Women Sports Pioneers Share Inspiring Messages

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Denise DeBartolo York couldn’t contain her enthusiasm over a milestone at her alma mater, Cardinal Mooney High School, when Lizzie Philibin took the field Friday as the Cardinals’ kicker, the first female varsity football player in the school’s history.

When her children attended Mooney and the girls played volleyball, they couldn’t even get the microphones turned on and played their first game with no announcer, she said.

“It’s phenomenal. God bless you, honey,” the San Francisco 49ers’ co-owner told Philibin.

DeBartolo York, previously president of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Manon Rheaume, the first and only woman to play in a National Hockey League game — with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, discussed their successes and challenges during “Breaking Boundaries: Women in the Sports Industry.”

The event, emceed by Aafke Loney, co-owner of the Youngstown Phantoms, was attended by 300 people, and raised more than $20,000 for the Youngstown Business Incubator’s Women in Entrepreneurship Program, said Colleen Kelly, YBI director of development.

DeBartolo York and Rheaume related how they entered the male-dominated sports industry via different paths.

DeBartolo York, the daughter of shopping center developer Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., was named president of the Penguins by her father. She guided the team to its first National Hockey League championship and is one of only 12 women to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

DeBartolo York recalled her first NHL owners meeting more than two decades ago. “I had to do a lot of positive affirmations with myself before I walked into the room,” she said. “Because of my father and mother and the way they raised me, they gave me strength and courage.”

When she later joined National Football League owners as part of the 49ers leadership team, she said the men were helpful. “Maybe they thought that’s the way they had to be but I never got bad vibes,” she said. “I do think there were people that did go out of their way to help me.”

Rheaume, a native of Quebec who now lives with her family in Michigan, says her interest in hockey began early. Her father was a coach and her brothers played hockey. “When I was young, I thought [my brothers] were nice to let me play with them, but they were really dressing me like a goalie and using me as a target,” she joked. “Later my dad was a coach and needed a goalie for the team, and I suggested I do it.”

Entering the Tampa Bay locker room is a moment she will always remember, she said. Despite the intense pressure and attention, “When I stepped onto the ice, all the butterflies went away,” she remarked. “I was in my happy place and forgot that I was playing in an NHL game. I was just doing what I loved to do– playing hockey.”

When she attended her first owner’s event at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, DeBartolo York recalled, a photographer tried to exclude her from the group photo of the owners, apparently not realizing who she was.

She acknowledged one of the challenges she faced over the years came when her brother, Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who had headed the 49ers, ran into legal trouble tied to the 1998 corruption case of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. She  assumed control of the team in 2000.

She said her parents were “totally fair” in their dealings with her and her brother. “I never felt any distinction from either of my parents between me and my brother,” she said. “They were great mentors, great teachers.”

Being a female athlete always meant having to prove herself, Rheaume said. “I could never get hurt,” she said. The hardest part about when she was injured during a game was hearing the comment that it happened because she “was a girl,” she recalled.

“My performance had to be good every single time.”

DeBartolo York and Rheaume agreed that conditions have improved for women in sport since their early years.

“You can get scholarships to go to a Division I College. You can make the national team, go to the Olympics,” Rheaume said. “It’s really changed since the time I started playing.”

DeBartolo York pointed to Philibin’s groundbreaking performance for Mooney as an example of how much things have changed. “You can pretty much do whatever you set your mind to,” she said.

“I was super nervous,” said Philibin, a senior at Mooney and a member of the varsity soccer team. “My heart was racing but after I made the first kick, I calmed down.” She added that her teammates are supportive.

DeBartolo York acknowledged the controversy surrounding 49ers player Colin Kaepernick, who refuses to stand during the National Anthem in protest of injustices suffered by blacks in America.

“It’s a message that bears conversation all over America,” she said, although she noted that Kaepernick was awkward in getting that message across at first. He has “put his money where his mouth is” by donating money to Santa Clara police and proceeds from sales of his jersey, currently the top-selling jersey in the NFL.

Members of the mostly female audience appreciated what the two women sports pioneers had to say and praised the event.

“It was fabulous. It was  great to see so many women at one event. It’s clear the community is behind the YBI and the Women in Entrepreneurship program,” said Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet, Boardman.

“The network of women here was incredible and inspiring. We all recognize Youngstown is growing, but this is a true indicator that it’s headed in the right direction,” said Sarra Mohn, co-owner and president of Jet Creative, Boardman.

“They’re giving women hope, inspiring them to see that anything is possible,” said Jennifer Campbell, a financial associate with Daprile Financial, Canfield.

“It was great to hear from two successful businesswomen and learn that they also experience the same obstacles and challenges that I do as a business owner,” said Ellie Platt, president of Platt Insurance & Financial, which has several local offices. “I was inspired by their persistence and commitment to excelling in their respective businesses.”

Pictured: Manon Rheaume, Lizzie Philibin and Denise DeBartolo York. 

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.