It was on this day ten years ago that Shannon Szabados began her career as the first female player to truly belong in high-level men's hockey. More than a publicity stunt, she became the best goalie in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
When 16-year-old Shannon Szabados got the start in goal for the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Sherwood Park Crusaders on this day ten years ago she did not, particularly, make history. She was the first female player in the history of Canadian junior "A", but not the first in the history of first-class Canadian junior hockey. Manon Rheaume had, ten years earlier, debuted with the QMJHL's Trois-Rivières Draveurs. Rheaume allowed three goals in 17 minutes in her only junior appearance but went on to become the first female to play with men professionally and in an NHL exhibition game, always briefly.
So Szabados was the first woman to play Canadian junior "A", the first in the history of the AJHL, and of course the first in the history of the Sherwood Park Crusaders. That won't exactly fill a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Rheaume had blazed the trail, Szabados was following at a lower level (or so the story went).
The trouble is that to a casual hockey fan, female players in men's leagues like Rheaume and Szabados are all about the story. It had little to do with hockey at all, except as scenery. Rheaume was accompanied by a blaze of publicity, got her seventeen minutes, and moved on. Szabados got a few exhibition games and twenty seconds in the WHL in September of 2002. Flashbulbs popped. She went down to the AJHL and remained in Sherwood Park, and the story lost momentum. The Tri-City Americans had their publicity, Szabados had her day in the limelight, and now back to the obscurity to which all women's players except Hayley Wickenheiser seem destined.
Except Szabados doesn't work that way. In Sherwood Park, she did something no other female player had done in a men's league: played regularly for three seasons plus two more in other cities and became one of the league's leading stars. While Rheaume was a flash in the pan, Szabados was an inferno. Had she been named Steve she would have been every inch the same AJHL player for her calling card was skill, not gender. She was the first woman in high-level men's hockey notable not for the quantity of her press coverage but the quality of her play.
A career that has already taken her into men's college hockey, the highest levels of the women's sport, and to a starring role in an Olympic gold medal team began on October 2, 2002, when Szabados grabbed the AJHL by the jersey and didn't let go. On this day, ten years ago, Shannon Szabados made her AJHL debut, stopping 13 shots and earning the shutout as the Sherwood Park Crusaders defeated the Bonnyville Pontiacs 8-0. In spite of an all new level of play, rules fights threatening her eligibility, and even a bit of feminine competition, Szabados would become the best goalie in the AJHL.
Of course, when she was 16 and trying out for Tri-City, Szabados was an elite prospect (almost certainly the best female goalie prospect in the world) but even a decade after Rheaume she was still a novelty. She split time in exhibition contests with the Americans' regular goalies as well as a young NHL prospect named Carey Price, and was later carried onto the WHL team's opening day roster.
At first, in spite of some good preseason play, Szabados looked every inch the publicity stunt. Her only WHL game, on September 22, lasted twenty seconds without a single shot. Having played those twenty seconds her WHL club, the Tri-City Americans, promptly bumped her down to tier II. Of course youth told against Szabados, and the team went into the season with Colorado Avalanche draft pick Tyler Weiman as their starter, two nondescript goalies as backups, and a precocious Price seeing occasional bench time. But at the time it was easy to think Szabados had been brought in purely for PR value.
During her first AJHL season Szabados was not Sherwood Park's number one goaltender: that was 20-year-old Chris Denman. Denman was an established talent and a 2002 All-Star; in 2002-03 he would break the league's shutout record with 7 (the record has since risen to 10) and win the Friends of Alberta Junior Hockey Trophy for the league's lowest goals-against average. Denman wasn't going to get knocked out of Sherwood Park's net by a 16-year-old of any gender. Several other nobodies passed through the Sherwood Park net in a tumultuous season between the pipes. The season was so chaotic because of the one thing that could keep Denman out of Sherwood Park's goal: warming up for the fourth game of the year against Drayton Valley, he tore his MCL and missed several months.
With Denman out, Szabados was tapped to face the Bonnyville Pontiacs on October 2. It wasn't a huge step up for young Szabados. Already a member of the Edmonton Maple Leafs midget team, this was a natural progression for a player of her calibre. The Pontiacs were weak, though not exceptionally so; perhaps head coach Dan Auchenberg wanted to start Szabados off easy. She certainly had no problems in her tier II debut. Only thirteen shots came her way from a totally overwhelmed Bonnyville team. The 2002-03 Crusaders have not produced a single NHLer and very few minor professionals of consequence, but they were still a fine group that won the league by six points that year: Bonnyville was overwhelmed and Szabados opened her junior hockey career with a shutout.
When the score ran to 4-0 in the second period the Pontiacs went for the record books. They sent in their emergency goaltender, 18-year-old Maghan Grahn out of the University of Duluth. Grahn became the second female goaltender in AJHL history thirty-two minutes after Szabados became the first. Unlike Szabados, Grahn would be a footnote; in her 28 minutes of fame she allowed four goals on twenty-two shots and never again played a serious men's game.
On that day, Shannon Szabados became the first female player in the history of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and the Canadian Junior "A" Hockey League. These were not great milestones. What mattered was becoming the first female player to shut out the men in a serious junior league. She wasn't put in for a period to fill camera lenses: she was put in because she deserved to be there, and the way she was playing no coach would have dared taken her out. If any Bonnyville Pontiacs were chuckling under their breath at the girl goalie and joking about avoiding slap shots or passing four times before they shoot, that shutout would have shut them right up.
Szabados made history, but received little coverage outside Sherwood Park itself. A blurb in the "sports shorts" corners of the local paper, something for the local leatherlungs to talk about, and that was it. The Tri-City Americans appearance had been the story and now the story, or so the papers seemed to think, was over. In fact something far more significant was unfolding at Sherwood Park Arena that season, and would continue throughout the AJHL for years to come. Szabados was no one-game wonder and continued to stymie her male peers even once she was old news.
While Denman recovered from injury Szabados continued to play, recording five wins and two shutouts before November. Alas, as with any good sports movie, there were still obstacles thanks to a roster rule that was well-known in the junior ranks but obscure to the general public. If the Crusaders kept a 16-year-old Szabados on their 21-person roster, they would be unable to call up further players from midget for the rest of the season. Sherwood Park had to either return Szabados to the midget Edmonton Maple Leafs or forfeit roster flexibility for the rest of the season.
It came down to brutal arithmetic: when Denman was healthy Szabados's ice time would be limited, and it would better to let her start in midget if the alternative was losing the ability to call anyone else up. She was demoted by the end of October. But there was no question she'd be back. Denman called Szabados and told her not to worry; he wouldn't so much as take her name off her locker.
Szabados's fall had nothing to do with her gender, but it still made waves. The AJHL's general managers held a contentious vote on whether to allow Szabados to return to the AJHL. It was allowed, and by December Szabados was back in Crusaders colours, making her first start against the Calgary Royals on December 1. Only once Denman was fully healthy and established in record-setting form was Szabados returned to the midget for good. Szabados played her second Mac's midget AAA invitational that year, gaining plaudits for a 33-save performance despite allowing 5 goals to eventual champions Team Illinois.
Shannon Szabados's rookie AJHL season amounted to nine games and two shutouts with a .900 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average, as well as a first-class part-time midget season; numbers any 16-year-old goalie would be proud of. It announced her presence on the Canadian hockey stage and there was no question of whether she'd be playing with girls or boys in her first full season of junior eligibility.
Denman had graduated from junior and, after another WHL tryout fell short, Szabados began as Sherwood Park's full-time backup behind newly-acquired veteran Sheldon Michaelson. But goaltending controversy allowed Szabados to make her share of appearances, getting into 27 games with a 13-9-2 record, a .911 save percentage, 2.67 goals-against average, and two shutouts. In 2004-05 Szabados became Sherwood Park's starter and made the first of two AJHL All-Star appearances, although the Crusaders had fallen to the bottom of the league. Szabados's record of 9-24-5 looked bad, but a .910 save percentage told the true story.
By this point Sherwood Park was in a rebuilding phrase and Szabados, with at most two seasons of junior left, didn't fit in. At the beginning of 2005-06, Sherwood Park ingloriously sent Szabados to the Bonnyville Pontiacs for future considerations after only a single period in which she allowed three goals on 18 shots. Her Bonnyville debut came in relief of Chris Fern, stopping twelve out of twelve against the Grande Prairie Storm. A knee injury, as well as a run with the Canadian U-22 women's team hurt her season, and her save percentage fell below .900 for the only time in her junior career, but she remained the Pontiacs starter as Bonnyville finished fifth with 79 points in one of the most competitive divisions in junior history, the AJHL North (they were ten points ahead of the first-place South team). The Pontiacs were swept by three-time finalists and eventual champion Fort McMurray Oil Barons in the second round of the playoffs.
Szabados's head coach in Sherwood Park from 2004 onward, Greg Parks, had once said that he "wasn't a believer in a female playing in our league" but he had come around, not only playing Szabados regularly with Sherwood Park but bringing her with him to the Fort Saskatchewan Traders for an overage season in 2006-07. In her last junior season, Szabados went out with style. Fort Saskatchewan won the regular season title in what would be their last season before moving to St. Albert, advanced through two rounds of the playoffs, and only lost the league final in one of the league's all-time classic series to the Camrose Kodiaks in six games. Szabados was an All-Star for the second time and took the Friends of Alberta Junior Hockey Trophy, the first woman to win a major individual award in a major Canadian men's league. That last year she boasted a 2.13 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage, and four shutouts. You expect quality 20-year-old goalies to be dominant in the AJHL, and Szabados was. She was no longer "the girl goalie": she was the acknowledged and acclaimed finest goaltender in one of Canada's strongest tier II junior leagues.
But as Szabados's junior career wound down it became obvious what that Tri-City publicity shot had cost her. A momentary taste of WHL hockey had forfeited any chance of playing NCAA hockey and possibly a free education. The CHL was (and still is) considered professional and, in the crooked world of American college sports, any CHL alumnus would be ineligible to play at the NCAA level unless they spent a full season out of the game. Even if her CHL experience consisted of the preseason and one twenty-second appearance.
Everyone had known this very well when Szabados got those twenty seconds. Had she played full-time in the WHL, Szabados would have earned a free year of school for every year of major junior and a shot at a CIS roster, but she never went back to the Dub. Perhaps Szabados never would have gotten a chance with an NCAA men's team anyway, stymied by prejudice or legal wrangling, and turned down a chance to play with the women she had already risen above; either way, the NCAA system forbade her from going as far as her skills could take her.
Szabados didn't waste time with self-pity. In May of that year she committed to the Grant MacEwan men's team, where she was expected to start for head coach Bryan Keller. After a few years at MacEwan she moved to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, on whose men's roster she remains today, studying to become a physical fitness trainer.
Oh, and she became a stalwart on the Canadian women's hockey team, backstopping her country to gold at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics with some of the finest goaltending ever seen in a Canadian shirt, including shutting out both games in the medal round. But there have been a lot of good Canadian international goalies over the years, and very few who have achieved so much as Shannon Szabados. When she began, the best international women's hockey team in the world played at a heavy disadvantage compared to mediocre midget teams. In 2010, Canada posted winning records against good ones and beat junior "A" teams on occasion. All because of players like Szabados, who broke whatever boundaries were in the way of becoming the best players they could be.
Szabados is 26 years old, but if she retired tomorrow she would deserve a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. She blazed a trail in a less flashy but more remarkable way than the Rheaumes or the Wickenheiser. She was the first woman hockey player who played with men not because it was a great story, but because she was better than them.
|Other Today in Non-NHL History Articles|
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 — Kearney, Mark and Randy Ray. Whatever Happened To...?: Catching Up with Canadian Icons (Toronto: Dundurn, 2006), 161. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://books.google.ca/books?id=eU-iNvwywHQC&pg=PA160&hl=en&ei=FiJATsLqFc6ftgfVwK3-Ag&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&f=false. Note: this book falsely calls the QMJHL a "junior 'A'" league; it is in fact major junior.
 — Kingston, Gary. "WHL Insider." Vancouver Sun, October 5, 2002.
 — "Girl goalie sent down to improve." Spartanburg Herald-Journal, October 2, 2002. Accessed September 24, 2002. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=iTgfAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IdAEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3515,204984.
 — Rauw, Murray. "All-star spotlight on goalies." Calgary Herald, January 23, 2012.
 — Alberta Junior Hockey League. Guidebook 2012-13. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://ajhl.ca/media/files/upload/2012_Record_Book_-_August_2012_9z6.pdf.
