Manon Rheaume drops in on the Lightning after a long time away

TAMPA -- One of the important parts of reaching the Stanley Cup finals is that it allows for introspection, a chance to pay homage to those that helped build the foundation for success.

In Tampa, a team that joined the NHL in 1992, the Lightning's reappearance in the finals for the first time since 2004 is a chance to remember just how uphill the struggle was to make hockey a part of the culture here.

On Friday afternoon, a small part of that history returned to town for the first time since she helped in some ways to provide the Lightning with, if not an identity, then at least welcome publicity in the team’s formative days.

“This changed my life basically and took my life in a different direction than I was planning to go,” former goalie Manon Rheaume said as she sat down for a chat at Amalie Arena before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

In the summer of 1992, Rheaume was working for a French-language television station in Quebec, and her first job was to cover the NHL draft in Montreal. She’d already broken ground by becoming the first woman to play major junior hockey in Canada with the Trois Rivieres Draveurs.

At the draft, she ran into a scout who had sent a videotape of the 20-year-old goaltender to the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning, who were set to begin play in the fall of 1992. The scout saw Rheaume and introduced her to team co-founder, president and GM Phil Esposito.

“So Phil, right there on the spot, invited me to his training camp,” said Rheaume, a 43-year-old mother of two. “I thought he was kidding me when he asked me to come to training camp. I didn’t really believe him. But sure enough, I got the letter in the mail a few days later, and I went for it."

Instead of hanging up her goalie skates and going to teachers college with an eye to becoming a teacher in her home province of Quebec, Rheaume became something else entirely.

She became the first woman signed to a professional hockey contract, and she became the first woman to appear in an NHL preseason game. And perhaps more importantly -- and this was something that did not fully dawn on her until years later -- she became a role model, a living illustration of the power of dreams.

Years after, parents would thank her for being an inspiration to their daughters to pursue their dreams. She has heard from many young girls and boys who were doing school projects on her venture into the unknown of the NHL world as a woman.

“It’s like wow, it did affect people, and that makes you feel good,” Rheaume said.

But at the time, well, it was a bit of a zoo: a woman at an NHL training camp and getting ready to appear in an NHL game, even if it was a preseason game.

She was interviewed by "Today," "20/20," "Good Morning America." She appeared on David Letterman's show.

All these many years later, she laughs easily about her appearance on the famous late-night talk show.

“I remember when they told me to go to David Letterman. I had no clue who was David Letterman because I’m from Quebec,” Rheaume recalled.

“Everybody’s like, 'This is a big deal.' I’m like, 'David Letterman?'

“The funny thing is I thought I did great in the interview. And a few years later someone showed it to me and I couldn’t even understand myself, this is how bad my English was,” said Rheaume, who now lives in Northville, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. “And I realize later living in the States how big David Letterman was. I was like wow, I was on that show."

Rheaume’s story has such lasting appeal she is now the subject of a feature bio-pic film.

Producer/actor/writer Angie Bullaro and her husband are in the final stages of securing financing for the film -- called "Between the Pipes" -- they expect to start filming next winter.

Bullaro will play Rheaume in the picture.

“It’s not just for females,” said Bullaro, who is working with former New York Rangers netminder Steve Valiquette to hone her goaltending skills for the movie. “It’s not just little girls and women that are inspired by Manon, but anybody who has a dream but has been told they can’t do it. She kind of inspires people in that way."

The question needs to be answered, of course, is who plays Esposito in the picture?

“He’s such a character. I love that man,” Bullaro said. “That’s a unique pair of shoes to fill."

The irascible Esposito said he put everything he had into making the Lightning a viable NHL franchise.

“I spent every penny I had,” Esposito told ESPN.com.

“It cost me my marriage. I sacrificed more than I should have. I did what I had to do to get it done.”

And part of that meant getting people to pay attention, to buy tickets. And that was why the Hall of Fame player asked Rheaume to come to camp and why he used her in a preseason game, making the Lightning a part of sports history.

“I kept saying, 'Guys, look, she’s not going to embarrass herself or the organization,” Esposito said.

“She’s fine in the net. She does a good job in the net. What the hell, man, it’s preseason and we’re trying to sell tickets here and we want people to recognize us.”

Would he do it again?

“In a heartbeat,” Esposito said.

Rheaume, of course, understood all of this, the notion that she was merely being used for publicity, but she was also a top-level goaltender who leveraged the unprecedented opportunity to continue her playing career into a long stint with the Canadian women's national team, some minor-pro hockey and a trip to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, where she won a silver medal for Canada's women's team.

“When I went there [to Tampa], I was going there for the only reason of getting an opportunity to play at the highest level I could,” Rheaume said.

“When I was younger, a lot of people said no to me because I was a girl; for playing triple-A and going to midget triple-A, even if I was the same level, as the boys they didn’t want the girls there.

“So at that point, I didn’t care why they invited me; I’m like, I get the chance to play at the highest level possible and I don’t want to live my life with regrets and I’m going to go for it,” Rheaume said. “And I’m going to take the chance, and I did.”

She recalled showing up for the first of the two training camps she attended -- she was back again the following fall -- with the same chest protector her father had modified for her when she was playing peewee hockey years earlier. Esposito saw the battered old gear and bought her bigger, newer gear, but Rheaume wouldn’t wear it, thinking she wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough to block shots.

But she found her body bruised from the NHL-level shots, and in the end, she simply attached extra padding to her old gear.

“A lot of people said that was just a publicity thing,” Rheaume said. "But I had to wake up and face those shots every single day."

There was a mini-tournament within the camp, and she recalled stopping all 14 goals in her first appearance.

“For someone that didn’t have any experience, it was a big deal,” she said. "For me, it was a big deal."

As for the preseason game on Sept. 23, 1992, in Tampa against the St. Louis Blues, the memory is as fresh as though it was yesterday. She played one period, faced nine shots and allowed two goals. (She faced the Boston Bruins in a preseason game a year later.)

“The game itself, I remember the walk from the locker room to the ice,” Rheaume said.

“I never felt that much pressure in my life. I felt like my heart was stepping out of my chest. But the coolest thing was as soon as I stepped on the ice, that went away. Then, I was not thinking about I’m playing in the NHL game, I got the Tampa Bay jersey, those guys are like 10 times bigger than me. I was just out there in my comfort zone, where I loved to be and I was just playing a hockey game and it was really, really cool."

It’s probably no surprise that Rheaume’s two sons, Dylan, 16, and Dakota, 8, are avid hockey players. And likewise no surprise that Dylan is a goaltender, who was recently accepted by USA Hockey’s national team development program.

“It’s funny, when it comes to your children,” she said, “they just look at me as their mom.”

But when they look at the hockey cards and read the stories and now, perhaps, watch the movie, “they realize that I made an impact on hockey.”

As for her first trip back to Tampa, which was for Game 2 of the finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, there was no doubt about which squad she was siding with.

“It does bring back a lot of memories,” she said. “I always have a soft spot for Tampa.”