Published on Elle Beaver – March 11, 2014
It’s been a busy couple weeks for Shannon Szabados.
Just over two weeks ago, the 27 year-old was laying at centre ice of the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi with a gold medal around her neck and her 20 teammates standing behind heras Szabados celebrated a second straight Olympic gold medal win.
On Wednesday, Szabados accomplished another remarkable feat: suiting up with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers for a morning practice. Just two days later, Szabados joined a short list of women who have signed contracts to play for a professional men’s league when she joined the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Despite the impressive achievement of practicing with the Oilers, it wasn’t quite what some fans wanted. The previous night, users took to Twitter with the hashtag #SzabadosForBackup as they crossed their fingers to witness history. Earlier in the day, the Oilers traded away their backup goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and in turn brought in another goalie, Viktor Fasth, in a separate trade. The problem staring down the Oilers was a big one: with a game the same night that the trade happened, they were without a backup goalie.
Surprisingly, this conflict happens more than expected. Due to a rule in effect from 1966, the NHL requires teams to have two goalies dressed for each game. In the past website producers, beer league veterans, and local hockey coaches have all gotten frantic calls to dress as an emergency backup.
Edmonton’s situation was more unique: they had (a bit) more time to organize a backup goalie, and the city is heavily ingrained into the history of hockey and has a wealth of local talent. Szabados, a native of Edmonton and current starting goalie for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology men’s hockey team, was a serious contender. Had she got the call, she would have been the first female to dress for a regular season NHL game.
Ultimately, the Oilers dressed Kurtis Mucha, the starting goalie for the University of Alberta’s men’s team. While the hopes of creating history were dashed, the real progress was happening online.
A visit to most online sports forums discussing women’s sports is sure to evolve into users throwing out baseless insults regarding the lack of excitement, skill, and competitiveness of the women’s game.
God forbid you should end up in a Yahoo! answers discussion about the WNBA (I’ll spare you clicking the link: the top rated answer essentially argues that they’d be better off playing in bikinis). Other discussions see sports writers come out of the woodwork to dismiss women’s basketball while also pointing out it’s the truest form of the sport, without a hint of irony. Over a decade ago, ESPN’s Graham Hays started the conversation in shooting down these arguments and many of his points still ring true today.
Many are familiar with the story of Manon Rhéaume, who played in two exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Lightning just over two decades ago, went on to play 24 games in a five-year career in the now-defunct International Hockey League, and became the first female to play in Canadian major junior “A” hockey with the Trois-Rivières Draveurs.
Rheaume’s short stint with the Lightning faced similar criticism.
Despite Rheaume breaking the gender barrier and starting in the Lightning’s first home game, then general manager Phil Esposito freely admitted the move was a publicity stunt – something many use to discount the incredible work ethic and athleticism Rheaume showed in stopping seven of nine shots in a period of NHL hockey.
Two years ago, Peyton Parker drew headlines around Ottawa when she was signed to the Almonte Thunder, a Jr. B team. Next year, Parker will play for the Western Mustangs. Still, commenters insinuated it was nothing but a gimmick while others told her to “stick to ringette.”
Szabados is similarly trailblazing. She was the first female to play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League as well as the WHL. Before going to train for the 2010 Olympics, she spent two seasons with the MacEwan University’s men’s team.
When it came to reactions though, things were different with the Szabados story. The aforementioned hashtag, which was launched by the official Oilers Nation account, took off as fans flocked to Twitter to show their support. When Szabados hit the ice for practice Wednesday, those same fans hunted high and low for photos and video and shared them across the social network.
Most importantly, the online conversation stayed, for the most part, positive. On Reddit, the top comment threads discussed how exciting it was for her to join the Oilers, words of encouragement, and even one father discussing how the event will hopefully serve as inspiration for his own two young girls.
The comments proved to be even more positive when Szabados signed with Columbus. The highest-voted post in the comment thread on the signing read,
“I wish her luck. I’d love to see women playing goal in the NHL, where it’s not a headline. Hell, I’d love to see any position be intermixed and it just be a norm.
Yes, I understand many think that women aren’t fast enough or can’t take the hits; but if they can prove it, why not let ‘em.”
Another top-rated comment called out the CBS Sports article’s cheap shot at the end that suggested, tiredly again, that it might just be a publicity stunt.
Even in online news comment sections, the ground zero of online vitriol, reactions were generally positive. One commenter wrote: “What a great role model for young girls! Congratulations Ms. Szabados!” After she signed with Columbus, comments remained overwhelmingly congratulatory.
Granted, not everyone was as excited about the two big developments.
One Twitter user felt the need to bring cheap, hockey-related euphemisms to the conversation, asking the goalie to let him “crowd her crease.” A newspaper commenter stooped to similarly low jokes, including: “The only ice women belong near is the ice in the freezer when they are making dinner.” (Uh, good one?) Others discussed the fact that the national women’s team participated in a tournament with midget boys teams, comprised of 16-17 year-olds, as proof that women can’t keep up with men on the ice. Obviously, Szabados’ time with the MacEwan and NAIT were conveniently ignored.
In spite of the rare stupid comment, though, the fans that took to the web overwhelmingly seemed to reach a consensus: if she’s got the skill, let her play.
I’m not sure when a woman will first play in a regular season NHL game. And as leagues like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where most of the Canada and U.S. Olympians compete, continue to grow in popularity and develop young female players, such a feat might not even ramin the be-all-end-all measure of success that it’s deemed to be now.
While many are disappointed Szabados didn’t get to join the Oilers for Tuesday night’s game, the change in attitude surrounding a female joining a professional hockey team shows just how far the women’s game has come.