Two-time Olympic medallist Shannon Szabados is used to facing shots in men’s leagues this time of year. Now, the veteran goaltender is perfectly happy competing against women.
“I loved my time playing men’s hockey,” Szabados said. “I don’t know at 32 that a 65-game schedule is what my body needs.”
Szabados has been the go-to goaltender for the Canadian women’s team in many world and Olympic finals since 2010. Now, she’s part of Canada’s team for the Four Nations Cup tournament, an annual event that also includes the United States, Sweden and Finland.
Szabados has spent the majority of her hockey career in men’s leagues, starting with exhibition games for WHL’s Tri-City Americans at age 16 to full seasons in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference and the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Any sustained time in the women’s game came in the winters she spent centralized with the Canadian team in Calgary preparing for Olympic Games.
Many factors behind decision
Her physical needs, personal life and geography factored into the 32-year-old from Edmonton signing with the Buffalo Beauts of the five-team National Women’s Hockey League.
Lorain, just west of Cleveland, Ohio, is the hometown of her partner Carl Nielsen and where Szabados wanted to move after February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“First and foremost, the decision was based on him having a good job there,” she explained. “They’ve had a jewelry store in their family for almost 400 years, so it was important for him to be there.”
Now, she’s become very familiar with Interstate 90, and the 700-kilometre round trip from Lorain to Buffalo, New York, that she makes twice a week to play and practise with the Beauts.
“Exit 27, that’s my go-to. On the way to Buffalo, there’s a Shell and a Tim Hortons,” she said Thursday at the Four Nations Cup tournament.
Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, purchased the Beauts in 2017.
“It’s kind of a huge step for women’s hockey,” Szabados said. “A lot of our staff overlap. Our media staff, one guy puts on his Sabres jacket and then he puts on his Beauts jacket.
“We get first-class treatment all around as far as facilities and how we’re treated.”
Szabados injured ligaments in her left knee toward the end of her second season with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2016.
Injuries also limited her to a handful of games with the Canadian women during their 2017-18 prep for Pyeongchang.
Szabados’ body is among top priorities
But Szabados stopped 40 of 42 shots, including nine in overtime, in the Olympic final. The U.S. prevailed in a six-round shootout to claim gold.
Szabados became tearful after the game while talking about injuries that sidelined her for much of the season.
A healthy body that can extend her career is a priority for her now.
“I knew if I wanted to continue … I didn’t have the healthiest of years last year, so it was important for me to be somewhere where I could be back to being 100 per cent,” Szabados said.
“Being on the ice seven days a week for hours upon hours and getting running over by 200-pound men was probably not the ideal situation for me health-wise. I miss it, but I enjoy where I’m at.”
In 64 games for Canada, Szabados ranks second all-time in wins (47) and shutouts (17), behind Kim St. Pierre, who has 64 wins and 29 shutouts.
Szabados made 27 and 28 saves in the 2014 and 2010 Olympic women’s finals, respectively, on the way to the gold medal.
She is the first player from Canada’s national team to play in the NWHL. Szabados is 1-2 for the Beauts this season with a goals-against average of 1.67 and a save percentage of .938.
U.S. women’s team forward Dani Cameranesi and defender Emily Pfalzer are her Beauts teammates.
How long Szabados will tend net is a year-to-year decision.
She echoes players in both the NWHL and Canadian Women’s Hockey League in wishing for a merger of the two leagues.
“I think women’s hockey is kind of at an exciting point right now,” Szabados said. “I would regret it if I didn’t stick around to see where it goes.”