SPHL stint for Shannon Szabados continues proud legacy of female athletes breaking barriers

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.

Shannon Szabados follows momentum of gold medal triumph by practicing with Edmonton Oilers

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.