Canada’s Szabados to join men’s pro league

Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados helped her country to Olympic glory last month with an incredible performance against Americans in the gold-medal game. (Julio Cortez/AP)

EDMONTON — Fresh off her second Olympic gold medal and a practice with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, goaltender Shannon Szabados will join the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League next week.

The Cottonmouths announced Friday the team intended to sign the Edmonton goalie. Szabados would be the first female to play in the 10-team SPHL since its formation 10 years ago, the team said.

It’s been an eventful two weeks for Szabados, who backstopped the Canadian women’s hockey team to Olympic gold Feb. 20 in Sochi.

"When I got home from Sochi, I thought I’d be hanging my stuff up for the summer, but definitely excited to get over there," Szabados told The Canadian Press.

"There’s three guys that I played college with that play on this team in Columbus and they’ve been bugging me for a couple of years to go there."

"I had never talked to their head coach and he called me yesterday. Honestly, I thought he was calling to ask me if I would want to go there next year. It happened a little fast, but I’m excited."

Szabados made 27 saves in Canada’s 3-2 thrilling overtime win over the U.S. to defend the gold in Sochi. She posted a 28-save shutout over the Americans in the women’s Olympic hockey final in 2010.

But the 27-year-old has spent the majority of her hockey career in men’s leagues.

She played for Sherwood Park, Bonneyville and Fort Saskatchewan during her four years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Szabados was named the AJHL’s top goaltender in 2006-07 after helping Fort Saskatchewan to a league-best record of 45-11-0-4.

She then spent five years in Alberta men’s college hockey with Grant MacEwen and then NAIT.

She set a league record in 2012-13 for the lowest goals-against average (1.58) and her NAIT Ooks won their first championship in 16 years. Szabados stopped 30 of 31 shots in the final game.

Cottonmouths captain Kyle Johnson, forward Jordan Draper and defenceman Andy Willigar are her former NAIT teammates. She suspects they paved her road to her first pro tryout.

"Probably the guys had a lot to do with it," Szabados said. "It probably made the coach feel a little more at ease with the situation."

Szabados will head to Columbus on Wednesday and will be introduced at a news conference the following day prior to a game at home against the Pensacola Ice Flyers. Winnipeg’s Andrew Loewen is the starting goaltender for the Cottonmouths

"I am very excited to get a world-class athlete that has competed and has faced, high-pressured situations," Cottonmouths head coach Jerome Bechard said in a statement.

"She won a championship with NAIT last year alongside Andy Willigar and Jordan Draper so I know she can compete at this level," Bechard said. "We are working on her immigration, and we are looking to sign her officially Thursday, where she will be backing up Loewen.

"She will play when she feels comfortable and situated."

The Cottonmouths are 23-22-3 and rank seventh in the league.

Szabados participated in an Edmonton Oilers practice Wednesday. The Oilers were short a goalie on trade deadline day awaiting the arrival of Viktor Fasth from Anaheim.

Szabados is grateful for that practice now because it’s the only time she’s been on the ice since winning Olympic gold Feb. 20.

"I haven’t been in the gym, I haven’t been on the ice, I haven’t been sleeping well," Szabados confessed. "It’s been a whirlwind. I told (the coach) I’m not going to rush into anything. If I don’t feel comfortable I might not even play at all this year.

"I want to go there and get on the ice and see how I feel. I still have to unpack from Sochi and pack for this. I’m not too worried. It’s only been two weeks."

No woman has ever played in an NHL regular-season game. Goaltender Manon Rheaume became the first to play in an exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992.

Canadian women’s star Hayley Wickenheiser has played as a forward in men’s leagues in Finland and Sweden.

The SPHL also includes the Bloomington Thunder, Fayetteville FireAntz, Huntsville Havoc, Knoxville IceBears, Louisiana IceGators, Mississippi RiverKings, Mississippi Surge and Peoria Rivermen.

Szabados is accustomed to joining male teams. She believes her former Ook teammates will help her settle into the Cottonmouths locker room.

"With having those three guys that I’ve played with and since this has happened, at least a handful have tweeted at me and reached out to me," she said. "The older I’ve gotten, the easier the transition has been to a new team. I’m honestly not worried at all. They seem like a good group of guys."

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