Shannon Szabados is no stranger to adversity.
She has battled it as the girl goalie on boys hockey teams going back to her minor hockey days, but what she and the rest of her Canadian Olympic teammates went through in the past year en rout to gold was unlike anything she had experienced before.
On Tuesday morning, she spoke in front of a sold out Harvest Centre for the annual Red Deer Special Olympics Celebrity Breakfast, with a message of being formed through adversity.
“Adversity makes better teammates and players, but it also makes better people as well,” she said.
The Edmonton product grew up watching Bill Ranford and her beloved Oilers at the end of their dynasty, it was her dream to follow in their footsteps in some capacity.
Szabados, 27, started playing the game when she was five years old, at a time when girls hockey was not an option.
Gender, however, did not become an issue until she earned a spot on a bantam AAA team. The league came to her with two demands, to cut her long hair — because it was distracting — and to sign a contract agreeing to use a separate change room. She refused both.
When she entered the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Sherwood Park Crusaders in 2002, the league had to vote on whether they would allow a girl to play or not. Even a team website had a poll question to the same effect, and 51 per cent of respondents said “no.”
She was viewed as a side show.
But she more than earned her place. She made three all-star teams, twice was named her team’s MVP and in her final season was named the league’s top goaltender.
Playing for the women’s Olympic team her gender wasn’t the issue, instead it was the two long time stalwarts in net ahead of her. She went a full year without even dressing for a game for the national team.
In 2009, prior to the Vancouver Olympics, she started the season as the No. 3 goalie on the roster, but by the time the gold medal game rolled around, she was starting.
Not only did she start, but she stopped all 28 shots she faced in a 2-0 shutout of the hated Americans.
She should have been a cinch to be the starter for the Sochi Olympics this winter, but the team suffered through their worst year in more than a decade. They were dead last in the Alberta Major Midget Hockey League, which they played in as a warm up, and they were routinely getting beat by the U.S. Moreover, their coach Dan Church quit five games before the Olympics, and they lost four of five games heading into the tournament.
Szabados had been battling injuries in the run up to the games and lost her hold on the starting gig to Charlene Labonté.
But she took it as a challenge and once again wrested the crease away from her teammate in time for the gold medal game.
The Canadians appeared to be on the brink of losing the gold until a late flurry with two goals in the final 3:26 squared the affair. They had been outplayed, but they went into the intermission confident.
Marie-Philip Poulin then scored the winner for Canada 8:10 into the extra frame.
“It was a long year for us, it was by far the toughest year we’d ever been through,” said Szabados. “Those challenges and those adversities that we went through as a team is where it ultimately lead to us winning that gold medal game.”
Her performance earned her a call by her hometown NHL team to fill in at a practice in an emergency situation and then a shot with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
This time, however, there was no need for a league meeting to allow her to play. Once again she proved herself and back stopped the Cottonmouths to the league final.
“The response was overwhelming, especially from the league and the fans of the league and the guys on the other teams,” said Szabados. “I knew it wouldn’t be an issue on my team, I had played with a few of the guys and they accepted me right away. But it was cool to play another team and for them to come up and congratulate me and welcome me to the league.”
There is one more major hurdle for Szabados, and women’s hockey players, to climb over: to prove they can play with the best men in the world and get a legitimate shot to make an NHL team.
“It might be a few years away, but I think women are slowly closing that gap between men’s and women’s hockey, and I think no position better than a goalie — the strength and the size isn’t that much of a difference,” she said.
Getting Szabados to speak at the breakfast was a major coup for Red Deer Special Olympics chairman Jerry Tennant.
“Every year it gets more and more difficult to find someone, but this year to have Shannon, in particular an Olympic year and the story of the Canadians hockey team that was so amazing at Sochi, … it was terrific to have someone of that calibre be part of the breakfast,” he said.
They hope to raise between $12,000 and $15,000 to help fund the organization for the year. The breakfast generally accounts for about a 20 per cent of their funding, and this was the first year they had sold out.
There are more than 250 local athletes participating with the Red Deer Special Olympics in 11 different sports.