COLUMBUS, GA – According to the SPHL schedule, Saturday, March 15th was the next to last home game for the Columbus Cottonmouths for the 2013-2014 regular season. Even with playoff seeding implications, it ended up being so much more than just a game.
It was history.
For the first time in the ten year history of the league, a female suited up for one of its teams. Two days before the contest, Columbus signed goaltender Shannon Szabados to a contract. Szabados was not just any goalie – she was the two-time gold medal winning goalie for the Canadian Olympic womens’ ice hockey team.
Throughout her formative years, Szabados had played with the boys. When she got to her college years, she played for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology on the mens team. It was there that she met three teammates – Jordan Draper, Kyle Johnson and Andy Willigar – who were instrumental in bringing her to Columbus.
Following her success in Vancouver in 2010 and most recently in Sochi, Russia, Szabados wanted an opportunity to play professionally in North America. At the suggestion of the three players, Cottonmouths head coach/general manager Jerome Bechard contacted Szabados, setting in motion the events that would bring her south.
With the hockey world and more than 4,200 people watching, Szabados took the ice for Saturday’s game, putting her in the same sentence with Manon Rheaume, Erin Whitten, Angela Ruggiero and Kira Hurley as pioneers. As the cameras clicked, she took her position between the pipes and settled in for a night to remember.
Szabados gave the crowd a show in the first period, stopping 12 of the 13 Knoxville Ice Bears shots that she faced. Things did not go as well in the middle frame as the Ice Bears scored three goals in a span of 4:43 to turn a Columbus lead into a Knoxville controlled contest. By their own admission, Bechard and the Cottonmouths players said that they left their goalie “hung out to dry”, taking blame for the visitors onslaught.
When all was said and done, Szabados suffered the loss but played a solid game. She faced 31 shots and stopped 27 of them, drawing praise from both her own team and her opponents. In the end, the result mattered little to many of the fans in the crowd, especially the little girls who for the first time saw proof that if they dreamed big and applied themselves, anything is possible.