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Shannon Szabados, the two-time Canadian Olympic gold-medalist, is the first woman to play in the Southern Professional Hockey League. (Kevin Liles/The New York Times)
Shannon Szabados, the two-time Canadian Olympic gold-medalist, is the first woman to play in the Southern Professional Hockey League. (Kevin Liles/The New York Times)

Sochi star Shannon Szabados turns pro – in men’s league Add to ...

She likes to say there is nothing “weird” about her – nothing that would identify her as some eccentric, unfathomable hockey goaltender along the lines of Patrick Roy, who talked to his goalposts, or Glenn Hall, who threw up before each game, or Jacques Plante, who proudly knit his own underwear.

But how about this?

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On Friday, Shannon Szabados was named the starting goaltender for the Columbus Cottonmouths Saturday in the Southern Professional Hockey League – yet, she has no idea against whom she will be playing.

“I’m not sure,” she says over the telephone from Columbus, Ga. (Forgive her. It’s the Knoxville Ice Bears.)

It’s been that kind of month: Szabados came home to Edmonton from Sochi, Russia, with her second consecutive Olympic gold medal hanging about her neck.

Her next moment wearing the heavy pads and standing in a goal crease is against NHL stars Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at an Edmonton Oilers practice.

Then, she’s off to Columbus, where she signs a pro contract, gets a single practice in and then skates, just to get a feel for the Columbus Civic Center, in the warm-up before her new team’s game last Thursday against the league-leading Pensacola Ice Flyers. The Ice Flyers pound the “Snakes” 5-0 and, next thing she knows, she’s tapped to start against the Ice Bears.

But that’s not all. She hasn’t even unpacked her bags.

Her luggage was tossed into teammate Jordan Draper’s place and she’d come to practice Friday with Draper, Kyle Johnson and Andy Willigar, all former teammates from her Alberta college days who live next door to each other, and now all have gone home while she stays and chats on the phone.

She has no idea how she’ll get back, or even exactly where back is.

“It’ll all work out,” she says.

And why not? It always has.

Her parents, Sharyl and Gary, put her into minor hockey when she was 5.

She played with males from Day 1 and, intriguingly, in the more than two decades the 27-year-old goalie has played, she has never had her own dressing room – nor will she with the Snakes.

“I go into the washroom to put on my undergarments,” she says. And then dresses, chirps and laughs with her teammates until it is time to lead them out onto the ice. “I think that’s a huge part of being on a team.”

By 7, she had decided goal was for her. She spent her summers at a Sylvan Lake, Alta., goalie school run by former Oilers goaltender Bill Ranford.

She excelled at every level, playing junior hockey for the Sherwood Park Crusaders and then the Fort Saskatchewan Traders.

She easily made the men’s team at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (where she played with Draper, Johnson and Willigar).

It was Johnson, in fact, who pushed her résumé at Columbus head coach Jerome (Boom Boom) Bechard, who, given the fact he’d racked up nearly 2,000 minutes in penalties during his own minor-league career, could hardly have been expected to embrace such an idea. However, Johnson persisted and Bechard was open to the idea after seeing how well Szabados had done in Sochi.

“Maybe for me, it was a little bit selfish,” Johnson told The New York Times. “I want to win – and she’s won at every level she’s competed at. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she’s going to do well here.”

The publicity has been exceptional for the team and for a little-known, 10-year-old league with teams brandishing such monikers as Havoc, Surge, IceGators and FireAntz.

There is, of course, a thin line between publicity, which is welcomed, and publicity stunt, which is generally dismissed. Manon Rhéaume played an NHL exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, but it is today regarded as nothing but an attention ploy for the Lightning.

Szabados is acutely aware of the difference between attention and gimmick.

“It’s been 98-per-cent positive,” she says. “But, sometimes, I read or hear things. I’ve been dealing with this since I was 5.”

She handled the on-ice taunts from other players, the nasty shots from opposing coaches and enemy crowds.

She had one coach later tell her the organization had threatened to fire him if the girl goalie wasn’t sent packing. The coach refused, and stayed – in no small part because Szabados made the team better.

“They said it was a publicity stunt when I went to play junior,” she says. “I played five years.

“It’s something you never want to hear, but, hopefully, the good publicity will open doors for others in the future.”

She also sees Saturday’s start as being good for women’s hockey, which was threatened with expulsion from the Olympics after the lopsided results of the 2010 Vancouver Games, and which was given a welcome stamp of approval in Sochi by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel.

Finland and Russia showed progress in the women’s game.

Finnish goaltender Noora Raty, in fact, is now playing with a men’s second-tier team in her homeland.

Szabados hopes such inspiration will get more girls trying the game in other countries, as well as in Canada and the United States.

Right now, though, she has the present to deal with – a start for a team she has only just joined against a team she could not name.

The expectations, however, are the same whether it is her first game or her 100th.

“I think they want me to stop pucks.”

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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