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Shannon Szabados joins NAIT Ooks men's hockey team as its first female goalie

Shortly before a pre-season team practice, Shannon Szabados sits in the bleachers of the NAIT Arena just a few stick-lengths from the ice. She’s here before most of her teammates, and they shout hello as they pass her on their way to the dressing room.

In a few minutes, she’ll strap on the pads and join them as the men’s Ooks first female goalie, just as soon as she’s done with this interview, her second in less than half an hour.

Despite the lack of time, she’s patient and thoughtful. She has a composure that seems mature for a 25-year-old. Being accustomed to interviews might have something to do with it. Ever since she started backstopping boys’ teams as a five-year-old in minor hockey she’s been both phenomenon and curiosity.

As if trying to steer the interview away from the latter, she says, “As a goalie, I would hope it’s more my skill than being a girl that brings attention.”

Gender aside, the Ooks have never had a goaltender like her. Since 2006, Szabados has been a key component of the success of Team Canada, securing either silver or gold finishes in every international tournament she has played in.

That includes the 2010 Winter Olympics. In Vancouver, Szabados shut out the Americans 2 – 0 in the gold medal game, and was named the tournament’s best goalie. Currently, that’s the crown jewel peak in a history studded with personal successes.

With the Alberta Junior Hockey League from 2002 to 2007, for example, she played on all-star teams, took the Fort Saskatchewan Traders to the finals in 2006-07, and was named team MVP and the league’s top goaltender thanks to a 2.13 goals against average and a save percentage of 0.919. No male goalie could touch her.

Though the enthusiasm around her arrival at NAIT owes much to the fact that, once again, she is going where women previously haven’t, it’s her records that have her teammates excited about playing alongside her.

After finishing fourth of eight teams in 2010-11, the men’s Ooks are looking at this season as one of rebuilding – and, as the team’s most likely starter, Szabados could be a cornerstone for the program. But watching the guys continue to file past her to the dressing room, she again attempts to deflect attention away from herself and her potential to elevate the team.

“I think we’re going to have a pretty solid team this year,” she says. But her deference to the team inadvertently shines a brighter spotlight on her role in it as she adds, quite sincerely and innocently, “We definitely have the skill.”

The move to NAIT

This almost didn’t happen. After having finished the first two years of an education transfer program at Grant MacEwan University, Szabados was registered this fall for a third year to pick up a few extra courses and play the 2011-12 season with the men’s Griffins hockey squad.

She liked the school and the team, and had struck a balance with her ongoing commitment to Team Canada, which, for instance, will take her to Sweden this November for the Four Nations Cup.

At the time, NAIT’s men’s head coach Serge Lajoie found himself in a bind. The goalie he’d recruited as likely starter took an offer to play semi-pro in the States. Set back, Lajoie tried to shrug it off. “I remember phoning my wife and saying, ‘I’m sure things happen for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is, but…’”

Poaching doesn’t happen in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC). A coach can’t pursue another league member’s player. Students, however, can have whatever conversations they want. And Steel Boomer and Jordan Draper, Ooks who had been skating with Shannon over the summer, simply suggested Szabados solve their problem by joining them on the team.

Lajoie could do nothing but wait in hope – all the more so after seeing her “more than hold her own” during a summer 3-on-3 tournament at Perry Pern’s annual pro hockey camp in Edmonton. To his relief, Szabados was soon enrolled in NAIT’s two-year Personal Fitness Trainer program and trying out with the Ooks.

The stress didn’t quite stop there. “I had a lot of questions for her. I’ve never had a female player,” says Lajoie, now in his second year leading the Ooks. There were logistics to work out.

“Serge was funny,” recalls Szabados, smiling. “When I showed up he was like, ‘Okay what am I supposed to do? What do I say?’”

She suggested he simply address the team as “guys” alone, and that, just as she has since she was a kid, she’d be in the men’s dressing room as much as possible, just ducking out to change or shower.

For Lajoie, she had a bigger question: “How do you think the guys are going to accept me?”

“They’re always going to accept good people, good players,” he told her. “They won’t discriminate.”

Heading into the season, Szabados felt her teammates “had gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable,” without really singling her out. “They’re at the age where they’re mature enough to not make a big deal about it.”

And the coaching staff has gone one better. Asked if he has Szabados pegged as the season’s starting goalie, Lajoie pauses and looks uncomfortable. It’s clear he might be about to disappoint the Ooks’ two other goalies.

“My diplomatic answer is that she has come in and created a very healthy competitive environment,” he says, finally. “I expect her to play with the ability that would warrant her performing as a starter the very first day of the season.”

