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Flag Waver

By Marika Washchyshyn

Shannon Szabados and the Canadian women's team took the gold in Sochi. (Photo: CBC.ca)

Shannon Szabados and the Canadian women’s team took the gold in Sochi. (Photo: CBC.ca)

Shannon Szabados was a full-time goalie by the time she was seven years old. Her dad was her coach, and when no one else wanted to play that position, Shannon took up the spot between the posts. Today, 20 years later, she is a two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist, the first female to play in the Southern Professional Hockey League, and one of the few women to ever play professional hockey on a men’s team.

Szabados broke a six-year drought by signing with the Columbus Cottonmouths in 2014; the last woman to play on a men’s pro team was Canadian forward Hayley Wickenheiser, who signed a one-year contract with Eskilstuna Linden, a Swedish team, in 2008. Szabados follows a number of women like Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Manon Rheaume (who played two exhibition games with the Lightning, one in 1992 and one in 1993) and Flint Generals goaltender Erin Whitten-Hamlen.

Szabados’ signing with the Cottonmouths came a month after Team Canada stunned the US women’s national hockey team with a come-from-behind win to take home the Olympic gold medal in Sochi. For Cottonmouths coach Jerome Bechard, it was an easy call to make – and one he didn’t think Szabados was expecting so soon after the Games. In a phone interview, Szabados said her equipment got lost on its way back from Sochi, and that she would have been happy not to take the ice after a lengthy Olympic season that started back in August.

“When Jerome called me, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” said Szabados, who always wanted to play in a men’s professional league. “I didn’t do it for publicity, and the team didn’t do it for publicity.”

SPHL Commissioner Jim Combs said that Szabados’ signing should never be “cheapened to that.” As a lineman in the East Coast Hockey League, he’s seen women play professionally with men before; he was an official when Manon Rheaume played in the ‘90s. Combs, as did most of the sources in this story, spoke in a phone interview. He said he knew that if Bechard didn’t think Szabados’ addition would improve his team, or that she could play at that level, she wouldn’t be there.

Szabados eventually appeared in the playoffs with Columbus. (Photo: The Ledger-Enquirer)

Szabados eventually appeared in the playoffs with Columbus. (Photo: The Ledger-Enquirer)

“I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that it would be a great story for her to be involved in professional hockey,” Bechard said. “She’s able to play at a high level under very stressful conditions. And I would consider that gold medal game a very stressful situation.”

Szabados’ goaltending coach for Team Canada, Matt Cockell, said he couldn’t be happier for her and for what she’s doing for the sport. Cockell said Szabados has great footwork, speed and an impressive ability to adjust her positioning. Team Canada’s coach, Kevin Dineen said Szabados’ first day of practice going into the Olympic season was “lights out,” and that nobody could score on her.

“I don’t really care if they have a ponytail out the back of their helmet or not,” Dineen said. “That’s a really enjoyable experience to be a coach who gets to work with people that want to be as good as they can be.”

Women’s hockey has grown in the past 10 years. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the number of registered female players worldwide grew from 153,665 to 170,872 from 2007-2010. The most recent numbers from Hockey Canada and USA Hockey show that in 2012, those numbers had surpassed 87,000 and 65,000 in the two countries.

But female players and coaches alike agree that women’s hockey, especially at the professional level, is not as valued as men’s. Melody Davidson, the head of Hockey Canada’s women’s programs, said whether women and men will ever exist on an equal playing field is the “crystal ball question.” In an email, she said: “to get to [that place] involves a complete change in how society view and values women in sport. This is not easily achieved. It is not impossible, but it is a slow road.”

Terry Crisp, a former coach of Tampa Bay during Rheaume’s NHL debut and a current color commentator for the Nashville Predators, said that at the end of the day, hockey players are competing for a job; nothing is going to get handed to them at the professional level, regardless of gender.

“Respect will be given to [Szabados] the same as any other player, and she will earn it,” Crisp said. “There will be no, ‘as a lady we will turn the other cheek.’”

For women who have witnessed first hand what it means to compete in a man’s world, congratulatory – albeit pragmatic – words are being offered to Szabados. Erin Whitten-Hamlen, who recently became the first female head coach of the Merrimack College women’s hockey team, said it was fun to hear of someone joining the “sorority.”

