Women in the NHL: An idea on ice

Manon Rheaume broke the ice for women playing hockey at the NHL level.

In 1992, Rheaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game when she played in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the St. Louis Blues in an exhibition contest. She allowed two goals on nine shots. She played one more exhibition game, against the Boston Bruins in 1993.

Since then, no woman has played in an NHL game of any kind.

Hayley Wickenheiser, the first woman to score a goal while playing for a men's professional hockey team, in Finland in 2003, doesn't think it will happen again.

"No, I don't think it's realistic," Wickenheiser said. "To play an 82-game season at the NHL level, with the size of the players and the speed, it would be very, very tough. Being on the European ice, the bigger ice surface, made it a little easier. It was less physical. It would be pretty tough to play at the NHL level."

As in other men's sports, NHL players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger. Plenty of men are getting hurt after taking hits from some of the behemoths on the ice these days.

"The way the game is now, there's less hooking and holding," Wickenheiser said. "There's more head shots. You take a female body getting hit like that, by somebody 60 to 70 pounds heavier, it's a pretty dangerous situation. From the skill and speed perspective, you can compete at a certain level, but to realistically play at that level would be difficult."

Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill, who has helped draft smaller, skilled players, agreed with Wickenheiser that a woman probably could not play long term among men.

"I could see somebody coming and playing [briefly]," Nill said. "But to do it over a career, it would be awful hard. Just I guess because of size. I think skill-wise, they're getting up there. Speed, they're getting up there. But you're talking men that are 220 pounds, that's all I worry about."

Wings forward Kris Draper, who is a smaller NHL player at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, said he would not rule out the idea that a special woman could come along and try to play in the NHL.

"I think that would be challenging just because of the fact that there are big, strong, fast guys that play this game, so I think that might kind of be against them," Draper said. "But I still think you're going to get someone that is a very determined individual, and she'll want to be the first player to lace them up and play in the NHL. So we'll have to see what happens."

Most agree that goaltender is the most likely position a woman could compete in, but goalies are also bigger nowadays. Rheaume, who played at 5-foot-7, 130 pounds, would be small even for a small goaltender today.

For example, the Nashville Predators have Pekka Rinne, who is 6-foot-5, 207 pounds, and Anders Lindback, who is 6-foot-6, 212.

"It's nothing against women, it's just you're dealing with human nature, there's only so much you can do," Nill said. "That's why a goaltender would have a better chance."

Nill said you can never say never.

"Women's hockey has grown so much over the years," Nill said. "Who knows down the road?"

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