It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the greatest goaltender in women’s hockey history has her car packed and is making her way across the interstate between Ohio and New York. For Shannon Szabados, a three-time Olympian with two golds and a silver to her name, this is the new normal, a weekly routine she’ll undertake over the course of the season. The three-and-a-half-hour trek, one that sees her cross two state lines, takes Szabados to Buffalo, where she’ll play for the NWHL’s Beauts in her first foray into the women’s professional ranks.
“I played (in men’s leagues) my entire life, and it wasn’t anything new to me, but at the same time, there were a lot of challenges along the way,” Szabados said. “Anytime I went anywhere, there was a debate about whether I was even allowed to play in the league or not because nobody knew, it was a new thing. And when I did play, 90 percent of the support was positive, but everywhere I went there were always people in my ear, in the newspaper or announcers or other teams or whatever the case may be.”
Szabados’ most recent stop was the Southern Professional League, but she spent plenty of time in the Alberta Jr. A League as well as the province’s college circuit. She even had a one-game stint in the WHL. But making the jump to the NWHL – a decision based on proximity to her new home in Ohio, where she lives with Carl Nielsen, her fiance, not preference over the league’s Canadian counterpart, the CWHL – isn’t about avoiding the challenges men’s leagues present. Rather, it’s an opportunity for Szabados to extend her career, avoiding the slog of a 50-game slate, not to mention five or six on-ice sessions each week, in minor-pro men’s leagues.
The arduous expedition aside, Szabados called the schedule more “conducive” to her longevity and long-term health, which are important factors given the 32-year-old considered walking away from the game following the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
How seriously Szabados considered walking away, mind you, is up for debate. She says the thought entered her mind prior to the 2018 Games, particularly after a battle with the injury bug last season limited her to only a handful of appearances leading up to the Olympics. But it’s the same injury-laden campaign that prompted her to find a landing spot with the Beauts, which she did by reaching out to the team about an opportunity. Szabados didn’t want her career to end with a season primarily spent on the sidelines. She also wasn’t sold on the idea of retirement. “In the back of my mind I always kind of knew I wanted to continue playing,” Szabados said. “It was just in what capacity that was, whether internationally or the NWHL or whether it was just beer-league hockey.”
Szabados’ decision to return was likely met with sighs of relief – maybe even champagne popping – throughout Hockey Canada’s headquarters. At the past three Olympics, dating back to 2010 in Vancouver, Szabados has been a fixture on the national team, where she’s risen to prominence as the most dominant women’s keeper in Canadian history.
She owns a dazzling 0.74 goals-against average and .964 save percentage across nine Olympic contests. She’s won top-goalie honors twice and has had the best GAA and SP at all three tournaments she’s appeared. The only blemish on her record, if you can call it that, is the most recent silver medal in Pyeongchang.
Szabados doesn’t classify it that way. “Maybe in my younger playing days I probably would’ve taken it a little harder, but I remember – and I have a picture of it, somebody snapped a picture of the moment – looking at the silver medal and being like, ‘You know what? This is pretty darn cool.’ Maybe it was the season I went through, I didn’t get to play a ton before heading over there, so the fact I was there alone was pretty special to me.”
Playing in the NWHL, too, will allow Szabados to be “there” for a lot more. Her stint in the SPHL cost her the opportunity to appear in three World Championships, but scheduled breaks in the women’s league offers Szabados the chance to take her rightful place in the blue paint with Team Canada. It should also keep her sharp, fresh and healthy. So, does that mean after uncertainty about her career after Pyeongchang that Szabados has her sights set on commanding the crease for a last time at the 2022 Olympics? “It’s strange,” she said. “I’m at a weird place in my career. If you asked me four years ago if I would have played in the past Olympics, I would’ve told you you’re crazy. And now, I’m kind of the same way. But I feel the later you are in your career, the more you want to, not hang on to it, but the more you appreciate the opportunities. And now I’m like, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s only a few years away. Maybe I can do it again.’ ”
Szabados’ time with Canada might not be through yet, but the clock is ticking. Eventually, the national team will need a replacement. Who is part of the next wave in the Canadian crease?
1. EMERANCE MASCHMEYER
The grooming began during her junior year at Harvard when she was a third-stringer at the 2015 worlds. A gold-medal winner with Canada’s under-18 team, Maschmeyer was top goalie at the 2016 worlds and the 24-year-old CHWL standout will be Szabados’ backup at this year’s Four Nations Cup.
2. ANN-RENEE DESBIENS
The 2017 Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the top player in the NCAA won a silver as the starter for Canada at the 2015 worlds. Desbiens, 24, carried the load in pre-Olympic action with Szabados sidelined and pitched a shutout against Russia in her one appearance in Pyeongchang.
3. SHEA TILEY
She isn’t wasting time getting her chance with the national team, as the CWHL rookie will be one of three Canadian netminders at the Four Nations Cup. Tiley, 21, wrapped up her NCAA tenure at Clarkson as a two-time national champion with one of the best save percentages in collegiate history.
4. KASSIDY SAUVE
The 22-year-old transferred from Ohio State to Clarkson, where she’s sure to pursue a national title with the Golden Knights. She won a gold alongside Tiley at the 2014 under-18s, and Sauve has remained on Team Canada’s radar since, earning invites to development camps each of the past two summers.