One for each gold medal.
When the puck drops, Shannon Szabados is just another goalie toiling in the Southern Professional Hockey League, just another player taking bumpy bus rides from one small city to another, making a modest living before moderate-sized crowds in often less-than modern arenas that seem a long, long way from the bright lights of the big time.
But when the buzzer sounds and the game ends, one of Edmonton’s biggest home-grown sports stars knows that girls all over the world look up to her, and many seem to take pride in her every success.
There have been a lot of those.
“When I’m on the ice, I don’t want to be treated any differently,” says Szabados, a two-time Canadian Olympic gold medallist. “Whether it’s getting run, being chirped, getting it from the fans.”
But … and in a story like this there had to be one ...
“Off the ice, I’m a little more aware that the younger girls watch these games and see me, I guess, as a role model. I’m not big into being in the spotlight. But I think as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve realized it’s part of the role. It comes along with me playing in this league.”
She is, after all, the only woman playing professional hockey in North America.
Not that that’s such a big deal. Except that it kind of is.
'The most important thing'
After playing on Canadian teams that won Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010 and again in Sochi in 2014, Szabados followed her hockey dream to the sunny south, where she will soon wrap up her first full season of professional hockey.
She has played 17 games this season for the Columbus Cottonmouths, and won eight of them.
The team is based in Columbus, Ga., a city most Canadians would not readily associate with ice hockey.
It was only 150 years ago that Union and Confederate armies fought the last battle of the American Civil War near there, a full week after Lee surrendered to Grant.
Szabados has fought many of her own battles, just to get where she is today.
“She’s been through a lot,” says her father, Gary Szabados.
“If you ever heard some of the stories of the trials and tribulations of playing hockey in a mens’ league — there’s still a lot of good-old boys around who don’t believe a woman belongs playing with the men.”
But playing hockey at the highest level possible is all she ever wanted to do, her father says.
“Even when she first started skating, the game was the most important thing. She wasn’t like the other kids, flopping on the ice and doing snow angels. She was determined right from the get-go.”
A balancing act
Szabados’ parents asked if she wanted to play soccer, or maybe take figure skating lessons. She said no. She wanted to play hockey.
By the time she was 10, she was playing in boys’ leagues. When she reached Midget level, her father says, league officials had no idea what to do with her. They decided the girl had to have her own dressing room.
“First game they did that, they stuck her at the other end of the hall, right beside the other team,” Szabados says. “She had to walk out of the dressing room right in front of the other team.
So, after her coach saw that, he said that was it for that idea. He didn’t care if he got fined. She wasn’t going to be separated.”
That was more than a decade ago.
These days, she balances two roles: being just one of the guys, and being the only girl.
Her parents watch every game online. She sends texts or calls from the road when she’s feeling down, and back home in Edmonton, mom and dad do their best to keep her spirits up.
“She spends so much time with the fans,” her father says. “Even at visiting rinks, she has a lineup of people wanting to meet her. That part of it she enjoys.”
The family mailbox fills up some days with cards and letters from fans and well-wishers.
But there are also, of course, the naysayers, those who want her to fail.
They’ve been there since the start.
Any of them who visit the Columbus Civic Center this season and want to take home a souvenir bobblehead will have an easy time picking one out.
The only model the team sells? The Shannon Szabados.
Replica gold medals not included.