EDMONTON – Look at those eyes. Shannon Szabados can’t keep them on the ice or even straight ahead.
They keep wandering, drifting high into the rafters, where the scoreboard clock is hanging and silently ticking away amid the deafening ruckus, the mad, deep-throated cheering and the swinging, swaying Canadian flags.
A year after leading the Canadian women’s hockey team to a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics, Szabados said she watches the clock a lot. But with her team up 2-0, she kept saying to herself, ‘All right, let’s just get to the five-minute mark.’
Then it was four minutes. Three …
“It’s funny all the things that go through your mind,” Szabados said.
“After the five-minute mark, I really watched the clock a lot. I do that a lot anyway. But when it got to five minutes I thought, ‘It’s OK, we’re good.’ ”
And then, her eyes now the size of the pucks she kept turning aside – less than half a dozen seconds to play, the American net empty – Hayley Wickenheiser, the veteran Canadian leader, turned away from the play and started celebrating, heading straight to Szabados.
“I looked around and one of the American girls was coming over the blue line. I tried to get back in my stance and save it. But Wick, she was jumping on me,” Szabados recalled as if it all had happened just a minute ago and not after the lapse of a full year.
Fortunately, the shot sailed just wide, preserving Szabados’s shutout, giving Canada the gold in a 2-0 final in a game watched by hundreds of millions across the globe.
Instantly, Szabados found herself on the bottom of a rising heap of frenzied, screaming Team Canada players.
The 23-year-old Edmonton netminder had stopped all 28 shots fired her way. It was one of the finest goaltending performances in the history of women’s hockey.
Twice she had held the metal-and-twine fort on five-on-three American advantages to win the gold medal. Once, at 18:48 of the second period, she had made one of the best saves in international hockey when she whirled and threw her glove hand behind her, denying what looked like a sure goal.
All this from a young netminder who didn’t even know she was going to play in the tournament, let alone the gold-medal game, what with proven goalies Kim St. Pierre and Charline Labonté ready and willing.
And yet, neither those final seconds nor any of her 28 saves are what Szabados remembers when asked to recall the defining moments of her Olympic adventure.
No, the freeze-frame pause of time Szabados remembers the most was a simple walk back to her room in the athlete’s village.
“You could tell which was the Canadian building because there were two hockey nets set up in the lobby. But one day I came back from buying some souvenirs in the village store and the nets were gone.
“I wondered where they could have gone. Why were they gone?”
Szabados got in the elevator and pressed the ninth-floor button.
Two floors away, Szabados was already hearing the reason.
“The doors opened and the nets were on the floor and a game of mini-stick hockey was taking place between Kevin Martin’s curling team and our girls.
“They had just started playing and said they needed another player so I jumped right in.”
It was supposed to be a friendly little game. But put a bunch of athletes together and the competition level soars.
“John Morris slashed me on the finger and drew blood,” she said of Martin’s third.
“Ben Hebert elbowed Meaghan Mikkelson and bloodied her nose,” she said of Martin’s lead and her teammate.
Fun and games, Olympic style.
And where was Szabados playing?
“Forward,” she said. “I never play in net unless it’s hockey on ice. I hate playing in goal any other time. I want to score.
“I don’t like playing goal in ball hockey. I actually suck because it’s not the same movement. I don’t like playing goal in soccer because I’m afraid of the ball.”
But Szabados, the regular goalie for the Grant MacEwan University Griffins, said that’s not all that unusual.
“You put any goalie into a situation where they don’t have to play goal and they don’t want to. You just have to look at men’s beer-league games. The goalies never play in the net. They always want to play forward. I’m the same way.”
Playing mini-stick hockey, meeting other athletes – “just being a spectator” – those were the real highlight of the Games for her.
“I got to hang out with Sidney Crosby. I got to watch the men’s curling final, the men’s hockey final. Those are my favourite memories.”
Just being Shannon Szabados, the person, not Shannon Szabados, all-star goalie. Just like she had always wanted to be when she was playing at Grant MacEwan or in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Not the “girl” goalie everyone called her, but just a goalie. Just a hockey player. Just a human being, albeit a very special one.