“Not to diminish what [Manon and I] did, but there was a cloud over us. We held our own, but I think nowadays, programs would be apt to take players at this day and age that can keep up with the physical side of the game,” Hamlen said. “Shannon has got size and strength to her, a lot of qualities that are consistent with male goalies.”

So far, goaltending has been the path to the pros for female hockey players, and advocates of the sport think more should be done for all women in hockey. Roxanne Gaudiel, a former goaltender at Princeton, said part of the problem lies in the lack of leagues and ice time afforded to women. Her company, Athletes Only, is working to bring a professional team to New York City under the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the closest thing to the NHL for women.

Shannon wants a career as a professional goaltender. (Photo: The Ledger-Enquirer)

Shannon wants a career as a professional goaltender. (Photo: The Ledger-Enquirer)

There’s also the issue of the gender barrier both on the ice and in the locker rooms, when discussing the question of women eventually playing against men. Many youth programs are co-ed until age 14 when checking is introduced. At that point, many girls decide to switch to an all female league, of which there are far fewer than male, to avoid being hit by bigger and stronger bodies. The pressure continues in the form of mental strength and focus. Linda Hayes, who has played for the Brooklyn Blades for 15 years, said every woman she knows who has played at Chelsea Piers in New York City has been looked at as the weakest player on the ice, simply because of her gender.

Szabados experienced this first hand playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey league. At 16, she said, she was constantly berated with sexist remarks at an away game when she was the only female player on the ice. By the time she was 20, her coach stopped playing her at that rink in Drayton Valley, Alberta, because the taunts had gotten so bad.

“Growing up playing guys hockey, I grew to come to expect it…and quite frankly, I expected it when it came to this league too,” she said. “When I played junior, it was probably 50/50 negative responses to positive, and that was 10 years ago. Here, it’s been 99 percent positive, that I’ve seen anyway.”

Andrew Loewen, the Cottonmouths’ starting goaltender, said the team is committed to protecting Shannon both on the ice and off. He expected she would want to be treated just like another member of the team, but the big brother-little sister relationship would be there, he said, laughing.

Bechard said Szabados earned the job over first year goaltender Martin Curtis, who still needed to work on his game. Bechard also said he is not worried about is Szabados’ ability to bond with the team. Cottonmouths’ captain and defenseman Kyle Johnson, defenseman Andy Willigar and forward Jordan Draper all played with Shannon in Alberta, Canada, and vouched for her ability.

Szabados’ debut was met with a lot of media attention and optimism from fans and teammates alike, even though the team lost the first two games in which she played. Head coach Mike Craigen of the Knoxville Ice Bears, Szabados’ first opponent, said in an email that his team tested her early to see what her ability was like, and that she gave Columbus a chance to win. She said she was prepared for the worst – negative reactions and nerves included – but the response has been positive.

“I would’ve loved it if I could’ve just come here, played, and not worried about doing interviews and taking pictures,” she said. “But obviously, I don’t mind doing it if it means opening up some doors for future generations and making people realize that females can play on a male team, whether it’s hockey or any other sport, or business, or anything in the world.”

Don't tell Shannon the Olympic win was an upset. (Photo: CBC.ca)

Don’t tell Shannon the Olympic win was an upset. (Photo: CBC.ca)

Combs said the SPHL would be open to offering training camp and three-game tryouts to a female forward or defenseman if she proved to have the ability. Gaudiel said she thinks Szabados’ signing will be mostly “a cool little asterisk in women’s hockey to come.”

The Cottonmouths had a lot of turnover this year with more than half of the roster first-year professional players. Bechard was happy to make Szabados a worthy backup for Loewen, who was the league runner-up in shutouts (6) and wins (21) in 28 games played. Though she probably won’t see much action in the playoffs, Szabados said she was just happy to be joking around with the guys on the bus, in the locker room and on the ice, just like any other teammate.

“One of the guys came up to me and said after warm-up and before we were going to be introduced for [my first] game, ‘You know Shannon, at the end of the day, we all tie our skates the same,’” she said. “That was the perfect thing he could’ve said to me.”

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