Unique pair of eyes assist Duluth women’s team

Monica Wright

In women’s hockey, the Gophers and Minnesota-Duluth are strong rivals and almost equally matched in talent.
Back in December, the Bulldogs trounced Minnesota at Mariucci Arena, only to have the Gophers defeat them in Duluth two months later.
And while the Bulldogs pulled off an impressive win at the WCHA tournament, the Gophers returned the favor by eliminating Duluth from the AWCHA tournament.
So as you scan the two benches, it would seem there is little difference between the teams. That is, until you look at the area behind the players where the coaches stand.
Duluth can count international star goaltender Manon Rheaume, also known as ‘the first lady of hockey,’ among their staff.
While the advent of women’s hockey may seem new in Gopher country, the Canadian Rheaume has been breaking barriers and setting records in the sport since she was a young girl.
Her prominence began when Rheaume became the first girl to play in a boys international pee-wee tournament.
From there, Rheaume joined the all-male Trois-Rivieres Draveurs, a major men’s junior hockey team in Quebec, Canada.
Rheaume’s talent was quickly noticed by the Canadian Women’s National Team, which she joined in 1992. She led the team to its second straight world championship in 1994, winning MVP honors in both tournaments.
Typically this would be the end of the road for a female goalie in the male-dominated world of hockey.
But later that same year, Rheaume became the first woman to try out and play for an NHL team. After signing a professional contract, she took the ice for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Today, Rheaume has an Olympic silver medal under her belt and is a veteran of seven professional teams. Coaching seemed like the obvious next step.
Recruited by her former national team coach and current Bulldogs coach Shannon Miller, Rheaume agreed to assist with goalie coaching for a week each month during the season.
“Goaltenders usually are used as a target to finish the play, so when I’m involved with practice, I add something to each drill to have the goaltender work on their technical skills,” Rheaume said. “Also, I’m there to give them feedback and to keep them staying focused the whole practice.”
Rheaume’s coaching produced immediate results for the first-year team. In the WCHA tournament game against the Gophers, Duluth goalie Tuula Puputti — who had just joined the team from Finland in January — proved to be the decisive factor, stopping all 31 shots and earning tournament MVP honors.
As a goalie coach, Rheaume also observes the goalies on opposing teams. This included the hard to ignore Minnesota goalie Erica Killewald, who offered up 74 saves in two games during the AWCHA tournament Rheaume attended.
“I can see how the other team plays and different systems they use; as a goaltender, it is stuff that you pick up,” Rheaume said. “Erica is a very good goaltender. She played very well every game that I saw her play in.”
Today, with Rheaume as inspiration, women’s hockey players like Killewald have more options for a post-collegiate career. But Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson believes the choices could be better.
“It’s unfortunate, but there’s not a lot of places to play at a high level,” Halldorson said. “Canada has a more developed senior league, and here you could play on a women’s league or national team, but there’s a huge difference between the two.”
For Rheaume, who announced her retirement after eight years as goalie for the Canadian National Team earlier this month, coaching seems to fit perfectly. But she doesn’t rule out further stints on the ice, even if it means playing against her current prodigies.
“It’s an option. Playing against or with some of the players that I coach is no big deal. On the ice, you don’t think about that. You just play.”

Monica Wright welcomes comments at [email protected]