Jerome Bechard’s men’s hockey team may have played 56 games this year, but few had heard of the Columbus Cottonmouths before game 52. That’s when the coach and general manager started his newly signed goaltender, gold-medalist Shannon Szabados.
The 27-year-old became the first woman to play in the Southern Professional Hockey League, less than a month after Canada pulled a last-gasp stunner to win Olympic gold in Sochi. The 3-2 comeback over Team USA gave the women—and the goalie who kept them within reach—as much publicity as Canada’s golden men. Szabados’ celebrity earned her a practice with her hometown Edmonton Oilers of the NHL and ultimately a call from Bechard.
The Alberta native was soon on her way to Columbus, Ga., a town two hours south of Atlanta. Szabados started on March 15 against the Knoxville Ice Bears in front of 4,295 fans at the Columbus Civic Center. She was officially the goalie for the Cottonmouths of the SPHL, a 10-team league in the Southeast.
Even The New York Times profiled her. She was breaking barriers for women everywhere, the stories went. And it wasn’t simply a plea for tickets by Columbus management. “Maybe for me, it was a little bit selfish,” team captain Kyle Johnson told the Times. “I want to win, and she’s won at every level she’s competed at.”
The situation has caused little controversy, largely because Szabados is—well—a good goalie. “Shannon is one of the most technically sound goalies I’ve seen,” Bechard says. It helps that she’s played with whoever would play with her since she was 5, including Johnson and Columbus’ Jordan Draper and Andy Willigar while in college.
Goaltender is a skill position, much less dependent on chromosomes and testosterone than, say, an NFL linebacker. And while goalies fear collisions, there’s no grabbing and shoving opponents’ chests like NFLers do every down. It’s the team’s job to protect its last line of defense. “I’m pretty sure my guys are going to step in to make sure she doesn’t get bumped too much, that’s for sure,” Bechard said.
The team still had to balance its “equal opportunity” stance with privacy, though. They don’t shower together, and Szabados gets a room to change from street clothes to the clothes she wears under her pads. The rest of the time, she’s putting on her pads with her teammates, getting ready as goaltender to lead the team onto the ice.
Though married, Szabados has a male roommate just like any other player, her college friend Jordan Draper. Bechard said having her makes the Cottonmouths better, and while he can’t treat her differently, he would have tried to make accommodations if she had wanted them. “It’s a tremendous help that she knows three guys on our hockey team,” he said.
Bechard called it a “respect factor” to make every player comfortable, whether female or male, for the good of the team. “The guys on our hockey team are well-put-together young gentlemen. If there was anybody on my hockey team that had a problem with it,” he said, “you wouldn’t be the person I thought you were, and I don’t think you would be here long.”
Szabados played two of the Cottonmouths’ final four regular season games, losing both. But she saved 32 of 35 shots in her second game while earning the game’s third star. “When I called her about coming, I think she was under the impression I was talking about next year,” Bechard said, noting she had “proved herself” in her playing time. “I’d love to have her back for next year.”