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Gender is no barrier

Canada's goalie sets her sights on playing for men's team

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OTTAWA -- Shannon Szabados will soon do something she rarely does -- play a full season with a female hockey team.

Canada's starter in world women's championship finals since the 2010 Winter Olympics has spent most of her life playing with and against boys and men.

The one season she didn't was the winter the Canadian women's team centralized in Calgary to prepare for the 2010 Olympics.

Szabados played herself from Canada's alternate goalie to starter in the Olympic gold medal 2009-10 season. Her 28-save shutout helped Canada to a 2-0 win over the U.S. for the gold medal in Vancouver.

The 26-year-old from Edmonton will again join the Canadian women in Calgary later this year to begin preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"The last Olympic year was a lot of fun," Szabados said Saturday. "I didn't really know what to expect going into it. This year I have a little better idea of how the year will go.

"I think I'll go into the year with the same mentality. At any point, any one of us can be the No. 1. Every time I get on the ice, just fighting to do my best."

Twenty-eight players will be invited to try out for the 2014 Olympic team, with 23 of them currently playing for Canada at the women's world hockey championship in Ottawa.

The host country had Saturday off and faces in Russia in Monday's semifinal. The Russians defeated Switzerland 2-1 in Saturday's quarter-final. The U.S. will meet Finland, a 1-0 quarter-final winner over Germany, in Monday's other semifinal.

Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser has sat out two straight games with an upper-body injury and hasn't practised since Tuesday. Head coach Dan Church said she could be back on the ice on Sunday.

Canada opened the tournament with a 3-2 shootout win over the U.S.

Szabados stopped three of four shots in the shootout. Her save on Hilary Knight in the fourth round clinched the win.

"It was awesome," Szabados said with a grin. "It's always exciting to play them and even more exciting when it goes to a shootout.

"I was a little nervous, coming from the guys game. I hadn't faced really a breakaway from a female for like a year, so I was little nervous. I just said 'be patient' and the girls scored some nice goals."

Szabados just completed her fifth year of college eligibility with her hometown Northern Alberta Institute of Technology men's team. The Ooks won their first Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference championship in 16 years.

Szabados posted a 15-2 record during the regular season and carried the league's lowest goals-against average at 1.58. She was 6-0 in the post-season with a save percentage of .930.

Prior to playing in the ACAC, Szabados spent five years in the Junior A men's Alberta Junior Hockey League for Sherwood Park, Bonneyville and Fort Saskatchewan.

She was named the AJHL's top goaltender in 2007 after helping Fort Saskatchewan to a 45-11-4 record in her final season. Szabados played for the Grant MacEwan men for three seasons before transferring to NAIT for the last two.

She's accustomed to flipping back and forth between the men's and women's game. The differences are significant.

"The guys take the puck and crash the net and try to shoot it as hard as they can and score," Szabados explained. "The girls are a little smarter with the puck, more patient and they shoot to create.

"A guy can take a slapshot from the line and there's a chance it's going to go in whereas the girls know their best opportunity is to get a deflection or a screen or a rebound."

"Tracking the puck is the biggest thing. The releases are different so I really try to track the puck off the girls' stick when I first come to camp."

Church wants Szabados to maintain her pace when she joins Canada for camps and tournaments.

"It's the speed she's moving at because the guys shoot the puck so fast," Church said. "Our players shoot the puck fast, but it's still a difference because you are talking about guys who have played major junior.

"Our task is to keep her at that speed. To make sure she's set, ready and prepared and not slowing down because she can. That's the challenge we give to Shannon. She's responded really well in her preparation here for worlds."

Szabados wants to pursue men's pro hockey following the 2014 Olympics, which thanks to Manon Rheaume is no longer an outlandish idea.

Rheaume, Canada's goaltender at the 1998 Winter Olympics, played in NHL exhibition games in 1992 and 1993 and in several games of minor pro hockey. Szabados expects she'll need to hire an agent to drum up interest in her.

"Being a girl, I don't think anyone's going to just offer up an opportunity," she said. "Probably have to do some digging and get an in some where."

With the exception of a few games with the Western Hockey League's Tri-City Americans when she was a teenager, Szabados has always played hockey in Alberta.

She's prepared to go far afield to try her luck with a minor pro team. A former NAIT teammate played in the Southern Professional Hockey League this season and she's intrigued by that.

Szabados married Alex Ritchie in June 2012 in a ceremony held in a NAIT courtyard. Ritchie is a former junior goaltender himself and an assistant coach of a midget men's team in Edmonton.

Szabados says he's encouraged her to pursue her dream of a pro career with a men's team.

"We've talked about it and he said 'If that's something you want to do, do it while you're young,"' she said. "I think it's something I would regret if I didn't at least try."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2013 B7

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