Shannon Szabados knows from her taste of the Southern Professional Hockey League to expect the unexpected this season.
The goalie went down to Georgia at the end of September to get ready for a full season with the Columbus Cottonmouths. Training camp opens Wednesday.
The 10-team SPHL is a minor pro men’s league based in the southeastern United States.
Szabados started in a pair of one-goal losses to conclude the 2013-14 regular season and played the third period of a Cottonmouths playoff loss in April.
"Getting a taste of what it would be like for the next seven or eight months that I’ll be here was definitely an advantage," Szabados said from Columbus.
"It will be nice to start here fresh at the beginning of the season and get in a few games and be on the ice every day."
The Cottonmouths open at home Oct. 24 against the Knoxville Ice Bears.
Head coach and general manager Jerome Bechard told The Canadian Press he was leaning towards starting Szabados in the season-opener, even though returning veteran Andrew Loewen of Winnipeg has more pro experience.
"I want to get that first win for her really bad," Bechard said. "We play 56 games. In my mind, right off the bat, the plan is for her to get 20 games, if not more. I guess time will tell and we’ll see."
Szabados said she hadn’t been told of Bechard’s plans for her, but she wouldn’t expect him to ease her into the season based on previous experience. She accepted his invitation last March to join the Cottonmouths.
Szabados had just backstopped the Canadian women’s hockey team to Olympic gold Feb. 20 in Sochi, Russia. Szabados also filled in March 5 at an Edmonton Oilers practice when the NHL team was temporarily short a goalie.
After assuring Szabados he would give her time to adjust to her new team, Bechard threw her into the final home game after just two practices. Szabados stopped 27 shots March 15 in a 4-3 loss to Knoxville.
Szabados also had 32 saves in a 3-2 loss in Huntsville less than a week later for a combined 3.55 goals-against average and .894 save percentage.
The 28-year-old from Edmonton played the last 23 minutes of Game 1 of the SPHL championship against Pensacola in relief of Loewen. Szabados allowed three goals in a 9-1 blowout. The Ice Flyers swept Columbus in the two-game series.
Bechard re-signed Szabados in July with the expectation she and Loewen will be the Cottonmouths goalies this season.
"I wouldn’t bring her in if she wasn’t legit and didn’t give us an opportunity to win," Bechard said. "She is probably one of the most technical goalies I’ve seen.
"If she’s susceptible, it would be on a rebound, back-door goal because she is a little smaller than Andrew and some of the other goalies. But she’s pretty acrobatic and goes side to side with the best of them. She’s really key on making that first save look simple and not giving up the rebounds."
Szabados, five foot eight and 148 pounds, made 27 saves in Canada’s 3-2 thrilling overtime win over the U.S. to defend women’s hockey gold in Sochi. She posted a 28-save shutout over the Americans in the women’s Olympic hockey final in 2010.
But Szabados has spent the majority of her career in men’s leagues and it’s where she feels comfortable. Szabados played four years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with Sherwood Park, Bonneyville and Fort Saskatchewan.
Szabados was named the AJHL’s top goaltender in 2006-07. She spent five years in Alberta men’s college hockey with Grant MacEwen and then NAIT.
She set an ACAC record for the lowest goals-against average (1.58) in 2012-13 when the Ooks won their first championship in 16 years. The SPHL will be her toughest challenge yet in the men’s game.
"It’s definitely the highest level I’ve played," Szabados said. "Going from junior to the ACAC and then to here, it’s similar style except the guys are older, bigger, stronger and faster."
"For me, reaction time and working that into my game has helped me over the years. I started playing hockey with guys when I was five and have stuck with it. Now there’s a lot more female teams, but I really didn’t have that option."
The Cottonmouths cover her living and team expenses. She says the average weekly salary in the SPHL is in the range of $350 to $450.
Szabados says her teammates on the Canadian women’s team haven’t given her grief about playing men’s hockey when she could be playing in, and promoting, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League at home.
"On the players’ side of it, they understand," she said. "As a goalie, it’s a little easier to play against guys twice your size. A lot of them have said if they could do it, they would. Especially within Hockey Canada, they’ve been pretty supportive."
Bechard’s connection to women’s hockey is cousin Kelly Bechard, a forward from Sedley, Sask., who won Olympic gold with the Canadian women in 2002.
He’s a Regina native who compiled 280 penalty minutes in a single season with the Moose Jaw Warriors back in 1987-88.
Goaltender Manon Rheaume appeared in the first of two NHL pre-season games 22 years ago with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bechard admits the novelty of a female goalie in the male game still fill seats.
"I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say ‘hey, it’s a great story with her being here and competing against the guys,"’ he said. "I’m trying to grow hockey in a non-traditional sport in the south
"I’m not the most traditional guy to begin with, I think. I relish being different and trying to do things a little differently than the norm. This is just a great thing."
Loewen also grabbed the publicity bull by the horns when Szabados played her first game last season. He’s YouTube famous for dancing the "Wobble" in full goalie gear at intermission alongside the Venom dance team and Boomer the cuddly rattlesnake.
"He’s a good guy and we got along right away," Szabados said. "He’s helped me out a lot."