Understanding what goaltender Shannon Szabados has accomplished in the past year is an exercise in mythbusting. She's broken new ground for female hockey players. She's flourished in the all-male Southern Professional Hockey League after joining last year on the heels of her second Olympic gold medal for Canada. It's tempting, though, to tell her story a certain romantic way:
she overcomes insurmountable odds, endures hardship and abuse from teammates and opponents, and she triumphs. That cliched idea belongs in
Mulan. Toss it in the trash. There's nothing conventional about Shannon Szabados' journey. Her tale is not one of fighting to survive in the male game. It's about growing up in the male game and earning a spot she's worked toward her entire life. This is Szabados' inspiring true story. And it's nowhere near finished.
Szabados, 28, recently immersed herself in a style of hockey that felt foreign and required significant adjustment. But it wasn't the SPHL. It was the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The only time she's ever played on women's teams has been with Canada for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, including the year of centralization and travelling with the team that preceded each. The women's version of the sport was her transition. The men's? That's her comfort zone. In her minor hockey days she regularly played not just with boys, but with boys a couple years older than her. She became the first female to play in the WHL when she suited up with the Tri-City Americans in 2002-03. Sharing her crease in that game, in which she stopped 20 of 22 shots? Carey Price. Needless to say, that was a career highlight. Szabados was highly decorated in her five years playing Jr. A. In a sparkling 2006-07 season with the Saskatchewan Traders, she went 31-7-4 with a 2.13 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and four shutouts. She was named the Alberta Junior League's top goaltender. She played Canadian men's university hockey for Grant MacEwan and, later, the North Alberta Institute of Technology. She took Grant MacEwan to a league final one year. By the time Szabados suited up for Canada at the 2010 Olympics, she'd played 18 years of men's hockey. The SPHL, then, was no pipe dream. The idea came from the Columbus Cottonmouths' Kyle Johnson, Andy Willigar and Jordan Draper. All three were teammates with her at NAIT in 2011-12. The Cottonmouths needed a backup goaltender, and they approached coach and GM Jerome Bechard with the Szabados idea. Bechard called her when she returned from Sochi. The natural question to ask Bechard: did he sign Szabados because she would upgrade the Cottonmouths in net, or because she'd attract more fans? "We said, 'She could definitely help us out, she's a good goalie,' and our team at this time had clinched a playoff spot," Bechard said. "My other backup goalie was not where we needed him to be. Business wise and hockey wise, I'd be lying to you if I didn't say I didn't get any publicity about it and get some interest for my organization and the league and all that stuff. A little bit of both." So off Szabados went to Columbus, Ga., last spring. It was natural to have jitters. She'd never spent more than a week or so in the U.S., she said, and had never been to the Deep South. But it helped to have friends on the team. Johnson, the Cottonmouths captain, picked her up at the airport the night she arrived. He showed her around town. He helped her set up her apartment. And, most importantly, he introduced her to the team. There was no standoffishness or animosity. The same was true at opposing rinks. "I was worried about that, too, especially when I came at the end of the season," Szabados said. "I hadn't been there all year. I had no idea. I didn't know a lot about the league. And it was the complete opposite of what you'd expect. I'd have guys come up to me after games and congratulate me, obviously with Sochi happening a couple weeks before." After her first road games she would stand outside rinks for 45 minutes with a line of people asking for pictures and autographs. "It was a pretty warm reception, and even this year I've made a lot of good friends around the league just from guys chatting on the ice," she said, "or if I'm backing up a game on the bench, chatting with other goalies on the bench next to me. The guys have been awesome." So Szabados was welcomed to the SPHL with open arms. What about the hockey side of things? Arriving at the end of last season meant she might dress, enjoy a few practices and call it a season. She needed time to transition back from the women's game to the men's. She never saw the trial by fire coming. "She said, 'I'm gonna be honest with you, I'm a little nervous coming in, and I was thinking more along the lines of next year,' " Bechard said. "And I said, 'don't worry about it. I'm not going to throw you to the wolves. We'll get a couple practices, and you'll do this, that and the other.' Then all of a sudden everyone's asking when she's going to play. And we had two home games left, and it was Saturday-Sunday. "And I'm like, 'Well, Shannon, I said I wasn't going to do this to you, but you've got to play Saturday night.' " Into the fire Szabados went March 15, 2014. Columbus lost 4-3 to Knoxville, but her 27-save effort impressed Bechard. He started Szabados again a week later, in 3-2 loss to Huntsville, and felt she stood on her head. She earned herself a full-time spot on the 2014-15 roster. Now she had a summer and training camp to get ready.
