ALL EYES ARE ON THE GOALTENDER IN the Lakeland (Fla.) Civic Center, where top minor leaguers are trying out for the Tampa Bay Lightning—one of two new entries in the National Hockey League this year. The blue team's attack has just been turned aside, and now the red team is pouring down the ice. The crowd leans forward, then roars with delight as the goalie dives, reaches and somehow snatches a shot out of the air. There are shouts of "Manon!" from the stands, as the diminutive figure pops back onto her feel, preparing for the next wave.
Back on her feet? That's right. The 5'6", 136-lb. acrobat is Manon Rheaume, 20, the first woman ever to be invited to an NHL training camp. A publicity stunt? Yes and no. "I'd be a liar to say I wasn't using this for publicity," admits former NHL great Phil Esposito, the Lightning's president and general manager. "But I don't care if she is a woman. If there were a horse with skates and it could slop a puck, I'd put it in there."
No need to draft Mr. Ed. Rheaume, as hockey players like to say, can backstop a team. During the first day of tryouts last week, Manon—who starred for the 1992 world champion Canadian national women's team—was the only net-minder to keep her goal inviolate. "She stoned us," said Brent Gretzky, Wayne's younger brother. Which is not really surprising, since Manon has been playing with boys—in many cases, outplaying them—most of her life.
She grew up in Lac Beauport, outside Quebec City, where her father, Pierre, a contractor, ran the town's outdoor ice rink and coached her brothers' hockey team. Manon, who learned to skate at 3, and her mother, Nicole, went down to the rink each day to watch Martin, now 23, and Pascal, 19. But Manon never played herself—until Pierre came up short a goalie for a tournament. Remembers Manon, 5 at the time: "I said to my father, I would like to be your goaltender.' He laughed. But then he said, 'Why not? You take shots from our brothers at home.' "
For years Manon mixed hockey with ballet, skiing and baseball. By 12, though, she was lacing her skates on year-round. "I didn't just play hockey," says Manon. "It was my passion."
That passion carried her through the youth leagues, where she continued to stop shots cold. But at 15 she was stopped cold. "There had never been a woman in junior hockey before," says Rheaume of the leagues for teenagers that are a stepping-stone to the NHL. When Manon caught on last year with a Junior A club, she was exposed, for the first lime, to gender politics. "Some players tried to make me afraid with some very high shots," she says. One shot, in fact, broke the cage covering her face, driving it into an eyebrow. ""The blood started running," says Manon. "But I continued to play. I didn't want anyone to say I stopped because I'm a girl."
After one recent scrimmage, Esposito was raving about Manon. "She did great," he said. Manon was excited too. But she tried to keep things in perspective. "It's just one period. I'm very realistic. I take this try out for what it is and do my best."
On the basis of her size alone, there seems little chance that Manon will make the Lightning. But don't tell that to the young woman in the audience who wailed impatiently for the goalie's autograph. "I love this," the fan enthused. "I want to be a hockey player now!"
CINDY DAMPER in Tampa Bay
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