Saturday, 8 March 2014

Backstopping The Boys

While her practice with the Edmonton Oilers went well, it appears that Oilers GM Craig MacTavish was slow on the uptake in signing gold medalist Shannon Szabados to a contract. Like the picture to the left, Szabados should be grinning from ear to ear as she'll suit up in the SPHL with the Columbus Cottonmouths to finish off the season, and I'm pretty sure she'll do well there. While it's not an NHL job, it's still a chance for Szabados to prove that she belongs because she's good enough to play.

I want to get the elephant in the middle of the room out of the way early in this piece, so let's strip down the garbage about Shannon Szabados being a woman. Her gender shouldn't prevent her from playing anywhere. Goaltending is a skill and isn't necessarily reflective of a him-vs-her discussion. If she were a forward or a defenceman, there might be some concern about her getting injured from a thunderous bodycheck, but goaltending doesn't really have that physical edge where the goalie risks getting crunched against the boards. It could happen, and I won't discount that, but the act of it happening is rare. So let's cut the crap about how girls shouldn't play men's hockey. The Cottonmouths think she's good enough to play, and that should be more than enough for the rest of us thinking she's good enough to play. Ok? Ok.

Szabados will join the Cottonmouths on March 12, and will be available to tend the nets for Columbus for the team's final five games of the season. If, or more realistically when, she steps onto the ice for the Cottonmouths, Szabados will become the first women to play in the SPHL. From the way Cottonmouths head coach Jerome Bechard is talking, he's going to give Szabados every opportunity to succeed.

"I am very excited to get a world-class athlete that has competed and has faced high-pressured situations," Columbus coach Jerome Bechard said. "Shannon has won at every level she has played, in women's hockey or men's hockey. She won a championship with NAIT last year alongside Andy Willigar and Jordan Draper, so I know she can compete at this level. We are working on her immigration and we are looking to sign her officially Thursday where she will be backing up Loewen. She will play when she feels comfortable and situated."

And so it begins for the 27 year-old Szabados. While no one is expecting her to pitch shutouts every night for the Cottonmouths, there is an expectation that she will compete with starter and Winnipegger Andrew Loewen for playing time. Knowing how much of a competitor she is, Szabados will take this opportunity seriously. Like Bechard stated, she's been a winner at every level she's played at, and a large part of that time has seen he play with men's teams exclusively.

Szabados played for Sherwood Park, Bonneyville, and Fort Saskatchewan during four years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, being was named as the league's top goaltender in 2007 after backstopping the Fort Saskatchewan Traders to a league-best record of 45-11-0-4. Her stats? A 2.13 GAA and a .919 save percentage. No male goaltender was even close to her sparkling numbers. She jumped from the AJHL to collegiate-level hockey, playing for the Grant MacEwan University Griffins men's team in the Alberta Collegiate Athletics Conference - similar to Division-II hockey in the NCAA. Szabados was registered for a third year at Grant MacEwan to pick up a few extra courses and play the 2011-12 season with the men's Griffins hockey squad, but circumstances changed.

In the summer, NAIT had a goaltender who they had pegged as their starting netminder for the foreseeable future when this goalie grabbed an opportunity to play semi-pro in the United States. Needing a potential starting goaltender that late into the summer, the heat was on NAIT head coach Serge Lajoie to find a replacement. Because coaches cannot "poach" players from another ACAC team, Lajoie needed a solution fast. NAIT players Steel Boomer and Jordan Draper, who skated with Szabados in the summer, began planting the seed of joining the Ooks as their number-one goaltender in Szabados head with suggestions they could use her talents.

Whatever Boomer and Draper said seemed to work as Szabados enrolled in NAIT's two-year Personal Fitness Trainer program with her sights set on playing with the men's hockey team. Lajoie, to his credit, wanted Szabados to come in and force the play of his current goaltenders to be better by creating a little competition in the crease. After a 1-0 loss to the Alberta Golden Bears men's team and getting praise from the NCAA's University of ALaska-Anchorage Seawolves in an exhibition game, the decision to keep and start Szabados was an easy one for Lajoie.

While NAIT didn't win anything in 2011-12 in her first season with the Ooks, she and her teammates turned the program around as the Ooks went from also-rans to contenders. The Ooks followed that season with an impressive 2012-13: the NAIT Ooks won their first championship in sixteen years! Szabados was instrumental in the Ooks' resurgence as she stopped 30 of 31 shots in the final game, and set a league record in for the lowest goals-against average through the regular season at 1.58!

Szabados, of course, would be a major part of the 2014 Canadian Olympic team as well. She backstopped Canada to another gold medal in Sochi, and part of that can be attributed to her experience at NAIT. "It's always special when you have that connection," said Serge Lajoie, coach of the NAIT men’s hockey team, told Dave Lazzarino of the Edmonton Sun "As a coaching staff, right or wrong, we allow ourselves to have a little sense of pride maybe that we were able to play a part in her preparation for this Olympics."

To show her appreciation and solidarity with her teammates at NAIT, Szabados had an owl with outspread wings and words "Fly Together" painted on the back plate of her mask. The motto is that of the NAIT Ooks! Unfortunately, the IOC ruled that the "Fly Together" message is a slogan, and needed to be removed. "The 'fly together' will have to be covered up," Szabados stated. "I didn't know at the time. When they came back with it, they said it was a slogan. I'll just put some tape over that."

Getting back to the Cottonmouths, it's clear they are getting a goaltender, not just some publicity stunt. Szabados, as Bechard said above, is getting a winner and an exceptional netminder who has not only won at every level of men's hockey she has played, but has developed into one of those leagues' best goaltenders in her time spent there. While a five-game season is far from enough time to develop a reputation in the SPHL, it is enough for her to lay the groundwork for the Cottonmouths - or any other hockey team - to consider her employment long-term.

And perhaps this opens the door for more teams to consider the elite female goaltenders as a viable option for goaltending woes. Noora Raty has already stated that she's seeking an opportunity with a professional men's team, so if Shannon Szabados is successful with Columbus, what would stop another SPHL team from considering Noora Raty?

Look, I get that the Columbus Cottonmouths are a minor-league team and a pile of people will simply say that this move is nothing more than a minor-league gimmick. I will point out that the Cottonmouths are in seventh-place in the ten-team SPHL, though, so they have little to lose in trying to improve their goaltending situation with an Olympic gold medalist. Who cares that she's a woman? If she wins games for the Cottonmouths, that's all that matters. And the Cottonmouths found themselves a winner in Shannon Szabados.

Fans love nothing more than a winning team. Regardless of the gender of the goaltender.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: