The door is open for Shannon Szabados to be the Columbus Cottonmouths’ No. 1 goaltender this season.
With Winnipeg’s Andrew Loewen now retired, Szabados will be the only goalie at Cottonmouths’ training camp with previous experience in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The 29-year-old from Edmonton posted a 15-9-1 record as a rookie last season, along with a .907 save percentage and a goals-against average of 3.12.
"I’m pretty confident either way I’ll get a good amount of ice time, but definitely I’d like to play a little bit of a bigger role this year with a year of experience," Szabados told The Canadian Press. "I’m a lot more confident going into this season with how I played last year.
"I don’t know how established you can be after one year, but hopefully I’ll build off that."
Szabados signed a one-year contract for a second season in the eight-team men’s pro league. The Cottonmouths, based in Columbus, Ga., will play 56 regular-season games starting Oct. 23, plus playoffs.
The league’s average weekly salary is between $300 to $400 with some living expenses also covered.
Cottonmouths coach and general manager Jerome Bechard of Regina has invited two other goalies to training camp — Joel Danyluk of Yorkton, Sask., and Brandon Jaeger of Champlin, Minn. He’s open to giving Szabados more than the 25 starts she had last season.
"I have a couple young guys coming out of college," Bechard said. "She’s proven herself. She’s only the proven commodity I have right now.
"She’s going to get the same amount of ice time, if not more."
The five-foot-eight 148-pound goalie earned her first professional win — and the Cottonmouths’ first victory of last season — with a 34-save effort Nov. 21 in a 5-4 overtime win over the Fayetteville FireAntz.
Szabados was named the SPHL’s player of the week Dec. 2 and March 24. The Cottonmouths released a Shannon Szabados bobblehead doll in January.
Szabados made 27 saves in Canada’s 3-2 thrilling overtime win over the U.S. to defend women’s Olympic hockey gold in 2014. She posted a 28-save shutout over the Americans in the women’s Olympic hockey final in 2010.
But she has spent the majority of her career in men’s leagues with a combined eight seasons in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.
She’s prepared for her second season in the SPHL with a heavier workload in mind.
Szabados spent the last two weeks of August in the annual three-on-three camp run by Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Perry Pearn. Several NHL players use the Edmonton camp as a tune-up for their seasons.
"I feel pretty prepared for this season definitely," Szabados said. "This summer, I got on the ice a lot. I was in the gym a lot."
Szabados did not play for the national women’s team at either the 2014 Four Nations Cup or 2015 women’s world championship. It’s possible she won’t be available to play for Canada this winter because of her pro commitments.
The Canadian women will centralize in 2017-’18 in preparation to defend the gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Szabados isn’t participating in the national team’s eight-day camp in Calgary this week. Hockey Canada’s general manager of women’s national teams says it isn’t urgent right now for Szabados to return to the Canadian team.
"We completely support what she’s doing," Melody Davidson said. "Shannon and I have talked a lot about it and she wants to be a part of our program. At some point over the next 18 months, she’ll re-enter our program."
Davidson can live with Szabados’s absence for now. Davidson knows her goalie is in an intense daily training environment and a demanding league that will make Szabados better at her position.
The GM also wants to give other goaltenders international games. There aren’t many opportunities to do so in years between Olympic Games.
"We’ve got a lot of good talent in the goaltending area, so it allows us to see a lot of people we might not see if we’re taking Shannon to every event," Davidson said.