippe Boucher, who went on to play 16 NHL seasons as a defenseman.
“We thought she was overdoing it a little bit,” Nicole said. “But when she took off her helmet we saw blood. She wasn’t exaggerating.”
Rheaume said it took a long time to see the impact of the barriers she broke down in hockey.
Now 49 years old, she lives in the Detroit area, where she coaches the girls 12-and-under team for the Little Caesars hockey program. She gratefully embraces growing her legend and being held up as an enduring source of inspiration.
“I realized that my story had touched and inspired people many years after my career,” she said. “I find it satisfying and I want to continue to be an inspiration.”
She was the pioneer, but knowns there still is much to be done.
“Women’s hockey has evolved a lot over the years,” she said. “The next step would be the creation of a professional league, like there is in basketball. It would be nice if girls could make a living playing hockey.”
Several women also have taken management positions with men’s professional teams. Could Rheaume, the mother of two boys, be tempted by an offer?
“Maybe one day, but right now I love what I do,” she said. “I have the opportunity to give back to sport by coaching young girls. It’s super important to me. Hockey has given me so much. It taught me beautiful life lessons. I also started being a TV analyst [RDS]. I can talk about hockey. I like that too.”