Szabados had heard from multiple league veterans that the SPHL was as strong as it's ever been, that it was getting more players coming from college or the ECHL than before. She felt the SPHL was her toughest test to date. Everyone trying to score on her was slightly older, bigger, stronger, and faster, she said. They shot harder. And she felt more aware of her 5-foot-8, 148-pound stature than normal. "I've had a bit of trouble," she said. "This is the first league I've been in that my size has come in to play, just because the guys are such good shooters and shoot bar-down a little more than in other leagues I played in. So it's choosing my spots of how far I come out to challenge. It's a bit of a learning curve for the first couple of weeks." Bechard echoes Szabados' thoughts about needing to challenge shooters more, and he said Szabados, like most goalies, is prone to crises of confidence. But he loves her passion to win, and he believes she's one of the most technically sound goalies he's seen in the league. Being the smallest stopper everywhere she went forced her to perfect her positioning, Bechard surmised. Another transition Szabados had to make for 2014-15: living in the American South as an Albertan. The cooking puts a hockey player's nutrition to the test, though she stays away from the fried chicken. She hasn't mustered the courage to try grits, as she doesn't think they look appealing. Corn bread, though? She's all over it. But it's not the food that gave her culture shock as much as it was the fans. Georgia will never be mistaken for a hockey hotbed. Szabados learned that first-hand at a team promotional event at the start of the season. "We brought out a big blow-up snake head, and we put hockey net in it, and you could win tickets or something, but 90 percent of the people didn't know how to hold a hockey stick or had never held one before," she said. "And for me it was just mind-blowing. If we did that in Edmonton, people would be sniping top cheese on that thing." Szabados got used to it, though. She entered 2014-15 feeling much more comfortable on and off the ice, and wow, did it show. Bechard felt comfortable using her and goaltender Andrew Loewen as co-starters. Loewen excelled, going 18-10-3 with a 2.36 GAA and a .925 SP, but Szabados more than held her own. She went 15-9-1 with a 3.12 GAA and .907 SP. She caught fire for stretches. She earned SPHL player of the week honors after posting a 1.49 GAA and .963 SP from Nov. 24 to 30. She took the award again in March by going 1.00/.970 over two starts. She became a true part of the Cottonmouths dressing room culture, said Bechard, who describes her as quiet but talkative, funny in her own way and a great ambassador for the game. She'd get her gear on, join the guys in the room and was never segregated. She was the team's "joke-around little sister," as Bechard put it. And she also developed quite the rapport with her counterpart Loewen. There's been no bitterness between the two Cottonmouth tenders. They took pride in trading starts during eight- and 10-game winning streaks. Szabados would always hear Loewen cheering for her from the bench, and she would do the same during his starts. "Nobody really understands what a goalie in a professional league goes through better than another goalie," she said. "Whether there's a camera crew, or when my parents came to watch my first game, whatever the case, he always seems to notice if I'm nervous. He'll give me a little pep talk and calm me down." Loewen, somewhat of a sentimental favorite on the Cottonmouths, was likely in his final year with them, according to Bechard. For that reason, he started Loewen for every playoff game. It wasn't that Szabados didn't deserve a shot. Columbus lost its best-of-three series to Knoxville. "I guess, as a coach, my strength and my weakness is one and the same: I've got a big heart," Bechard said. "Knowing this is probably Andrew Loewen's last year, I wanted to make sure it was his, win or lose. And maybe I screwed up. I should've had her in the third game as opposed to playing him three games in three nights. Live and die by the sword." Loewen departing would open the door for Szabados as next season's full-time starter. Her return to the Cottonmouths isn't confirmed, but Bechard wants her back. Maybe she'll take some time to see her friends back home, which she can't wait to do, before she decides. She's also big into fishing with her family. But after a little R and R, it makes too much sense for her to rejoin the Cottonmouths for next year. What about after that, though? Will Szabados stop at the SPHL, or does she hope to keep ascending in men's pro hockey? The next rung on the ladder is the ECHL. Is it a realistic goal to strive toward, or is the gap between leagues too great? The best person to speak on the matter: Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Scott Darling, whose improbable road to NHL success included extended stays in the SPHL, ECHL and AHL. He has a strong sense of the differences between each circuit. Can a good SPHL goalie be a good ECHL goalie? Would Szabados' skill set translate? "I’m sure it could because, people don't give the SPHL a lot of credit, but it's not an easy league for a goalie to play in," Darling said. "There’s not a lot of structure defensively. There are a lot of great scoring opportunities, and the forwards that play there have talent. Like, these aren’t guys off the street. A lot of them are good players that just got overlooked or had something that sidelined their career. Kind of like me, how I got there. "There are a lot of good players down there, and when you combine that with less defense, it’s actually not an ideal situation for a goalie. So what she’s done is incredibly impressive to me, that she’s playing there and had success and she’s just another good goalie in the league." Bechard said an injury-laden ECHL franchise actually called him this season inquiring about Szabados' services, though the timing didn't work out. Climbing leagues isn't just about talent, however. As Bechard and Darling both point out, NHL affiliations reach as far down as the ECHL. Jonathan Quick cut his teeth there. So ECHL teams still have to prioritize their NHL commodities for starting roles if those players get sent down from the AHL. For now, then, expect more of Szabados in the SPHL, with potential for ascension in the coming seasons. After all, at 28, she has lots of time left. Isn't that only 25 in goalie years? "Or is it like being 40, because you have bad hips and knees and ankles?" She retorted with a snicker. Spoken like a grizzled pro hockey veteran.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin