In all honesty, nobody really thought the series would even get this far.
The Southern Professional Hockey League’s (SPHL) Columbus Cottonmouths are this season’s sixth seed to the Peoria Rivermen’s third, and after Peoria’s 2-0 victory in the first game, the series’ outcome seemed fairly certain. But their second bout, in Columbus, saw a vicious turnaround during which the Cottonmouths delivered an absolute trouncing, coming out on top of a 6-1 final tally. It was the equivalent of stabbing your neighbor because he accidentally knocked over one of your trash cans.
Or, as Szabados diplomatically puts it: “The guys have really come together.”
They’ll win this one, too, putting Peoria definitively out of the playoffs and advancing to play Huntsville in the semi-finals.
It’s not the first time the Cottonmouths have delivered on a long shot: they won the league’s very first President’s Cup title in 2005 with a perfect 5-0 record after barely squeaking into the series to begin with. Since then, they’ve only won it once more, in 2012, despite taking home the Commissioner’s Cup as the regular season champion in 2006. Historically, they’ve been a strange balance of scrappy and stellar, the underdog and the heavy-hitter all at once.
“[The SPHL] is similar to the college league I was playing in,” Szabados tells me after the final game against Peoria, reflecting on the various leagues she’s played for. “But the guys are a little older, so they’re a little bigger and faster and stronger. They shoot the puck a little harder. I think it’s a tougher league to play in. There’s no soft players — everyone is hitting, fighting. It’s an old-time hockey kind of league.” Her mouth twists up into a grin. “I’m enjoying it.”
Her smile widens as she adds, “And there’s such a good group of guys in there. I feel like I’ve been here the entire year. They’ve been amazing.”
The Cottonmouths are a fitting team for Szabados to step into, really. By dint of being a woman playing in men’s leagues, she is herself something of a perennial underdog, though her elite level of play and shiny gold medals make her a bit more A-Team than Rocky.
“I am very excited to get a world-class athlete that has competed and has faced high-pressured situations,” Columbus’ coach Jerome Bechard told NHL.com. “Shannon has won at every level she has played in, women’s hockey or men’s hockey.”
The SPHL is a low-level professional league, hyper-local in its fanbase. It was a strategy that the league implemented early on, and seems to have stuck to; in its first year, then-Commissioner Tom Coolen told HockeyRefs.com, “The most important thing to me is the local coverage within your area. Those are the people who buy your tickets. I think the most important thing is to market a team within their region.”
In other words, Szabados’ international background is cool, and no doubt helped her earn a spot on the roster. But the SPHL is a long way from Sochi, and what matters here is an appeal to local, not national, pride.
Not that national pride would do Szabados much good with the fans, anyway, hailing as she does from Alberta, Canada. Though it has, perhaps, helped smooth her entry into the league—even its least Canadian team, the Bloomington Thunder, owes 31% of its roster to our neighbors in the north. That’s to say nothing of the Louisiana IceGators, who clock in at 73.6% Canadian, or even the Cottonmouths themselves, at 64%.
This can hardly be surprising, given how many franchises come into the league from failed AHL and ECHL markets or other, now-defunct minor leagues, like the ACHL and the SEHL. Every one of these teams is its own kind of Hail Mary, peopled with players who play to near-empty arenas because they simply don’t want to do anything else.
It’s the perfect league for a player who has stressed, again and again, that all she wants to do is play hockey, wherever and however she can.
“I’m just a hockey player that loves to play hockey,” she told AL.com. “If (pioneer) is the word people want to attach with it, it seems weird to me to have that kind of title. But if that’s what comes along with it and maybe it opens up some doors for future generations, that’s good.”
You get the feeling that she’s getting tired of being asked what it feels like to be the exception.
But the SPHL is, to some degree, best characterized by its exceptions: it’s an American league, except it’s played by a lot of Canadians; it’s located in the southeast, except when it’s located in the midwest; and it has nine teams, except when it has six or eight or seven.
And of course, the league is all men — except for Shannon Szabados.
The Cottonmouths’ are among the original nine SPHL franchises, but the Rivermen are not: they shouldered their way into the league after the original team, the AHL affiliate to the Vancouver Canucks, was moved to Utica, New York and rebranded as the Comets. In the aftermath, former Rivermen owner Bruce Saurs and former Rivermen executives John Butler and Bart Rogers applied for membership in the SPHL. “We just can’t stand by and see [hockey in Peoria] die,” he told Journal Star. “We’re going to have a team.”
The sharp desire to keep hockey in places like Peoria can be seen in hockey club hometowns across the league. “There is so much support from the organization,” Szabados explains, thinking over her short time on the roster. “The owners really care about the team.”
They have to, if the SPHL is to survive competition with football and basketball, at both the professional and collegiate level. Even the NHL, with all its resources and marketing strategies, has struggled to find profitable markets in the southeast.
Of course, Peoria isn’t in the southeast, and it may be a little easier to find midwestern fans. Playoff tickets at the Peoria Civic Center were cheaper than regular season tickets, because while it may be fairly easy to find paying customers on the weekends, weekday nights are a bit of a harder sell. And in a league like this one, every ticket sale counts. It’s overdramatic to say that every season may be the Rivermen’s last, but in the minor leagues it can often feel that way.
Szabados hasn’t signed a contract with the Cottonmouths for next season; this playoff run may be both her first and her last. Despite her impressive résumé, she is aware that there are no guarantees.
“I’d love to come back here next year, get a whole season in, instead of four games and the playoffs,” she says, voice a little dry. To win the President’s Cup this season, the Cottonmouths will have to beat the Huntsville Havoc twice, and then face down either the Pensacola Ice Flyers or the Knoxville Ice Bears in the final. As of this writing, the Cottonmouths have one game in their pocket, a 1-0 victory.
Szabados gives a little shrug. “Who knows after that?” she asks.