PLYMOUTH, Mich. â€” Switching from men’s to women’s hockey is like riding a bike for Shannon Szabados.
Canada’s premiere female goalie has spent the majority of her career facing shots from men in either Junior A, college or minor pro leagues.
Szabados typically spends the most time in the women’s game in the six months leading up to the Winter Olympics when the national team is training full-time in Calgary.
It’s a formula that has worked for the 30-year-old from Edmonton. Szabados was Canada’s winning goaltender in the gold-medal games of both 2010 and 2014, allowing two goals on a combined 55 shots.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at going back and forth between the two,” Szabados said earlier this week at the women’s world championship.
With the 2018 Winter Games on the horizon, she’s left the men’s game earlier. Szabados juggled several demands on her in 2016 and something had to give.
Injuring her medial collateral ligament just over a year ago in her second season with the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Columbus Cottonmouths meant an off-season without quality training.
She tried out for the SPHL’s Peoria Rivermen in October, but was released after a goals-against average of 6.10 and a save percentage of .792 playing in parts of two games.
Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel told CBC Sports that he signed Szabados in a “package deal” to get her boyfriend Carl Nielsen to sign as well. Trudel called the players’ relationship “cancerous” on the team.
Szabados wouldn’t counter, saying she preferred to take the high road. She did say Trudel’s comments impacted her ability to get another pro tryout.
“I’d like to clear the air and say my part, but at the same time I think it’s more important to be professional about it,” she said then.
Hockey Canada had also insisted last September that Szabados make herself available to the Canadian women for games before the end of 2016.
Szabados hadn’t been in Canada’s net since the Olympic final Feb. 20, 2014. There were players on the national team who had never played in front of her and coaches who had never coached her.
She was invited to play for the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs of the Chinook League, a triple-A senior men’s league that includes minor pro and college players.
But Szabados knew even before her 54 saves in a 6-4 win over the Stony Plain Eagles on Dec. 4 that women’s hockey had to be her priority this winter. That was the only game she played for the Chiefs.
Szabados wanted to get healthier and fitter, or she wouldn’t be ready to be centralized with her Canadian teammates when they begin preparations this summer for Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“As a goalie, especially one that was trying to recover from an injury, facing 57 shots a game wasn’t really conducive to recovering from an injury,” Szabados explained.
“You get on a team full-time, the demands are pretty high. You train, but you can’t push your body off the ice as much as you would like.”
The five-foot-eight, 146-pound netminder hit the gym hard and commuted weekly to Calgary this winter for Hockey Canada skills and goaltending sessions at WinSport. Nielson made sure she got shooting reps in net.
“He’s my personal shooter,” Szabados said.
When starter Ann-Renee Desbien suffered a knee injury nine minutes into an exhibition game against the U.S. on Dec. 17, Szabados came off the bench to make 32 saves in a 5-3 win in Plymouth, Mich.
“I was a little nervous, but I felt comfortable,” she said. “It also speaks a lot to where women’s hockey has come even since Sochi. That difference in the play, there’s not as big of a gap.”
Two days later, Szabados’s 23 saves helped Canada to a 3-2 overtime win over the Americans in a second game in Sarnia, Ont.
The world championship is her first international tournament since the 2014 Olympics. Canada meets Finland in Thursday’s semifinal.
Szabados held Canada in their opener with 28 saves in a 2-0 loss. She wasn’t tested as much in an 8-0 win over Russia, but shut the door on a few odd-man rushes to preserve her shutout.
Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin described Szabados as the team’s backbone. Szabados wants to be that heading into Pyeongchang.
“I don’t think that anything will compare to when you get to wear the Maple Leaf,” Szabados said. “Playing in December and getting to be here at worlds has kind of lit that fire.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press