Until the Olympics, that never happened.
When she became the first female to play in a Western Hockey League game – suiting up for the Tri-City Americans – Bob Tory, the Americans’ general manager, had to defend himself against accusations he was just pulling some kind of publicity stunt.
When her AJHL games took her to Drayton Valley in 2007, when she led the league with a 2.13 goals-against average, there was a blockhead who would fill the cold arena air with an even colder blue streak of profanities.
Even when she was 15, as the first female to play in Calgary’s Mac’s AAA midget hockey tournament, she played mostly against 16- and 17-year-old boys. Szabados made 34 saves in one game and the headline the next day was The Goalie With the Long Ponytail.
In Vancouver, she recalled, “the 12th floor, the top floor of our building, was the athlete’s lounge. There was a big-screen TV and lots of snack foods like cereal, popcorn and granola bars. There was a Ping-Pong table, beanbag chairs. And it had Internet access. It was always packed.
“We were always there watching other people’s races or events. Those were great times.”
It wasn’t until the night before the gold-medal game that Szabados was informed she was starting.
St. Pierre was a winner of 24 games for Team Canada at world championships and the Olympics. Labonté started ahead of St. Pierre in the 2006 Turin Games gold-medal game. Szabados was by far the youngest.
So nothing was a given.
“We played 55 games leading up to the Olympics and the three of us had split the year,” said Szabados, who didn’t play the first game of the Olympic tournament. “I kind of had an idea but Mel (head coach Davidson) likes to keep things quiet.”
When Szabados got the word, she went back to her room, where her four roommates were waiting.
“Everybody got all excited, then all the other girls started to come in. I was trying to stay calm but … ”
Szabados said she hardly slept.
“It felt like the night before Christmas morning. You just can’t wait to wake up.”
After the game, in which Marie-Philip Poulin, 18, got both goals, came another special moment: the presentation of the medals, the singing of the national anthem, the realization that, “Oh, wow, we really did it. All the hard work, all we went through that year, finally paid off.
“Standing there with your teammates, the Canadian flag being raised. … That was a very proud moment.”
Since the Games, life has pretty much returned to normal for Szabados, who backstopped Canada to a 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. in the 4 Nations Cup in November.
“Yes and no,” she said. “I’m also doing some public speaking, especially at schools. I tell them that every player on the national team either graduated or is attending a college or university.
“I got to present an award at the Canadian Country Music Awards. I spoke the other night at a financial executives international dinner gala. I tell them about my Olympic experiences and what I went through.”
Szabados also got an e-mail from a mother whose daughter plays boys hockey.
“I was able to share some advice and share some of my experiences.”
But there’s one thing Szabados can’t tell them about and it seems to be the one thing everyone wants to know: the infamous cigars and beers on the ice after the game.
Szabados can’t tell them because she wasn’t there. “As soon as I stepped off the ice, a lady took me by the arm and told me I had to go with her for drug testing. It took about an hour. While the rest of the girls were in the dressing room and then back on the ice with the cigars one of the girls’ dads had brought, I was walking down a ramp in skate guards, still in my full equipment and then waiting in the drug testing area.
“I never got to have a cigar. Or a beer.”
It was also four hours before Szabados could get together to celebrate with her mom, dad, fiancé, her best friend, her best friend’s fiancé and her grandmother and grandfather.
“An hour for the drug testing, then we had to go to CTV for interviews, then to Hockey House.”
Unlike the final five minutes of the gold-medal game, unlike the year that has swept by, those moments didn’t pass nearly as quickly.
But still the days rush by. Szabados is now in her third year of a combined education and physical education degree at MacEwan.
“I’m back in school, back playing hockey. Trying to earn some money. I go to school from 9 to 3 and then I’m at the rink from 4:30 to 8 p.m. By the time I get home, it’s around 9 p.m. and I do my homework. Then the next day I do it all over again.”
With three years to go until the next Olympics, Szabados will now be watching the calendar, not the ticking clock.