The city of Columbus, Georgia is nestled on the border of Alabama and is home to some 200,000 people. This sweltering town is a far cry from the oft-frozen prairies of Edmonton Alberta where a young woman named Shannon Szabados calls home. You may have heard of Shannon, for those who follow the Winter Olympic religiously her name sticks out as the back to back gold medalist for Canada’s Women’s team. At 5’9” Szabados fits in well among the ranks of the top female hockey stars in the world, but her aspirations are set much higher. Her career has been breaking boundaries before she ever captured gold. In 2002 at the age of 16 Szabados became the first ever woman to play in the Western Hockey League, a junior league for players aged 15-20, when she started for the Tri-City Americans in an exhibition game. Because of this however Szabados was unable to compete in NCAA hockey, so Shannon turned north. She would suit up for the men’s team at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta where she played 3 seasons.
Moving on from college Shannon would begin a stellar international career. In her two Winter Olympic appearances she has captured the gold twice, an excellent record by anyone’s standards. She has also competed in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championships, along with the Air Canada Cup and the 4 Nations Cup(2 long standing Women’s tournaments). In 15 tournaments internationally Shannon has won 9 gold medals and 6 silver, and has never placed lower than silver medal.
On March 7, 2014 Shannon would ink a deal with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League, a single “A” level minor league which feeds players up the ranks of the minors with the eventual goal of making it to the National Hockey League. She would finish out the season with Columbus and become the first woman to play in the SPHL. She would only play in 2 games during the remainder of the season, losing both contests, but allowing only 7 goals on 59 shots in the 2 games. She would continue the next season as the backup goalie and on November 21st, 2014, Szabados would make 34 saves as her team defeated the Fayetteville Fireantz 5-4 in overtime to make her the first woman to win a game in the league. An interesting note in that game was that two women, Katie Guay and Erin Blair, were referees in the game. This was not the first time female officials have been used but it is something the league is considering continuing in the future.
For Szabados, Guay, and Blair, they are talented, dedicated, and tough athletes and their knowledge and dedication to the sport have earned them a chance to prove themselves in what is traditionally, an exclusively male world. Ice hockey is a sport dominated by tradition and history, and to many purists the simple suggestion of changing the sport is met with hostility. As a professional hockey broadcaster I have experienced live in the minor leagues. 64 hours on a bus with no heat in the dead of January playing 4 games in 5 days in 3 different states. This is just a taste of life as a minor leaguer, not to mention the crude jokes, pranks, hazing, and general shenanigans that go along with a team filled with men in their 20s and 30s playing a game for a living. Putting aside the brash humor one can’t leave out the parties which put even the biggest and wildest fraternities to shame, and add in the smell of damp and drying gear which pervades almost every aspect of hockey life, one cannot imagine anyone wanting to live and play in such conditions. It is this which makes Shannon Szabados such a special player. She puts up with the travel and the wild teammates and most importantly she holds her own on the ice. In 19 games this season Shannon has a 10-8-1 record with a 3.16 Goals Against Average and a .906 save percentage. She even has assisted on a goal this season( a rare feat for goalies) and has earned her spot as a solid backup for her team. As the sport continues to grow we may see more like Shannon who throw themselves head first into men’s professional sports and come out proving that maybe in the future hockey isn’t just about the boys.