 — Alberta Junior Hockey League. League Award Winners - History. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://www.ajhl.ca/media/files/upload/League_Award_Winners_kr7.pdf, 3.
 — Rauw, Murray. "Crusader becomes Mr. Shutout: Denman records seven goose eggs." Calgary Herald, February 13, 2003.
 — Stock, Curtis. "Altering perceptions part of Szabados's game plan." Canwest News Service, February 11, 2010. Accessed October 1, 2012. http://www2.canada.com/topics/sports/hockey/canadiens/story.html?id=ec6a90a8-21e2-41c1-8743-4a4ec0a87836.
 — Drinnan, Gregg. "Mick won't tip his hand with goalies." Kamloops Daily News, October 5, 2002.
 — "Maghan Grahn hockey statistics and profile." HockeyDB. Retrieved September 25, 2012. http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php?pid=91131.
 — MacDonald, Lesley. "No setback will derail Shannon's quest." Edmonton Journal, November 5, 2002.
 — Canadian Press. "Rules could keep female goalie out of Alberta junior hockey." Alaska Highway News, October 22, 2012.
 — Korobanik, John. "Szabados heads back to midget after AJHL team follow rules." Edmonton Journal, October 22, 2002.
 — Owen, Paul. "Nothing about this season was typical for Shannon Szabados." Merge, August 2010, 24.
 — "Szabados in nets for Crusaders today." Edmonton Journal, December 1, 2002.
 — "Day 1 at a glance." Calgary Herald, December 27, 2002.
 — Rauw, Murray. "Hard-hitting flu bug turns Crusaders into 'skeleton team'." Calgary Herald, November 15, 2003.
 — Spencer, Christopher. "Just one of the boys." Edmonton Journal, December 18, 2004.
 — Tait, Cam. "Early AJHL clash to feature battle of undefeated clubs." Edmonton Journal, September 22, 2005.
 — Tait, Cam. "Fort Saskatchewan product opts for chance at scholarship." Edmonton Journal, September 27, 2005.
 — Tait, Cam. "Pontiacs goalie sits out reunion." Edmonton Journal, November 5, 2005.
 — "Shannon Szabados: Stopping pucks at the Four Nations Cup and dreaming of the Olympics." National Post, November 7, 2006. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=9202b186-399c-42b6-9974-4c4f314d3621.
 — Tait, Cam. "Teen skip hopes for sweeping success at junior provincials." Edmonton Journal, January 9, 2007.
 — Alberta Junior Hockey League. League Award Winners - History. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://www.ajhl.ca/media/files/upload/League_Award_Winners_kr7.pdf, 3.
 — All statistics courtesy the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The statistics provided to me contradict those available through online sources, most notably her HockeyDB profile. However, the statistics provided to me by the league match those given in contemporary articles as well as my own ten-year-old memories; those on HockeyDB do not. These are Shannon Szabados's career AJHL statistics:
|2002-03||Sherwood Park Crusaders||AJHL||9||7||1||0||?||?||?||2||452||18||2.39||180||162||.900|
|2003-04||Sherwood Park Crusaders||AJHL||27||13||9||2||?||?||?||2||1436||64||2.67||722||658||.911|
|2004-05||Sherwood Park Crusaders||AJHL||42||9||24||5||?||?||?||0||2310||133||3.45||1485||1352||.910|
|2005-06||Sherwood Park Crusaders||AJHL||1||0||1||0||0||0||2||0||20||3||9.00||18||15||.833|
|2006-07||Fort Saskatchewan Traders||AJHL||43||31||7||4||0||0||0||4||2508||89||2.13||1111||1022||.920|
Thank you to Alberta Junior Hockey League communications director and statistics guru Charla Flett for providing this information.
 — National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2012-13 NCAA Division I Manual (Indianapolis: NCAA Publications, 2012), 65-67. Note specifically that Szabados would be ineligible even without the 20-second regular season cameo, as an athlete is not permitted to play "games or scrimmages" in a practice or try-out under 22.214.171.124.
 — Petersen, Scott. "Griffins get the girl; Shannon Szabados signs on as starting goalie for MacEwan men's hockey team." Edmonton Journal, May 25, 2007.