Canada knows Shannon Szabados as the athletic goaltender with the signature thick, curly locks trailing out the back of her helmet, the one who shut out the United States in the gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics. But to the men she calls teammates in Edmonton, Szabados is known as Mother Ook.
The goalie for Canada at this week's women's world hockey championship is also a star in men's college hockey. This season, even as her male opponents crowded her crease and tried to overpower her with size and muscle, she battled to a conference title with the Ooks of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, smashing records along the way. While some female goalies have had stints with men's leagues, few have done so with the success and longevity that Szabados has.
Szabados started playing hockey with boys at 5, because there wasn't a girls' team nearby. The Edmonton native was often pushed up to play with boys two years older, and found herself in the competitive ranks with future NHLers. She counted Dion Phaneuf as a teammate; she competed against Zach Parise.
She earned a tryout with the Tri-City Americans at 16, facing 17- and 18-year-old boys – the first and only female to play in the Western Hockey League. She played four exhibition games there in 2002 before being released, once getting the start with a young Carey Price as her backup.
She then played five years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where she earned MVP awards and all-star nods. Women's hockey teams at U.S. colleges liked Szabados, but her time in major junior made her ineligible for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and she decided to stay in Western Canada.
While many elite women transitioned to the female game when offered a scholarship to a U.S college if not sooner, Szabados never left men's hockey – except to train with Canada's Olympic team for six months before the 2010 Olympics.
"I have always wanted to develop my mental game, and when playing with guys, you see and hear a lot more stuff you need to deal with, which has made me thick-skinned and mentally tough," the easy-going Szabados said, as friend and teammate Tessa Bonhomme heckled her during the interview. "The women are lighter hearted off the ice, singing and doing goofy interpretive dances in the locker room. But in the men's dressing room, guys are, like, wrestling each other in their underwear."
With her sights set on a physical education degree, she played two years for Edmonton's Grant MacEwan University and transferred for another two at NAIT. She lives in Edmonton with her husband Alex, who coaches midget AAA boys.
Ever the trailblazer, she's the first and only woman playing men's hockey in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference, a league full of men in their early 20s, some six feet tall and 200 pounds, and starting college fresh out of major junior. There, the 5-foot-8, 147-pound Szabados set season records for most shutouts (five) and best goals-against average (1.58) this year.
"She's so athletic, virtually unbeatable on the ice," NAIT coach Serge Lajoie said. "Some teams schemed to crowd her or try and expose her upstairs, but she really worked hard on that, and her game as a goaltender is so sound, so much more complete than two years ago."
She gets barrelled over often, but teammates say she always bounces back laughing.
She has separate shower facilities and puts on some of her gear in another room before entering the team's dressing room. Her familiar bellow of "COMIN' IN!" lets them know she's on her way.
Her veteran leadership has rubbed off on NAIT teammates, earning her the Mother Ook nickname. Her teammates say she showed a bunch of college guys how to look out for one another. She keeps guys accountable for assignments, and hosts team get-togethers in the summer, with all the players at her parents' home for burgers and hot dogs by the pool.
"She's the oldest on the team, the only lady and she looks out for all the boys," NAIT defenceman Andy Williger said. "She's 26 playing with some 21-year-old rookies, and she looks out for every one of them. She's a real-life adult playing college hockey with a bunch of young guys and she keeps them on the straight and narrow. When she talks up, every guy listens. And in the face of adversity on the ice, she is going to show up big."
Many of her teammates were glued to their televisions on Tuesday night to see Szabados make some impressive stops in a shootout as Canada completed a 3-2 comeback win over the rival Americans on opening night of the world championship. Some of them took to Twitter, one razzing Szabados for her passionate fist-pumping celebration by posting a photo of his TV screen, adding the hash tag #MotherOok.
She has always had to prove herself – winning jobs on elite men's teams, entering Canada's 2010 Olympic tryout period as the No. 3 goalie and emerging with the No.1 job. That battle-ready mindset continues to drive her.
"I keep the same mentality that I had when I was the third or the fourth or fifth goalie in my career," Szabados said. "Just going out and playing my best at every moment."