Szabados at an Ooks' practiceThe difference between men and women

Playing on men’s teams hasn’t always been this easy for Szabados. Men’s hockey is a different game from women’s. Men are stronger and faster, and the shots are harder, she explains, but the play can lack finesse.

“I don’t know how the guys are going to take this but the girls are much smarter when they play. The chance of them scoring off an initial shot is slim so they shoot for rebounds, they shoot for tips; they are smart with their passing.”

Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who’s played on men’s teams in Finland, understands the value of crossing the gender boundary in hockey. “It just challenged me to be physically, mentally and emotionally at my best every shift,” says the current University of Calgary women’s Dino. “For Shannon, that’s the best level for her to play at … and I’m sure it’s a good thing for NAIT, too.”

Of course, not everyone has seen her uniqueness in that light. If there’s a life-lesson she’s learned from hockey, it’s “how to be thick-skinned.” It began when she was about 12, when the parents of other players would warn her – annually – that she might get by this year, but the boys would be too big for her the next.

“And then when I started Junior A it was a big publicity stunt,” she adds in a tone equivalent to eye-rolling.

Despite proving herself as one of the AJHL’s – and the Olympics' – best goaltenders, Szabados has still been the object of prejudice. When visiting the town of Drayton Valley to play the Thunder, she was heckled regularly and relentlessly by a fan whose insecurities were aroused by her ponytail.

More recently, the Edmonton Oilers made a tacit statement by temporarily calling up a Calgary Dino when its goalie roster was gutted by injuries and illness. No one is certain the team ever even considered Szabados, but “I was in Edmonton and they decided to take a goalie that hadn’t played in three years,” she says. “It was disappointing but I didn’t cry over it. It is what it is.”

In her comments about Szabados, Wickenheiser mentions “what she’s been through” more than once. The phrase has weight. “I feel like what I’ve gone through is more than hockey,” says Szabados. “But I feel like it’s helped me grow as a person and not be the shy little kid that I was before.”

It might also be largely behind her, and the warm reception from the Ooks is only part of the proof.

Following exhibition play this September against the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s Seawolves – a team from a much higher collegiate league – defenceman Quinn Sproule was impressed by one thing only: “Not many people can say they played against a gold-medal-winning goalie.”

Rebuilding the Ooks

Ooks captain Kyle Johnson is excited to be on the other side of that relationship. After facing her in Junior A with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, Johnson had his first chance to compete alongside her in a pre-season game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears – another team in a league above the ACAC.

The game ended in a respectable 1 – 0 loss for the Ooks, who were outshot 34 to 13. Szabados didn’t mind being kept busy, and even credits the team with limiting the Bears’ chances. “I would rather have 40 shots than five shots” she says. “I like being in the action.”

“She’s the best female goalie in the world, and we have her on our hockey team,” says Johnson. “If anyone had any negative thoughts after that first game they were shot out the window. Even though we didn’t, she gave us a chance to win.”

Lajoie, too, was pleased with the outcome, mostly in terms of how the guys are already rallying around Szabados. “They battle for her,” he says. “They block shots for her – one guy’s still hobbling from that.”

Injuries aside, both he and Johnson would agree that bodes well. After winning eight ACAC championships over the 1980s and ’90s, NAIT hasn’t come out on top since 1995-96. This year’s focus is rebuilding. Szabados is part of a team Johnson proudly calls “an AJHL all-star team,” assembled during a busy summer of recruitment by Lajoie and his staff.

“We want to be a perennial powerhouse on the ice,” says Lajoie, “and in the community,” where he wants to see team members serve as role models. It’s easy for him to see a role for Szabados in that, too.

Despite her success, Szabados is already looking ahead to a post-hockey future. She would like to push the limits of pro hockey as soon as the opportunity presents itself, likely in Europe, but after that she sees herself teaching, parlaying her personal fitness training at NAIT into a position as a children’s athletics instructor (preferably hockey, of course).

“I feel like it’s kind of my duty now to give back,” she says. “If I was teaching I could share my experiences and help kids learn from what I’ve gone through.”

In the meantime, she’s not looking back – on bad times or good. Instead, she’s staying focused on a game she feels she has yet to master, despite what others might say, one way or the other.

For that alone, perhaps, Wickenheiser’s overall assessment of her teammate shouldn’t surprise. “NAIT is getting a solid professional, a mentally strong person who knows how to handle adversity and isn’t afraid in a high-pressure situation to stand up and be great.”

But before all else, “You’re getting a proven winner,” she adds. “And that’s always a good thing to add to a team.”