She's an Olympic medalist who's known to break barriers, but when the 2018-19 NWHL season starts, Shannon Szabados will be a rookie.
It's not the first time she's been a newcomer to a league, but her first season with the Buffalo Beauts will have a bit of a different feeling to it.
"I'm excited," she told WGR's Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet on The Instigators on Thursday morning. "It'll be my first full season on a women's team. In Olympic years we play together full time, but I've played men's hockey my whole life."
To this point, Szabados has made plenty of headlines while playing for both men's teams in addition to her trio of medals with the Canadian women's national team.
She became the first woman to goaltend in a Western Hockey League game when she took the crease for a 2003 game with the Tri-City Americans—a matchup she split with Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price. After playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for five years, she tended the nets with MacEwan Griffins and NAIT Ooks over a five-year collegiate career before joining the SPHL's Columbus Cottonmouths in 2014 as the league's first woman goalie. Over her three seasons with Columbus (and a part of a fourth with the Peoria Rivermen), Szabados compiled a 20-23-6 record en route to becoming the first woman netminder to record a shutout.
Her career then took her to training for her third Olympics with Team Canada, preparing for PyeongChang—thanks to the help of her boyfriend, a one-time professional hockey player himself.
"Honestly, I didn't even know if I could do the last Olympics," she said. "I'm pretty lucky, my boyfriend is a former professional hockey player, and he was like 'No, you're going to play. I'll shoot on you, I'll help you train,' so I got back to feeling 100%."
Szabados was stellar during the PyeongChang Games, backstopping a third straight Canadian run to the gold medal game against the U.S., earning best goalie honors for the tournament with a .949 save percentage over three games. While it wouldn't end with gold like her first two experiences, winning silver hasn't been too bad, either.
"At the time, when you win, it's an incredible feeling, and all your hard work pays off," she said. "On the flip side of it, you lose and there's that moment of disappointment and it takes a few days to sink in. Then you realize, hey, I have an Olympic silver medal—how many people can say that?"
It was some time off after her most recent international experience, however, that re-energized her career and altered her plans.
"At this point, [I'm] just kind of taking it year by year, that's what landed me in Buffalo," Szabados said. "After the Olympics, it was our plan to move back to Ohio, where [my boyfriend is] from, and I wasn't sure what the plan would be, whether it was retire or whatever the case may be. As the summer went on, I was like, no I can't hang ‘em up yet. I still feel great, and who knows? At this point in my career, it's year by year."
When she joins the Beauts locker room this fall, she'll see some familiar faces, one-time foes that are now fellow teammates and rookies. She'll battle for the starting job with USWNT goalie Nicole Hensley and sniper Dani Cameranesi also signed on in Buffalo.
"It'll be a good time," Szabados said. "Especially in the women's game, we know what each other has been through to get to this point, there's that respect. I'm excited, they're great players."
Make no mistake, though, there's already plenty of excitement surrounding Szabados's move: The NWHL is already selling t-shirts with her name and No. 40 on them.
"This is a monumental signing for our team and for the NWHL, and we cannot wait to see Shannon in a Beauts jersey,” GM Nik Fattey said in a press release. “Her international pedigree and unprecedented success in men’s leagues demonstrate the quality play she’ll bring to our crease this season.”
The excitement is echoed by the netminder.
“I think what they’ve done in the last little while with the [Pegula] ownership, with the way they’re taking the league and women’s hockey, it’s pretty exciting,” she said during Thursday's introductory press conference and media call.
The Beauts will look to make the Isobel Cup finals for the fourth straight season and become the first team to etch its name on the trophy for a second time. The efforts quickly amped up in the offseason with the signing of the three Olympians, plus adding three of the four captains from the 2018 NCAA Frozen Four tournament squads in forward Savannah Harmon (Clarkson), Annika Zalewski (Colgate) and Julianna Iafallo (Ohio State).
With a new and different type of challenge in front of her, Szabados is ready to be a part of the Beauts, their latest hunt for the Isobel Cup, and a growing opportunity for the game.
"I've played my entire career on a men's team and guys' teams growing up," she said. "When I started it was my only option. It's great to see the growth of women's hockey and where it is today. There's still a lot of work to be done but we're headed in the right direction for sure."