Shannon Szabados is getting to know every kilometre of the I-90 on Lake Erie’s south side.
The veteran goaltender for the Canadian women’s team makes a 700-kilometre round trip on the interstate from Lorain, Ohio, to Buffalo twice a week to play and practise with the NWHL’s Buffalo 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.
Szabados has been the country’s go-to goalie in many world and Olympic finals since 2010.
The 32-year-old from Edmonton hasn’t played in a lot of Four Nations for Canada, however, because she’s often facing male shooters at this time of year.
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 were winters she spent centralized with the Canadian team in Calgary preparing for Olympic Games.
Her body’s needs, her personal life and geography factored into signing with the NWHL’s Beauts.
Lorain, just west of Cleveland, 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.”
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.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist misses the competitive demands of the men’s game, but her body doesn’t.
“I loved my time playing men’s hockey,” she said. “I don’t know at 32 that a 65-game schedule is what my body needs.”
Szabados injured ligaments in her left knee towards the end of her second season with the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths in 2016.
Injuries also limited Szabados to a handful of games for the Canadian women during their 2017-18 prep for Pyeongchang.
But Szabados stopped 40 of 42 shots, including nine in overtime, in the Olympic final. The United States 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 explained.
“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 at 64 and 29 respectively.
Szabados made 27 and 28 saves in the 2014 and 2010 Olympic women’s finals respectively en route to gold.
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 into one.
“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.”