Shannon Szabados a hit in SPHL
These are the best moments. Well, other than hanging with your teammates in the locker room and laughing on the bus. It's the one guy in the crowd of autograph seekers hanging back in doubt.
You never know what he's thinking. But once in a while, as Shannon Szabados found out recently, you win him over. And if you're really lucky, you get a laugh at the same time.
"I met him after our game in Huntsville and took a picture with him," Szabados, the goaltender for the Columbus Cottonmouths and the first female player in the 10-year history of the Southern Professional Hockey League, said of one fan. "Then, the other day he tweeted, 'I hated you a month ago. You ruined my life . . . Now a big fan. Thanks for the photo.' "
Szabados is as big a celebrity as Columbus, Ga., generally sees on a regular and up-close basis. But that doesn't necessarily mean the fans there were expecting to love her.
As hockey fans, most were well aware that the player who was to join the local team in one of five minor professional hockey leagues in North America was a Canadian hero, the two-time Olympic gold medal-winning goalie fresh off her country's overtime victory over a heartbroken U.S. women's team in Sochi.
"I had no idea what to expect when I came here," said Szabados, who has 59 saves and seven goals allowed in two games (.894 save percentage) since her March 15 debut. "I thought they wouldn't be too keen on me, but they've been awesome and not one team has said one thing negative. Four to five guys have come up and congratulated me on the gold medal."
At 27, the 5-foot-10, 140-pound native of Edmonton, Alberta, is careful in discussing her NHL expectations. The closest any woman has come to the big leagues was when Manon Rheaume, Canada's 1998 Olympic silver-medal women's goalie, played in NHL exhibition games in '92 and '93 for Tampa Bay in addition to 24 minor league games.
"I'm really not sure," Szabados said when asked about the possibility of one day playing in the NHL. "Probably as any hockey player that plays, your goal is to play at the highest level possible. So right now short term, I would love to come back here to Columbus next year and play, and who knows after that?"
Married to Alex Ritchie, a former junior goaltender, two years this June, Szabados said her husband is "awesome" in his support for her career.
"His comment to me [about pursuing pro hockey] when it was brought up was, 'Do it while we're still young,' " she said.
Eddie Olczyk, a longtime NHL player, U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and former head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, said that while it would be difficult for a woman skater to make it in the NHL, goaltending is different.
"It's certainly interesting to think about and digest when you look at the position," said Olczyk, now a commentator for NBC Sports and Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "Anything is possible and it is about winning. I don't know why it could not be a possibility if 'A' player is better than 'B' player and she happens to be female.
"Yes, it would be news and yes, it would be ground-shaking when it comes to a woman actually playing in an NHL game . . . but I've always felt our game is for the best and if a goaltender happens to be a female and your team is better because of [her], why not? Why not?"
Kyle Johnson, one of three Columbus teammates who have played with Szabados before, all in college at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, said he does not see the possibility of a woman in the NHL as far-fetched at all.
The thing I like about Shannon is people can have doubts all they want but as soon as you see her play, their doubts are immediately erased.Kyle Johnson, one of three Columbus teammates who played with Szabados in college
"I think it's definitely easier for a goalie," Johnson said. "There's no reason why a girl goalie couldn't play in the NHL. We joke about it all the time and she says that ship has probably sailed, but stranger things have happened. She's a great goalie and I'm sure she's inspired tons of younger goalies, too. In the future, it's definitely a possibility and there is absolutely no reason if anyone deserves, wherever it is, they [shouldn't] be there."
Szabados, whose Olympic experience was the only time she has not played with men in her hockey career, did not have to come into Columbus and prove her worth, said Columbus head coach and general manager Jerome Bechard.
"When I first talked to her, her main concern was not doing well," Bechard said. "I told her I wouldn't throw her to the wolves, that I would give her some time to feel comfortable. Then she gets here on a Wednesday and just because I think there were some naysayers who were saying, 'He's doing this just to put people in the building' -- and don't get me wrong, that was part of it -- I said, 'Look, you're going to have to play Saturday night whether you're prepared or not. But I think you're going to be all right. We're going to play hard in front of you.'
