In reflecting on Shannon Szabados becoming the third female goaltender to practice with an NHL franchise (the others being Manon Rheaume with Tampa Bay and Kim St. Pierre for Montreal), the reality is that this was truly a missed opportunity. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that it has happened twice to Szabados.
After leading the Canadian national women’s team to the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (its first on home soil), there was an opportunity for the Edmonton Oilers to step up and do the right thing. Szabados, who lives near Edmonton, deserved to become the first woman to actually suit up for an NHL regular season game.
Considering that the Edmonton Oilers were one of the worst franchises during the 2009-10 season, the inclusion of Szabados as an emergency goaltender would have been a defining moment in franchise history, let along female hockey history. With Oilers backstop Devan Dubnyk forced to sit out a game in March 2010 due to a case of the flu, the club required an emergency goaltender.
Rather than give the opportunity to a deserving Szabados, the franchise called on Nathan Deobald, a goaltender competing in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) play with the University of Calgary. Serving as the backup for Jeff Deslauriers, it provided Deobald with a unique hockey experience, although he does not deserve to be blamed for the Oilers not making the decision to call hometown hero Szabados. Afterwards, a piece was written online in support of Szabados.
Sadly, history repeated itself twice in the most ironic fashion. Fast forward four years later; Szabados has come off a second consecutive gold medal with the Canadian team. A key contributor to the squad’s success at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, it raised the profile of Szabados as the world’s finest female goaltender.
Having made a trade for Anaheim goaltender Viktor Fasth, the Oilers were in need of an emergency backstop for its contest on March 4. With the opportunity to redeem themselves for its grievous error of 2010, the hapless franchise maintained its streak of ineptitude by calling on another goaltender from the CIS (competing with the University of Alberta) to fill its goaltending vacancy.
An outpouring of support for Szabados from social media forced the Oilers to see the error of their ways. On the website Twitter, the hashtag #SzabadosForBackup became a hot trend. The following day, the Oilers called on Szabados to serve as a goaltender at practice. While it may be compensation, it is far from being admittance.
While Oilers captain Andrew Ference had nothing for praise for Szabados on social media, even insisting that she be allowed to use the team’s locker room to change, officials could have emulated his leadership. After practice, Oilers officials stated that due to the NHL Trade Deadline, they were too busy to address Szabados. The writing was definitely on the wall with that statement.
As the first female goaltender to compete in the Western Hockey League (ironically, Carey Price, the goalie of the men’s gold medal winning team in Sochi was her teammate in the WHL), Szabados deserved the chance to be the Oilers emergency goalie. Based on the great hockey legacy she has carved in Western Canada, it would have been her crowning achievement. Although it is not the job of the Oilers players to stick up for her, it would be a kind gesture if some of the veteran players recommended her again in future.
Although it would not be fair comment to accuse the NHL of not supporting women’s hockey, the reality is that a lot more can be done. Not only is it a moral issue, but it is about serving as a responsible corporate citizen. Considering that the NFL has a task force to ensure that visible minorities are given equitable treatment, especially in coaching opportunities, the NHL must employ the same approach with opportunities for women in hockey.
From coaching and management perspectives, women have been sadly neglected in hockey. Despite the great steps taken in broadcasting, it is not enough. If the Oilers were to employ Szabados as a practice goalie year-round (perhaps an extreme concept for some fans), it would be a positive step in the right direction. Considering that the American Hockey League has always been used as a proving ground for rule changes, which may prove to be the most ideal way to give more women a chance to shatter the glass ceiling of equality in hockey.
The use of Szabados as a goaltender at Oilers practice on March 5 must set a precedent for such a movement. While women’s hockey players and fans rejoiced in her opportunity, the truth is that it is but a small victory which had the potential to be much larger. Going forward, there is an opportunity to build on that victory.
Considering that the NFL is starting to market its game and products towards female fans, the NHL must realize that it must to do the same in order to not only maintain its fan base, but promote positive growth. The dedication and professionalism of women in hockey, such as Szabados, would help to inject new life into a sport where the presence of its female stars shall only continue to increase.