Wednesday August 27, 2014

Gender equality edging its way into hockey


On Saturday, March 15 a Canadian goalie debuted in professional hockey resulting in that goaltender stopping 27 shots for the Columbus Cottonmouths in a 4-3 loss to the Knoxville Ice Bears in Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) action.

Normally that debut wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for one thing. That goalie was a woman.

Wait…  Did you read that correctly? Did that really say ‘a woman’?

 If you were surprised by that last little bit please, go back and read it once again.  We’ll wait.

Finished? Yes, you read it correctly. A woman has made her way into male dominated professional sports.

Shannon Szabados, standout goalie for Canada’s Women’s National Team and a two time Olympic gold medalist, made recent history by becoming the first female to play in the SPHL.

How dare she! Does she not realize hockey is a man’s sport?

Joking aside, Szabados has earned her spot on the Cottonmouths and is hands down the best female goalie to ever play the game.

And although she lost her debut game you can’t really fault her.

She made 27 saves on 31 shots and let in two powerplay goals while her team got severely outplayed even strength (their three goals came via the powerplay).

But before people start claiming that Szabados’ presence in the SPHL is merely a publicity stunt to help grow the sport of hockey down south please listen to this: This isn’t Szabados’ first foray into men’s hockey.

As a matter of fact, Szabados has spent more time playing on men’s teams than she has on women’s teams.

Szabados is a three plus year veteran of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (Junior ‘A’ men’s hockey) where she went 86-51-12 and took home All-Star game co-MVP honours (2004-05) and team co-MVP honours (Sherwood Park Crusaders, 2004-05).

At the end of the 2006-07 season Szabados was awarded the AJHL Top Goatender Award, becoming the first female to ever win the award.  She was also named the Fort Saskatchewan Traders Team MVP at the end of the season thanks to her 31-7-4 record, 2.13 goals against average and sparkling .920 save percentage.

Szabados also spent time with the Grant MacEwan Griffins (ACAC) men’s hockey team and the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, the latter of which ended up ruining her shot at an NCAA scholarship (she would have most likely played Division I hockey on a men’s team if not for the WHL).

But Szabados isn’t the first female to play men’s professional hockey.

Manon Rheaume took part in an NHL exhibition game in 1992 with the Tampa Bay Lightning before playing 24 games with eight different men’s teams over a five year span.

Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon also spent time on a men’s team. Wickenheiser picked up two goals and five assists in 43 games with HCK Salamat and Linden Hockey in Finland, while American defence(wo)man Angela Ruggiero played on game with the CHL’s Tulsa Oilers where she picked up an assist.

Current Swiss goaltender (and beauty) Florence Schelling also  plays on a men’s team.  Schelling is currently the starting goalie for the Switzerland league three team EHC Bulach.

Actually, Schelling has been the European Rheaume/Szabados in that she is constantly setting the mark for females in hockey across the pond.

Schelling has been the first female starting goalie in Swiss pro hockey. She played for the Zurich Lions Men’s U20 (Junior) team from 2003-2008 and became the first woman to dress in an NLB exhibition game (NLB being the Swiss AHL to the NLA).

And get this, no men who play on the same team as either Szabados or Schelling care about the fact that they are women. If they can help the team win, Schelling helped get EHC Bulach into the playoffs while Szabados joins Columbus for its playoff run, the players really couldn’t care less as to if the goalie is male or female (goalies are generally different anyway).

However the path that those two are forging for other women is great.

Let’s just hope that other sports will take notice of hockey’s extention of the olive branch and follow suit.



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