With recognition as the Player of the Decade by the supporters of Women’s Hockey Life, it would be easy to identify Shannon Szabados by her glories in Canada’s jersey. Capturing back-to-back gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games certainly placed Szabados in a coveted place in the conversation of goaltending greats (you can read about those achievements in Part 1).
Beyond the achievements of standing between the pipes for Canada comes a fascinating series of achievements that saw Szabados shatter perceptions about the role of women in sport, crafting a career which made an impression on fans and non-fans of sport. Certainly, the impact of Szabados even extends into a unique element of the game.
Taking into account her past competitive linkage to Canadiens’ star goaltender Carey Price, former teammates with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans and goaltenders for Canada, it was not the only significant connection to NHL hockey that Szabados would experience in relation to the heroics of Sochi 2014. Fittingly, Szabados would experience another special correlation, simultaneously tapping into her hometown roots. Dating back to the revered results of Vancouver 2010, the impact made by Szabados was best measured by the significant fan support which emanated after Szabados was not named an emergency goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers. Finding traction once again in 2014, the hashtag #SzabadosForBackup added relevance to a movement which was noticed by mainstream media.
Following the heroics of Sochi 2014, Szabados would appropriately earn the long overdue honour of having the Oilers logo, best defined by its orange oil drip, on her jersey. Rekindling fond memories of Manon Rheaume at the Tampa Bay Lightning training camp during their expansion season, and Kim St. Pierre participating at a Montreal Canadiens practice on October 23, 2008, during their centennial year celebrations. For Szabados, it was a moment that cemented the standing of the gregarious goaltender as a true hockey icon.
In the vaunted history of a proud Oilers franchise, the decades of the 1980s and 1990s saw them boast some of the greatest goaltending in professional hockey. From the likes of Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, who played for Canada at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, followed by Bill Ranford and Curtis Joseph, an accomplished quartet that all wore the Maple Leaf internationally, like Szabados.
Raised in Edmonton, the chance to join the Oilers at their practice signified a dream come true. Taking place on March 5, 2014, the same day as the NHL’s Trade Deadline, always a highly anticipated event on the hockey calendar, there was a tinge of irony in the fact that the Oilers made a trade for a goaltender, Viktor Fasth of the Anaheim Ducks. With the presence of Szabados becoming an event that made national news, the elation of practicing with the Oilers encompassed many emotions.
“Ah yes, Edmonton gal born and raised, my blood bleeds blue & orange! Watching the Edmonton Oilers from a young age is what made me want to play hockey. They are a great organization and do a lot in the community.
It was great to be a part of practice and see their day-to-day operations. The practice actually landed on trade deadline day, so there was even more excitement added to my experience. In all seriousness though, the guys were great and treated me like one of their own. I stayed on late to take some breakaways and get some extra work in, I was not leaving that ice until the zamboni was on.”
While the Oilers experience was a crowning touch for Szabados, adding an even greater relevance to the heroines of the women’s game, achieving a dream of donning the paraphernalia of a team followed closely in her youth, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male counterparts, such an empowering experience actually served as prologue in multiple ways.
One could argue that in terms of raising awareness about women in hockey, Szabados’ practice with the Oilers was a springboard, reintroducing the discussion of the deserving opportunity of women in NHL circles. Following the Oilers practice, the calendar year of 2014 saw numerous other female players sharing the ice with their NHL counterparts.
The Oilers’ archrival Calgary Flames invited Lesley Reddon, a member of Canada’s roster from the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games to serve as a practice goaltender on December 18, 2014. Providing an early gift for the decorated goaltender, she also stood between the pipes in earlier years with the University of New Brunswick Reds men’s team.
Also in the autumn of 2014, a pair of American competitors from the Winter Olympic Games experienced the thrill of skating alongside NHLers. Hilary Knight was a very notable presence with the Anaheim Ducks, while the Tampa Bay Lightning welcomed Anne Schleper, who was also on-hand for a Youth Hockey Clinic hosted by the club.
Worth noting, the NHL presence in the awareness of women’s ice hockey would extend past a ground breaking 2014. Toronto’s Air Canada Centre would host three CWHL All-Star Games, while Dawn Braid became the Phoenix Coyotes skating coach during August 2016.
As the decade came to a close, Renata Fast and Rebecca Johnston, two teammates of Szabados at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, were joined by a pair of Team USA skaters, Kendall Coyne-Schofield and Brianna Decker, all taking to the ice at the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition in San Jose.
Following such an exciting event, Katie Guay was among the participants at an NHL officiating camp in the summer of 2019, following it up with a remarkable achievement. Along with Kirsten Welsh, Kelly Cooke, a former NWHL competitor and Kendall Hanley, they would become the first women to work as on-ice officials for numerous NHL prospect events.
From a career perspective, 2014 also saw Szabados gain another opportunity to contribute to the mythos of women playing professional men’s hockey. Simultaneously supplying tremendous inspiration in the sporting community, the gregarious goaltender would make her mark in an unlikely place.
Recruited by the Columbus (Georgia) Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), the acquisition became a social media phenomenon, gaining acclaim by individuals in all facets of sports. Building on the legacies of other women who have played professional men’s hockey, from Canadians Manon Rheaume (Atlanta Knights) and Danielle Dube (San Diego Gulls) in the International Hockey League, to Erin Whitten (Adirondack Red Wings) becoming the first woman to play in the American Hockey League, Szabados quickly took on many personas in Columbus. From pioneer to icon, role model to franchise player, Szabados definitely took on a celebrity status.
