With her unmistakable flowing and curly locks, Shannon Szabados is known to hockey fans as the goaltender who famously backstopped Team Canada to a gold medal victory over the United States in Vancouver in 2010.
And the Sherwood Park, Alta. native has every intention of winning gold again next February, in Sochi, Russia.
“Our hope is to win gold,” said Szabados, in a recent interview after the women’s practice at Markin MacPhail arena in Calgary.
“We focus on each and every game and hopefully the work we put in now will pay off in Sochi.”
Szabados’ road to Sochi has seen her be the lone female goalie in men’s dominated leagues.
More recently, she has backstopped the men’s team at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton. The NAIT Ooks play in the ACAC, along with the SAIT Trojans, so Calgary hockey fans are familiar with her work.
Teammates at NAIT call her Mother Ook.
Men’s hockey differs from the women’s game, explains Szabados. “Playing with men, they’re bigger, faster and stronger.”
“The girls play a bit of a smarter game as far as systems are concerned. Women are shooting to create an opportunity, instead of shooting to score,” says Szabados.
During the 2012-13 season for the Ooks, Szabados demonstrated that no matter who she’s facing, trying to score on her is akin to putting a puck through a brick wall.
Ken Babey, head coach for the SAIT Trojans men’s team, thinks that playing Szabados has crept into his players’ heads.
“Anytime there’s a woman playing in men’s hockey, it’s bound to play a factor. She’s so fast, like a cat. She’s a key leader on their team.
“She was a challenge for us all year. We tried to take advantage of her lack of size. Get traffic and bodies to the front of the net,” said Babey.
Last season, Szabados led the Ooks to a first-place finish with 49 points with scintillating statistical numbers: A 1.58 goals against average (GAA) in the regular season, a 15-2 win-loss record, a league-leading five shutouts and a .916 save percentage.
In the playoffs, Szabados, the Ooks’ first-ever female goalie, produced a 1.87 GAA in leading the Ooks to the provincial championship, over SAIT.
Joe Babey is a defenceman for the SAIT Trojans and recalled that Szabados was a factor in the finals.
“Definitely, one of the main reasons NAIT beat us. She’s a tremendous goalie. Quick, and moves well across the net.”
“Her side-to-side movement is a huge tool for her. That was the biggest challenge she put in front of us. We wanted shoot from all angles and get the puck elevated, as she covers the bottom of the net so well,” said Joe Babey.
Leading up the Sochi Olympics in Russia, Szabados has been in Calgary full-time with the women’s team.
“Last year, I was back and forth in between the women’s team and NAIT about once a month,” recalls Szabados, who’s studying personal fitness training when in school.
Team Canada’s coach, Dan Church, has been putting the women through vigorous training every day, explained an exhausted Szabados.
“We started training in the beginning of August with a lot of fitness training to get back into the swing of things.
“We have a two-hour practice, a workout in the gym and another two-hour practice followed by a track session. Six out of seven days, we’re practicing,” said Szabados.
Matt Cockell is Szabados’ goaltending consultant and the two of them have been meeting with more frequency while preparing for Sochi.
“Matt and I have been doing a lot of work fine-tuning my game and some dead angles.
“He’s great. For a couple years, we’ve worked together. It’s a lot of fun working with him and we’re really compatible. Always good to have an extra eye on your game,” said Szabados.
Our hope is to win gold. – Shannon Szabados
After the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, Szabados was faced with the unenviable task of supplanting Kim St. Pierre, Canada’s starting netminder and its all-time leader in wins and shutouts.
“It was a lot of fun playing with and learning from Kim. I look up to her. If I ever had any questions, Kim was there with open arms ready to help me in any way,” said Szabados.