Rise of women’s hockey gives Szabados chance to keep playing

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Having already blazed a trail in men’s professional hockey, three-time Canadian Olympic team goalie Shannon Szabados will continue her career by finally giving the women’s pro game a try.

Putting aside thoughts of retiring, Szabados cited opportunity and proximity as reasons she signed with the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League.

“Although I’ve never played in the league, or any women’s league, I know what the calibre’s like,” she said Thursday, a day after her signing was announced. “I’m excited to see where women’s hockey has gone in the last few years and where it’s headed.”

Buffalo was an obvious choice for the 31-year-old because it’s only a three-hour drive from Ohio, where Szabados now lives with her boyfriend.

There was also the opportunity the NWHL provided in paying its players a salary since it was established four years ago. That’s something Szabados never envisioned while growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, where she had no other option but to develop her game in junior and professional male leagues.

Her signing comes four months after Szabados gave up the decisive shootout goal to Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson in the United States’ 3-2 win over Canada in the Winter Olympic gold-medal game in South Korea.

“I knew I was going to be moving back to Ohio after the Olympics, but I didn’t know what the plan was, whether it was to retire, to play, to play for fun,” Szabados said. “But the longer it was after the Olympics, I kind of missed having skates on. And I was like, ‘I’m not ready to hang them up yet.’”

It’s not lost on her how big of an impact USA’s gold-medal win had in raising the sport’s profile across America.

“It’s been incredible,” Szabados said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Szabados becomes one of the highest-profile players — and most notable Canadian — to join the NWHL.

She has an 8-1 career Olympics record, and won gold medals in 2010 and ‘14.

Then there are her accomplishments playing against men.

In 2002, Szabados appeared in four exhibition games for the Tri-City Americans in becoming the first female to play in the Western Hockey League. In December 2015, playing for Columbus, Georgia, of the Southern Professional Hockey League, she became the first female to record a shutout in a men’s professional league game. Overall, Szabados went 20-23-6 in 51 SPHL games over four seasons.

North America has two women’s professional leagues. The NWHL was the first to pay its players a salary, and is adding a fifth team in Minnesota this year. The seven-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League has been around for more than a decade, but only recently began regularly paying its players.

Wearing a ring on her middle finger of her left hand and a gold chain around her neck with maple leafs on them, Szabados acknowledged being nervous over what the reaction she might receive in signing with a U.S.-based league.

“By no means was it a choice of one league over the other. It’s just proximity,” she said. “My phone’s been kind of blowing up with some positive responses.”

Szabados expressed what’s become a long-held desire among women players on both sides of the border for the two leagues to settle their differences and consider merging.

She then laughed off a question about whether there’ll be any bad blood joining a Buffalo team that features several U.S. Olympians, including Emily Pfalzer, Dani Cameranesi and backup goalie Nicole Hensley.

“Maybe when they put that blue, white and red on,” she said. “But when we’re in the Beauts’ baby blue, no.”

As for her future, Szabados has given no thought to looking ahead to the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“Oh, that’s a long ways away,” Szabados said. “I almost said no to the last one because it’s such a long road. I’ve learned to never say never. We’ll see. We’ll take it one year at a time.”

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