In the last six months, female athletes have helped pioneer a revolution in the traditionally male dominated world of competitive sport. Devon Wills became the first female to be signed to a contract by a National Lacrosse League franchise (New York Lizards). Dr. Jen Welter, a two-time IFAF World Champion competed at the running back position for the Texas Revolution indoor football team.
The recently completed Columbus Cottonmouths hockey season featured female goaltending legend Shannon Szabados standing between the pipes for the club. Proudly following in the legacy of Wills and Welter, it would mark the fifth time that Szabados was involved in a league featuring men’s hockey.
As a teenager, Szabados competed in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) while her postsecondary career involved playing for the men’s team at Grant MacEwan College and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. In between, she would sandwich a stint with the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League (WHL). Ironically, one of her WHL teammates was Carey Price.
Both Szabados and Price were the winning goaltenders for Canada’s teams in ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
On the momentum of that memorable gold medal run at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Szabados would earn the opportunity of a lifetime. Participating at a March 5 practice with the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers was a dream come true for Szabados. Having grown up in northern Alberta, Szabados grew up as a fan of the club.
The outpouring of support on social media resulted in Szabados being offered the chance to compete for a club based out of Columbus, Ohio in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL). Generating interest from media outlets throughout North America, Szabados made her debut in a 4-3 loss to the Knoxville Ice Bears in front of 4,295 enthusiastic fans at the Columbus Civic Center.
She would post 27 saves in a valiant performance that saw Columbus enjoy a 2-1 lead in the first period, with the goal allowed by Szabados resulting in a shot deflected by a skate. Of note, Knoxville would score three unanswered goals in the second stanza as Columbus could not mount a comeback in the third.
Since Manon Rheaume broke the gender barrier in hockey in 1992, a small handful of women have managed to follow in her footsteps. Erin Whitten became the first female goaltender to participate in an American Hockey League game, while Danielle Dube competed with the San Diego Gulls. In later years, Kim St. Pierre would practice with the Montreal Canadiens while Hayley Wickenheiser competed in a men’s league in Finland.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Szabados’ journey with Columbus has been the support of other female athletes. Tennis legend Martina Navratolova praised her efforts on social media. She would finish her regular season in Columbus with an 0-2-0 record, 118 minutes of ice time, a 3.55 goals against average and 59 saves, complemented by a save percentage of .894%, respectively.
While Andrew Loewen was the starting goalie for the Cottonmouths during the regular season, the 27 year-old Szabados generated a positive energy for the franchise. With the squad qualifying for the President’s Club Finals for the third time in ten years, the chance of a title to complement her gold medal seemed highly possible.
The road to the title game for the sixth-seeded Cottonmouths began with the elimination of the third-seeded Peoria franchise.
Employing a never say die mentality, a semifinal sweep of Huntsville resulted in a date with the Pensacola Ice Flyers.
Unfortunately, winning would not be in the cards for Columbus but hockey history continued to be made for Szabados. With Pensacola setting a league record for most goals in a championship game with nine, Will Aide was the only player who got on the score sheet for Columbus in a 9-1 whitewashing on April 10. During the second period, Szabados relieved Loewen, becoming the first woman to appear in an SPHL postseason game. She would manage to stop nine of 12 shots as Ross McKinnon of Pensacola stopped 28 of 29 shots.
Becoming the first woman to play in the SPHL is another small victory in the dream that one day a female goaltender shall one day compete in the NHL. The positive feedback and amazing outpouring of support is testament to the kind of warm and friendly personality that Szabados has.