At a certain point, with certain athletes, you stop asking how they’ll fare against new situations, and start asking how new situations will fare against them. We’ve already seen how goalie Shannon Szabados reacts in new leagues, against tougher competition, and with higher stakes, so at what point does the question stop being, “Can she jump?” but instead, “How high?”
For the Columbus Cottonmouths, the answer seems to be, “High enough.” The Southern Professional Hockey League club signed the goalie to an additional season this past Wednesday, after she made headlines late last year when she became the first woman athlete to play in the SPHL.
She joined several teammates from her junior hockey days, including defenseman Kyle Johnson, who told the New York Times in March: “[The league] better [adjust to her], because she’s here, and she’s staying.”
Despite playing only two games for the Cottonmouths last season after signing with them in March, Szabados certainly made an impression. She was named the third star of her second game after stopping 32 of 35 shots, though ultimately Columbus fell to Huntsville. She ended the season with a 3.55 GAA and .894 SPCT, respectable given her playing time.
Of course, though the SPHL was new to Szabados, she was not new to men’s hockey; she was five the first time she played with a team of boys, and continued to do so through juniors, recording a shutout in her first-ever Alberta Junior Hockey League game and being named co-MVP of the AJHL All-Star Game in 2004-2005. In 2006-2007, she was honored as the AJHL’s top goaltender after recording a 31-7-4 record, with 2.13 GAA and a .919 SV%, along with four shutouts.
That’s to say nothing of her 2012-2013 season with the Ooks of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Association, where she played with current Cottonmouths teammates Kyle Johnson, Jordan Draper, and Andy Willigar. Szabados posted a remarkable 15-2-0 record, a .916 SPCT, a 1.588 GAA and five shutouts, setting the current all-time record for goals against and shutouts. In the playoffs, she recorded a perfect 6-0-0, with 1.87 GAA and .930 SPCT.
The question is, when does Szabados’ position in the SPHL–in men’s leagues as a whole–stop being a big deal? As someone who has been called a “pioneer,” throughout her career, when can we officially declare the journey over? Szabados has played men’s hockey as often as she has women’s; when do we get to stop calling Szabados a “female goalie”?
I don’t mean to downplay Szabados’ accomplishments, or suggest that her re-signing with the Cottonmouths isn’t a big deal; she’s an astounding goalie, and she deserves every accolade she’s won, up to and including this year’s Olympic gold medal. The Cottonmouths have made an excellent decision, hockey-wise, by signing her as a goaltender, and next season promises to be an interesting one.
She’s here, and she’s staying. What remains to be seen is whether Szabados is a herald of things to come, or an outlier from the status quo.