When she skates out to start in net for the Columbus Cottonmouths Saturday night in Georgia, Shannon Szabados will be making history as the first female ever to play in the decade-old Southern Professional League. But in the big picture, she's another bricklayer in the road today's best females are building for generations of young women to come.
The 27-year-old Edmonton native already has risen to the summit of the women's game, winning her second gold medal for Canada at the Sochi Olympics and establishing herself as one of its most dominant netminders. But this is a different kind of victory, a podium you step up on without hearing your anthem. Although Szabados won't appear in an NHL game anytime soon, her time in Columbus isn't just a publicity stunt. Playing against men who play the game for a living is a legitimate next-level achievement and a test for someone who has excelled when tested. Just as importantly, the fact she signed a professional contract Thursday and participated in a brief practice the same day only encourages other women playing the game to dream and push themselves, no matter how far-fetched their goal might sound to some.
Thousands of young girls can look to her for inspiration. Regardless of how many goals she surrenders on any given night, she'll always represent hope and growth for women's hockey.
Those who follow Szabados on Twitter and see her humble nature throughout the current hype can't help but cheer her on in this latest episode of her hockey career. However, the truth is she's got nothing to lose. She's already won. The dream of a full-time women's professional league may be years, if not decades away. It may not come at all. But respect for elite female players has grown by leaps and bounds – not simply because of the compelling on-ice product, but because the spirit of players like Shannon Szabados defies convention and expectation.
Szabados may be the first female SPHL player, but the way the women's game is going, she almost assuredly won't be the last. When you root for her to succeed, you're rooting for the women's game to continue growing along with her.