Shannon Szabados is coming in a little bit older, more mature, wiser and,
what might be scariest to her opponents, better.
The 30-year-old Edmonton native is back with Canada’s National Women’s
Team. And the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship is Szabados’ first major
international event since backstopping Canada to a gold medal at the 2014
Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Szabados has spent a good chunk of the past three years playing in the
men’s game with the Southern Professional Hockey League, playing with the
Columbus Cottonmouths and Peoria Rivermen. She recorded some firsts along
the way, like becoming the first female player in SPHL history and becoming
the first female goaltender to record a professional shutout, when she
blanked the Huntsville Havoc on Dec. 26, 2015.
She returned to the Canadian crease in the two-game December Series against
the U.S., but for many fans, the 2017 women’s worlds will be their first
time seeing Szabados since the thrilling 3-2 overtime win over the
Americans in the gold medal game in Sochi.
“Hopefully a lot of the same things,” Szabados says when asked what fans
can expect from her in Plymouth. “Being a little bit older, I have learned
to control my game a little bit more and be a little more ... I don’t know
if patience is the right word … but probably more controlled. I want to
bring a lot of same things that I tried to bring in Sochi and Vancouver (at
the 2010 Olympics) and that’s kind of a calming presence on the ice and
playing well under pressure.”
Playing under pressure is certainly part of the Szabados persona. In
Vancouver, she earned a shutout as Canada blanked the Americans 2-0 and,
four years later, the U.S. took a 2-0 lead early in the third period before
Szabados closed the door from there, allowing her teammates to storm back
and win it in overtime.
No stage seems too large, no situation too stressful for Szabados.
And, at 30, she seems well aware that representing Canada on the world
stage isn’t going to be an option forever.
“Stepping away for a while, you kind of come to appreciate putting that
jersey on, not that I ever did take it for granted,” she says. “But being
away for so long makes you feel like a kid again; to get that jersey back
on and get to be around the girls again is one of the biggest things. The
atmosphere in the dressing room, the excitement that they bring and just
being around them again is fun.”
But it hasn’t been only her work on the ice that gets noticed. Szabados has
become a leader in the dressing room and spends plenty of time giving back
to the game, knowing full well she’s a role model to thousands of young
female hockey players.
Szabados travels to minor hockey rinks, schools, community halls and other
locations to speak to young players about her experiences in the game.
“I went and spoke with two different groups recently; there was provincials
in Leduc and I drove right from there to Killam and did a provincials there
and got to speak to over 500 girls within that one day,” says Szabados. “It
was a pretty long day, about 13 hours from the time I left the house until
the time I got back but it was definitely worth it to see all the girls.
“It’s important, especially in this day and age, they’re so good with
social media so seeing all the pictures afterwards, they’re tweeting me or
commenting on Instagram and being able to reply back to them is huge and it
gives you that closeness.”
And it’s not only young athletes that benefit from Szabados’ experience and
advice. She’s involved in GGSU, a goaltender resource centre that began as
a Facebook group and grew into an online community of over 20,000 goalies.
GGSU hosts annual Legends Camps that give amateur goalies a chance to get
on the ice with NHLers like Scott Darling (Chicago), Garret Sparks
(Toronto) and Mike Condon (Ottawa), along with Szabados, who is one of the
main draws of the camps. This year, GGSU will visit Toronto, Chicago and
California for four camps.
“It’s a camp for teens to 65-year-olds,” says Szabados. “We have guys out
there who can barely skate but they just absolutely love the game or it
might be their first time putting on pads so there’s a good variety. We
have a ton of pro guys who come out and have a blast to give back to the
game. That’s why we play – because we love it.”
Right now, though, the focus is on another gold medal. Szabados and Team
Canada open the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship on Friday against –
who else – their archrivals from the United States. Canada faces Finland on
Saturday and Russia on Monday before the medal round begins.