The Edmonton Oilers are something of an enigma in the National Hockey League. They’re young and fresh-faced, they have more high-quality drafts than the Boston Beer Company, and they’ve been “in a rebuild” since roughly 1990.
Also, they just traded away their goalie. Presumably Ben “59 Saves, Are You Even Real?” Scrivens will continue in the net in Bryzgalov’s absence, and newly-acquired Viktor Fasth will take a spot on the bench. But Fasth was still on his way from Anaheim on Wednesday afternoon, and we have enough trouble getting the NHL to break for the Olympics, much less hastily-made travel arrangements, so Oilers coach Dallas Eakins called in a ringer: two-time Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados.
“Not a bad week and a half,” Szabados told the media. “Gold medal in Sochi and practicing with the Oilers. Doesn’t get much better.”
Szabados is no stranger to men’s leagues. She was the first woman to play in the Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), where she recorded a shutout in her debut game (and won best goaltender in 2006-07). While she played for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) men’s team, she held the lowest goals against average and highest number of shutouts in the 2012-2013 ACAC season. The NAIT Ooks took home the conference championship that season — their first in 16 years.
She’s awesome, basically.
Though playing with the boys is part and parcel for Szabados, she was instrumental in Canada’s explosive last-minute comeback against the United States in the women’s gold medal game in Sochi, keeping her calm and making some truly remarkable saves even as the clock ran down. She was also in goal in the 2010 Games, shutting out the United States for gold in Vancouver.
“I don’t know how the guys are going to take this but the girls are much smarter when they play,” she told TechLife Magazine last year. “The chance of them scoring off an initial shot is slim so they shoot for rebounds, they shoot for tips; they are smart with their passing.”
According to the article, Szabados attributed the difference in styles to the difference in how men and women are able (and allowed) to use their bodies on the ice; men are, by and large, stronger and faster, and it follows that their shots will be as well. But what women lack in brute force, they make up in finesse.
“Playing both, the girls, because they don’t quite have the power, they look for deflections and for rebounds and screens,” she told the CBC last April. “They find any way other than maybe powering it through the goalie to get the puck past you.”
This isn’t the first time Szabados has been eyed by the Oilers — or at least, by their fanbase. Last March, when it seemed like every goalie they touched immediately got broken or came down with the plague, the Twitterverse called for Szabados to fill in as emergency backup. They went with Nathan Deobald, a temporary call up from the Calgary Dinos, and drew some criticism for the move.
Szabados didn’t dress as a backup for Ben Scrivens on Tuesday, either, but the invitation to practice seems like, at the very least, a well-deserved nod to all that Szabados has accomplished.
“She was great today,” Sam Gagner told reporters after practice, and then proceeded to try and very politely talk around the reality of Szabados’ situation, which is that she has hit the glass ceiling of women’s hockey. “I think, uh … it’s obviously — she’s at the top of, uh … for her, winning a gold medal, being the starting goaltender for Canada, is the pinnacle, for her. And getting a chance for her to come out here is definitely exciting.”
As for Szabados, she recognizes that one practice does not a commitment make. When asked what the practice meant to her, she said, “Well, hopefully it’ll just open some eyes…. as a female hockey player, you just want to be seen as a hockey player. That’s what I felt like today.”