"I don't think I would take that risk if I didn't think she could do it. . . . The other thing I told her was this is not a tryout for next year. . . . I said, 'If that's what you choose to do, you'll have every opportunity to be here next year, too. So don't worry about not coming in here and doing well.' Once I told her that she was like, 'OK.' "
Once her teammates saw her in action, they were OK as well. Did some have their doubts initially, however?
"I'm 100 percent positive there was some of that," Johnson said, "but nobody shows it in the room because that just not the way things go in hockey. I'm sure people had their doubts and probably kept it to themselves. The thing I like about Shannon is people can have doubts all they want but as soon as you see her play, their doubts are immediately erased.
"It's kind of cool to see people not really change their minds but see how Shannon can prove herself and if they have doubts, there's not many more."
A big part of it, her teammates said, was how she handled the attention.
"She brings just a leadership quality to the team I haven't seen before in a lot of guys," Johnson said. "She's always in the media and always has so much stuff on the go and she always handles herself so well. Every day after practice, she has tons of fan mail she has to sign and send back. For all of us guys here, we don't get stuff like that. It's just cool to see how she deals with it on a daily basis.
"It brings a certain form of professionalism to the team that made me want us to get her down here."
Szabados, who often finds herself sharing her Olympic experiences with both teammates and opponents, and has brought her gold medal in to show teammates at their request, explains her acceptance by saying it's just the culture.
"Hockey players are more mature, more easy-going, respectful," she said.
Bechard agreed, saying, "Of all sports, our guys are really down to earth."
So much so, said Johnson, that there is a protectiveness that supersedes gender equality but is not uncommon when it comes to goalies.
Johnson said he was surprised that in Szabados' first game a tough-minded Knoxville team "didn't really do anything too cheap against her. . . . From a physical standpoint, maybe they were a little intimidated because we're basically like a bunch of big brothers ready to defend her at any moment," he said. "So any little thing, they better be ready to drop the gloves against us."
Johnson knew how his comments sounded. "I want to say I would treat it the same if someone [roughed up] my male starting goalie," he said. "I'd say I want to treat it the same, but in all honesty I'm pretty sure if anybody came close to a shot at her or did something to her, it would be lights out. I want to say it wouldn't be any different but it probably would be."
Despite having sore knees, a bad ankle, a bad hip and overall post-Olympic fatigue, Szabados said she wouldn't expect special treatment from anyone, least of all her opponents.
"I'd like to think they'd come at me like anybody else," she said. "If anything, maybe a little more because they know I'm a little smaller than most of the goalies in the league. I've been playing guys' hockey since I was 5 years old, so it's not anything I'm not used to."
Szabados said she "likes the challenge" of men's hockey but won't dis the women.
"I love both," Szabados said. "I love playing men's and women's. They are two completely different games and definitely different experiences, and different here in Columbus professionally.
"I spent the last five years playing on a men's college team so you'd have to do the whole school thing during the day and practice at night and games on weekends. Here you can focus more on just playing hockey, training and working toward that."
After just two weeks, including a first-round playoff series win over Peoria this past weekend in which the team's starting goalie, Andrew Loewen, played all three games, Szabados' teammates already feel comfortable teasing her when her autograph sessions delay the bus. They also assign her the same rookie duties, like picking up pucks after practice and packing the bus, as every other first-year grunt.
As far as the logistical arrangements, after the under-gear is put on, all the Columbus players share the same locker room.
"It's not an issue at all," Bechard said. "She has to feel part of the team. I'd feel uncomfortable if I got 17 guys in one room and she's in the other room feeling by herself. We have a 10-minute change rule . . . after that, she's just part of the team, playing kickball, Ping-Pong or whatever. It's pretty cool."
Szabados said she will be better for all of it.
"Absolutely, both on and off the ice I've learned a lot. It's been a great experience," she said. "The guys on my team are incredible. I can't say enough about them. Honestly, I feel like I've been here all year. They are so supportive.
"One of the things that stood out was before my first start, one of the guys on my team came up to me at the end of the [practice] and said, 'You know Shannon, we all tie our skates the same way.' I loved that. It was just what I needed."