Yet, the opportunity to join the Cottonmouths organization held a unique linkage to another groundbreaking chapter of her hockey past. In between Olympic appearances, Szabados was the starting goaltender for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) men’s ice hockey team.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Szabados was essential in NAIT’s run to the ACAC championship, its first in 16 years, where she recorded 30 saves against the SAIT Trojans. Statistically, Szabados led the ACAC in goals against average in both, the regular season (1.58) and playoffs (1.87), also setting the benchmark for most shutouts in a season. The recipient of NAIT’s inaugural Athletic Director Award for Excellence, Szabados would become one of numerous NAIT alumnae to compete in the SPHL.
Due to the timing of Szabados’ signing, taking place near the end of the regular season, she expected to participate only in practices. With the playoffs looming, the league’s landscape was unfamiliar to Szabados. As she reveals, the opportunity to stand between the pipes for the Cottonmouths would come much quicker than expected.
“I absolutely loved my time there. We had just come off winning a college championship and a few of my teammates went down there to play after they graduated. They were telling me how much fun it was and asked if I would be interested in playing there after the 2014 Olympic year. It was definitely something I was interested in, I mean why would I not want to go play men’s professional hockey if I got the opportunity?
The opportunity came sooner than I thought though. I was thinking I would hopefully get a try out at the start of the next season, as it was already 3/4 [of the way] through the year by the time the Olympics ended. Yet, about a week after the 2014 Olympics the guys told me the coach wanted to call me, he asked me if I could be there in a few days.
I could not turn down the opportunity, so I told him yes. It actually played out funny because they only had two regular season games left and then playoffs. He promised he would not throw me in to a game and that I would just come down, practice and get a feel for it.
Well, the day I got there he released the other goalie and three days after I arrived I was starting the final home game of the season (laughs).”
Following the valiant playoff effort against the Knoxville Ice Bears, a 4-3 loss involving 27 saves, Szabados would enjoy two more seasons in the Cottonmouths jersey. With the 2014-15 season resulting in a solid 15-10-0 mark, including a 3.12 goals against average and 1479 minutes between the pipes. Such solid numbers also saw Szabados rank among the top 10 in three statistical goaltenders, including tied for seventh in wins, while her 753 saves placed her ninth, and a respectable .907 save percentage ranked tenth.
Although the Cottonmouths suffered through a losing season in 2015-16, Szabados supplied a historic moment for the franchise. With a December 26 affair against the Huntsville Havoc, Szabados recorded 33 saves in a 3-0 final, becoming the first female goaltender to earn a shutout in professional men’s ice hockey. Finishing the season eighth overall in saves, with 758, Szabados amassed a cumulative won-loss mark of 20-27-0, leaving an unforgettable mark in league history, accumulating a lifetime of treasured memories,
“I went back and played two more seasons before the 2018 Olympics and it was an experience I will never forget. The league was great to me from the front office, to opposing players, and fans across the league, it was awesome.
Plus, I got to live in Georgia where the weather was fantastic and our owners treated us really well. I have never regretted a choice I made during my career and that is one I am definitely glad I made. Thank you to anyone reading this that was a part of the journey (fans, players, coaches, the league itself).”
Before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, Szabados would play with two more professional men’s teams, including the Peoria Rivermen (also in the SPHL), plus an appearance with the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs of the Chinook Hockey League. Adding to a compelling body of work dating back to becoming the first female to play Midget AAA hockey in Edmonton, posting a 2.45 goals against average in 17 appearances for the Edmonton Maple Leafs, it served as prologue for an empowering run. In the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), Szabados gained co-MVP honors at the league’s 2005 All-Star Game. Capturing the 2007 Top Goaltender Award, winning team MVP honors with Fort Saskatchewan, winning 10 games in the 2007 AJHL playoffs, Szabados’ remarkable run of guarding the crease for men’s teams is a tribute to instilling the courage for young girls to pursue their own hockey dreams.
Making history once again in 2018, becoming the first goaltender to start three consecutive gold medal games, the impact of Szabados’ career can be best felt by the next generation of goaltending promise. Perhaps none holds as much of a heart warming impact as fellow Albertan Emerance Maschmeyer. Born in Fort Saskatchewan and raised in Bruderheim, Maschmeyer also played boys’ hockey, starring at the Bantam AA and Major Bantam levels, earning All-Star honors in 2007-08 (Bantam AA) and 2008-09 (Major Bantam).
Having first gained prominence in women’s ice hockey by leading Team Alberta to a gold medal at the 2011 Canada Winter Games, Maschmeyer, who calls Szabados her favourite player, provided one of the most valiant performances in the history of the IIHF Women’s World Championships, signifying a passing of the torch. Having also started in a pair of Clarkson Cup finals, calling the Calgary Inferno and later, Les Canadiennes de Montreal, her club teams, Maschmeyer, who aspires for a spot on Canada’s entry for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, is testament to the positive impact that Szabados has long held in the sport.
Undefeated at both, the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympic Games, capturing the Most Outstanding Goaltender honors at the 2010 and 2018 editions of the Games, just as impressive is the bigger picture. Recording 68 appearances with the Canadian national senior team, highlighted by numbers such as 3895 minutes played, an incredible 20 shutouts, plus a 1.46 GAA to complete a won-loss mark of 51-13-0, Szabados, who possessed an indomitable spirit and a relentless drive to succeed, will best be remembered for a career that redefined sporting convention.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Featured image by BLD Graphics