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  4. Women’s Hockey Life Player of the Decade: Shannon Szabados | Part One

Women’s Hockey Life Player of the Decade: Shannon Szabados | Part One

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Capturing the hearts and minds of a nation following a golden outcome at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, it marked the beginning of a fascinating journey for Shannon Szabados, gaining a cultural and sporting relevance in the Canadian zeitgeist. Building on the legacies of ground breaking figures such as Manon Rheaume and Kim St. Pierre, simultaneously establishing her own foothold in the conversation of Canadian hockey greats, the decade was one that saw Szabados synonymous with success and empowerment.

With such a compelling list of achievements as the decade unfolded, from two Winter Games gold medals, guarding the crease for professional men’s ice hockey teams, to being featured in an advertising campaign with the Hudson’s Bay Company for the seventh edition of the Red Mittens, the Edmonton-raised Szabados enjoyed the addition of a new accolade.

Bestowed the honour of recognition by the fans of Women’s Hockey Life as the Player of the Decade, it signified the type of powerful connection that her remarkable achievements held among the game’s enthusiasts. Worth noting, Szabados was joined among the top five vote getters by a distinguished group of luminaries including Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Hilary Knight, along with Winter Games teammates Marie-Philip Poulin and Hayley Wickenheiser. Fittingly, Szabados and fellow Vancouver Winter Games heroine Poulin finished as the two finalists.

The 2018-19 season saw Szabados earn the tribute of serving as one of the team captains at the NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville. Setting a new attendance record for a professional women’s ice hockey game in the United States, the NWHL season saw Szabados lead the Buffalo Beauts to the Isobel Cup Finals, pace all goaltenders with a sparkling 1.49 goals against average, earning the Goaltender of the Year Award.

Szabados ended the decade as a member of the newly launched Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) and has also been a key figure in the Ohio Hockey Project. Serving as one of the Project’s goaltending instructors, her presence provides a remarkable credibility and significant name recognition to a commendable endeavour which is geared towards player skill development and evaluation, on-ice instructional sessions, plus consultation for NCAA aspirations.

“Any time you are recognized for an accomplishment it is a huge honour. This one is special because it was voted on by the fans so I would like to think that not only was it based on hockey over the past decade but also the relationships I have been fortunate to build with fellow players and fans of the game along the way.

I have always made it my mission to make sure everyone feels included and that I take the time to leave a lasting impression on the parents and young generations who spend their time to come watch us play and cheer us on. Thank you to everyone who voted!”

Beginning the decade on the game’s biggest stage, Szabados gained the starting goaltender role for Canada in women’s ice hockey at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. Although Szabados would become a household name in the aftermath of Vancouver, the reality is that the journey to becoming such a prominent figure in Canadian sporting lore was one five years in the making.

Debuting with Canada’s Under-22/Development Team in 2005, skating for Team White at the Development Camp, she shared goaltending duties with Britni Kehler from Minnesota State University. Taking into account that Kehler was part of Canada’s team that captured the gold medal at the 2005 Air Canada Cup, there was an element of serendipity in the fact that Szabados would follow in the steps of Kehler, winning her first gold in Canada’s colors at the 2006 Air Canada Cup.

Three seasons with the Under-22 program would actually foreshadow the glorious future of Szabados. The 2006 roster featured the likes of Jocelyne Larocque, Tessa Bonhomme and Meaghan Mikkelson, future Olympic teammates.

In 2007, Szabados called the likes of Meghan Agosta, Rebecca Johnston, Sarah Vaillancourt and Catherine Ward as teammates, all players that would be part of Vancouver’s golden roster. One year later, skaters such as Haley Irwin and Jennifer Wakefield joined the Under-22 team, providing Szabados with another pair of future Olympic teammates.

During those formative years, Szabados would also play for Canada’s senior team in a trio of 4 Nations Cup appearances. Amassing a 2-0 mark at the 2006 edition of the event, en route to gold, she would follow it up with more gold in 2007, including three gold medals won with the Under-22 Development Team at the Air Canada Cup, a third gold at the 4 Nations Cup would come in 2009.

