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Team Canada goalie Shannon Szabados practices in Calgary on Jan. 15, 2014, in preparation for the Sochi Olympics (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Team Canada goalie Shannon Szabados practices in Calgary on Jan. 15, 2014, in preparation for the Sochi Olympics (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Shannon Szabados, Carey Price followed twisting paths from WHL teens to Sochi stars Add to ...

It happened in a long-forgotten WHL exhibition game more than a decade ago: The Tri-City Americans faced the Vancouver Giants in Langley, B.C., with a couple of kids scheduled to split time between the pipes.

Carey Price got the start for Tri-City, played his 30 minutes, and then Shannon Szabados came off the bench to finish up.

The game went to overtime; nobody can remember exactly who won or lost – or even many of the details about the game – but how is this for a delicious turn of events?

Those two, teenagers no more, will draw hazard pay as the goaltenders for the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams in Sochi, both favoured to be the starter.

Who could have imagined, when they were in the same dressing room, playing for the same team 12 years earlier, that they would eventually go down their own twisting, turning paths, only to have their journeys intersect again in a resort town on the Black Sea?

Not Szabados, who is back for an encore after being in net in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics, where she shut out the Americans 2-0 in the decisive game to win the gold medal.

Ultimately, Szabados didn’t make Tri-City that season, but went on to play 172 games in four seasons in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Once her eligibility was up, Szabados moved on to the ACAC, where she played for Grant MacEwan University and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology before rejoining the national women’s team when it was centralized in Calgary this past fall.

In reflecting on her brief WHL experience, Szabados, 27, says she had no idea at the time who Price was.

“I think it was something like 4-2 when I went in,” she said. “It was a fun game to play and, obviously, looking back now, it’s cool to see how far he’s come since then. We were so young, just 16 at the time.”

Nowadays, the two stay in touch via Twitter, and Price, 26, hasn’t forgotten that game either, even if lots of others have.

“She’s a really good person,” the Montreal Canadiens goalie said. “I got to talk with her a little bit this summer in Calgary [at the Olympic orientation camps] and I’m obviously wishing her all the best.

“It’s funny how things work out in life, sometimes.”

Bob Tory, the Tri-City general manager, was responsible for Szabados’s WHL tryout after watching her play at the annual Mac’s midget tournament in Calgary.

“I’ve had players on my team, boys, named Shannon, so I didn’t know I was watching a girl – and she was outstanding,” Tory recalled. “It was only after the game, when she got selected game star, I knew it was a girl.

“I told our scouts that we were bringing her in to our training camp and everybody thought, ‘Well, this is a publicity stunt.’ It was far from that. She was invited here because she deserved it.”

According to Tory, the year Szabados first came to the Americans camp, they were stacked in goal. Their starter was Tyler Weiman (eventually drafted 164th overall in 2002 by the Colorado Avalanche) and they had Price (fifth overall in 2005) projected as a full-timer by the next year.

“She probably could have made the team that year as our backup, but we had Carey Price coming the next year, so I thought, ‘That’s not going to work for her because Carey’s going to play all the games.’ But the next year, she came to camp again and did very well,” Tory said.

“She was such a good talent that we signed her to a contract, so she did end up getting some education money and kept developing in the Alberta Junior League.

“We’re pretty proud down here that we can say we had two goaltenders that played for the Tri-City Americans that could be starting goalies for the Canada men’s and women’s team. It’s kind of a unique story.”

Szabados was not the first female player to try her hand in the men’s game, noting when she began, “there weren’t really girls’ leagues like there are now. As I became older, there were more female teams, but I was already in the men’s system for so long and I thought it helped develop my game, so I just continued on with it.”

Naturally, because she’s been in the men’s system for her whole life, Szabados has dealt with a variety of responses to her gender. Many have been supportive, some antagonistic.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of the coaches I’ve played for and the players I’ve played with,” Szabados said. “They’ve been amazing.

“The hardest years were probably the teens, where the gender difference becomes more noticeable for the boys. Those were a little bit [of] harder times. It was more my parents had to deal with a lot – with other parents and other coaches. I think I was pretty sheltered from most of it. There are fans that don’t always love a girl playing in a guys’ league.

“From experience, I found the older I got, the better it’s been … My last few years of college were the most fun years of my life. The guys were my best friends. We’d do everything together … The gender issue was a non-issue at that point.”

According to Canadian women’s Olympic head coach Kevin Dineen, there is one significant difference in the male and female games: the way they shoot the puck. Across the board, there are just far more players who can boom shots in the men’s game.

But as opposed to making it easier to shift to the women’s game, Szabados says, it actually poses more of a challenge.

“Playing both, the girls, because they don’t quite have the power, they look for deflections and for rebounds and screens,” she said. “They find any way other than maybe powering it through the goalie to get the puck past you.

“I think there are [female] players getting to that point now where, if they are on a 2-on-1, they can whip it by the goalie. But yeah, definitely, on the point or the power play, it makes the game a little different. As a goalie, it means you have to play almost a perfect style. You can’t let out a rebound.”

Unlike the men’s tournament, which is wide open, the Canadian women know they’ll meet the Americans once in the preliminary round and then likely again for the gold medal in Sochi.

No matter what happens, however, Szabados will be hard-pressed to duplicate her result from four years ago. Realistically, how do you top winning an Olympic gold medal, on home ice, recording a shutout in the decisive game?

You can’t. But it still doesn’t lessen her hunger in any meaningful way.

“We want to repeat,” Szabados said. “We want to have the same feeling. Obviously, it would be a little different not being on home soil, but at the end of the day, getting that gold medal around the neck would feel the same, no matter what country you’re in.”

After Sochi, Szabados may try to play professionally in a men’s league, possibly with some of her former college teammates, with a view to staying in the game until the 2018 Games.

“Hopefully, I’ll continue on, as long as the body holds up, for one more Olympics. It’s kind of year by year, especially as a goalie. You know how tough things are, with the competition level,” she said.

“But as long as I’m healthy and having fun, I’ll keep playing.”

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