Shannon Szabados returned from Sochi after picking up her second gold medal for women’s hockey, tired but elated, and ready to hang up her skates for the summer and get on to other things. Instead, she ended up taking a call that kept her feet in the blades and marks the changing face of hockey.
Head coach, Jerome Bechard called to invite the Edmonton goalie to play for the Columbus Cottonmouths one of 10 professional teams in the 10-year organization, the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Szabados has played college hockey with three of the Cottonmouth players and feels that they have integral in setting this relationship in motion and expresses her excitement at how quickly it is all coming about. She felt that they might be interested in signing her for next year but the wheels are already turning for her to hit the ground running in the current season.
Her Olympic record has been a definitive attention grabber for the goalie, with highlights like the 27 saves she made in the winning overtime game that granted Canada the gold medal over their U.S. counterparts, defending their 2010 status where her 28-save shutout also pushed the Americans into the silver position.
Shannon has already hit the ice with the pros since her return, lacing up to join the Edmonton Oilers in practice last Wednesday to support them through a goalie shortage resulting from a delay on the trade of Viktor Fasth from Anaheim who was set to arrive soon. After taking a quick break post-Olympic action, she says she’ll have to settle in to a more regular physical routine of working out, banking ice time and getting regular sleep before she feels comfortable to be added to the game rotation in Columbus.
Coach Bechard says that she is free to play whenever she feels settled and comfortable. Based on feedback from other Cottonmouth players, he says that he knows she can compete at this level and as soon as she’s ready she’ll back up starting goalie, Winnipeg’s Andrew Loewen.
Szabados has played often alongside male teammates and she believes that her former fellow players, captain Kyle Johnson, forward Jordan Draper and defenceman Andy Willigar, will facilitate her transition into the Cottonmouth locker room. She shows no signs of concern, like a true pro.
With a record of 23-22-3, the Cottonmouths rank seventh in the league and are struggling to make the playoffs. If that does happen, particularly with Szabados in net at any time this season, it will create quite the buzz – Canadians will be elated, for one, but it will also have an impact on female players everywhere that they play hockey.
The biggest challenge for Columbus will be the Ice Flyers who are in first place with a roster packed with goal scorers. They are the league leaders in average shots per game and Szabados will face trial by fire if she suits up against them.
Flyers Coach Ron Aldoff says, he and his team welcome the addition and view it as being engaged as key players in changing the face of hockey. “For the (SPHL) and hockey all over the world, it might open the doors for more women, I don’t know,” Aldoff said. “If we are part of it,that will be great.”
Win or lose this season, Columbus is making a true mark on the sport of hockey. Whether Shannon can help to turn around the season for the Cottonmouths, her addition to the team will have a long-standing impact on the SPHL and for the future of women in hockey.