Of note, the 2009 4 Nations Cup would bring with it the most importance as it was an event running parallel to Canada’s Centralization camp which would determine the final roster for Vancouver. Heading into Centralization, Szabados was joined on the goaltending depth chart with Charline Labonte and Kim St. Pierre, both members of Canada’s gold medal winning team from Torino 2006. With her auburn locks flowing from the back of her helmet, the number one adorning her jersey, Szabados quickly became a fan favourite.

Earning the starter’s role for Vancouver 2010, becoming the first goaltender from Alberta to participate in women’s ice hockey at the Winter Olympics, it marked more than a coming-out party for Szabados, but the beginning of a new era for Hockey Canada.

Akin to legendary sporting figures such as baseball’s Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp as the New York Yankees second baseman, or football’s Johnny Unitas replacing George Shaw as the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, Szabados became firmly entrenched in the Canadian crease for the better part of a decade. This legacy became enhanced by the fact that she became the first goaltender to start in three consecutive gold medal games in women’s ice hockey at the Winter Olympics.

Jubilant after a golden performance at Vancouver 2010 (Photo credit: Alex Livesy, Getty Images)

Making her debut in Vancouver against Finland on February 22, 2010, Szabados would need only 11 saves in a 5-0 shutout win, as Cherie Piper scored the game-winning goal. Marking the beginning of a stellar undefeated streak on home soil, emerging as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Goaltender. There was a unique element of serendipity in the fact that her last win in Vancouver also occurred via shutout.

Facing off against the United States for the third time in Winter Olympic Games history, Szabados recorded 28 saves in a brilliant 2-0 shutout win. With Canada holding a 2-0 advantage after the first period of play, Szabados would record 14 saves versus the US in the second period, displaying a peerless poise that instilled confidence in her teammates for the remainder of the contest, resulting in a shutout that was a masterpiece of goaltending brilliance.

Headlining a new generation of stars for the women’s program, including the likes of Bonhomme, Irwin, Johnston plus Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both of Canada’s goals in the emotional 2-0 gold medal win over the United States, it generated a remarkable amount of national pride. Setting an exciting tone to come for the men’s gold medal game, featuring the same two nations, as Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal, it placed both the men’s and women’s teams into rarified air.

The magnitude of that triumph, as Canada became the first host country to enjoy double gold in Olympic hockey, was made even more relevant by the fact that Szabados became the first women’s goaltender to win a gold medal by shutout. Undeniably, the jubilation of the gold medal also brought with it a significant cultural currency for Szabados. Along with Hayley Wickenheiser, she was among 10 Canadian heroes from Vancouver featured on the cover of Hello! Magazine Canada, (issue no. 165, cover date March 15, 2010).

Szabados and Hayley Wickenheiser (bottom right) on the cover of Hello! Magazine Canada: issue no. 165, cover date March 15, 2010

While the magic of Vancouver certainly feels like yesterday, a career defining moment that propelled Szabados into Canadian sporting immortality, she graciously reflects on the magnitude of such a magnificent event with a dignified demeanour, recognizing the importance of a team effort. Taking into account that the entire roster from Vancouver earned a place in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame during the autumn of 2019, it was only fitting that the decade ended with such an accolade, truly commemorating the cultural impact of that fascinating team.

“Honestly it sounds like a dream. I started the year as our third string goalie – as the youngest behind Kim St.Pierre and Charline Labonte. I was able to learn from them throughout the year and battle my way to the #1 spot.

A shutout on home soil at the Olympics? Wild. Never in a million years would I ever have thought that would happen. We had such a great team that year, it was easy to play with a ton of confidence behind them.

That 2010 team was actually just inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame this past September so it was amazing to catch up with everyone and re-live some of those moments. I still get goose bumps watching the highlights of Pou’s goals from that game. It was definitely a defining point in my career & will always be the most memorable game I will ever play.”

Szabados and Poulin would add to their growing legend with another series of heroic Olympic performances four years later, their careers becoming forever intertwined, tantamount with Canadian sporting glory. As the resort city of Sochi, Russia served as the backdrop, the 2014 Olympic Winter Games built on the euphoria of Vancouver, the result, an astonishing match that not only captivated an entire nation, taking on mythical proportions, it added an aura of celebrity to the wondrous women in Canada’s jersey.

Although the gold medal game at Sochi 2014 comprised a new chapter in the eternal rivalry between Canada and the United States, the drama of this pulse pounding game became a saga known colloquially as the Canadian Miracle on Ice. Considered by The Hockey News as the greatest women’s ice hockey game ever, the match, which was also the highest rated women’s ice hockey match in the United States, continues to grow in stature, bathed in illustrious legend like Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Michael Jordan’s last shot in the 1998 NBA Finals or Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals at Beijing 2008.

Image obtained from: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/368873025711175720/

Despite Canada falling behind by a 2-0 margin against their American rivals at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, as a second period goal by Meghan Duggan, followed by Alexandra Carpenter’s power play goal in the third period, provided an ambitious roster with an early advantage, the vision of a fourth consecutive gold medal for Canada was quickly vanishing. Remaining highly poised, Szabados would not allow another goal, providing Canada an opportunity to begin its thrilling comeback, serving as her finest hour.

With Canada scoring twice in the final five minutes, starting with Brianne Jenner, followed by Poulin tying the game with merely 55 seconds left, Szabados recorded five saves in eight minutes of overtime, neutralizing the opposing offensive attack. With Poulin scoring the golden goal, one of the greatest in Canadian hockey history, it allowed Szabados the opportunity to post an undefeated mark in Sochi, signifying the second straight Winter Olympic Games in which she was perfect.

The aftermath of the gold medal triumph also saw dynasty and destiny collide for Szabados, rekindling accomplished memories of an earlier chapter in her proud career. With Canada’s men’s team defeating Sweden in their gold medal match, providing Canada with a second consecutive double gold in Olympic hockey, Carey Price, the winning goaltender for Canada was a familiar face for Szabados.

Currently calling the Montreal Canadiens as his club team, Price had once called Szabados a teammate. Becoming the first female to play in the Western Hockey League, enjoying a quartet of exhibition game appearances, plus one regular season game for the Tri-City Americans in the autumn of 2002, Price was the club’s starting goaltender.

Coincidentally, Vancouver would play another key role in Szabados’ career. Standing between the pipes on September 4, 2002 in Ladner, British Columbia, becoming the first woman to appear in a WHL preseason contest, the Vancouver Giants served as the opponents of the Tri-City Americans. Although her first exhibition victory would take place on September 7 versus the Spokane Chiefs, another brush with history would occur versus the Giants. September 22 would mark another milestone for Szabados, becoming the first female to appear in a regular season game, making a relief appearance.

Worth noting, Szabados would make a heroic return to Tri-City following the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. With her collection of medals on display, she was on-hand at the Toyota Center for a meet-and-greet with fans, rekindling historic memories of a magical time in franchise lore. That sense of magic for Tri-City fans took on greater meaning as the prodigious paths of Price and Szabados would cross once again in Sochi. Taking on an exciting luster with a celebrated status as gold medal goalies, a second straight Double Gold for Canada, the monumental summit attained at Sochi was one that truly made Szabados feel that her career had come full circle,

“Definitely. Being able to watch him as a teenager I knew he would go on to do great things so I always followed his career after we played together. It sure has been fun to watch him become one of the best goaltenders in the world. His style of play is something goalies try to model themselves after.

It was definitely fun to catch up with him in Sochi and see where our paths had taken us. He is a great role model for young goalies and I am definitely proud to be a former team mate of his.”

Read Part 2 of Shannon Szabados’ feature here.

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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