Sz­aba­dos takes NWHL com­mute in stride

The Observer (Sarnia) - - SPORTS -

DONNA SPENCER

SASKA­TOON — Shan­non Sz­aba­dos is get­ting to know ev­ery kilo­me­tre of the I-90 on Lake Erie’s south side.

The vet­eran goal­tender for the Cana­dian women’s team makes a 700-kilo­me­tre round trip on the in­ter­state from Lorain, Ohio, to Buf­falo, N.Y., twice a week to play and prac­tise with the NWHL’s Buf­falo Beauts.

“Exit 27, that’s my go-to. On the way to Buf­falo, there’s a Shell and a Tim Hor­tons,” she said Thurs­day at the Four Na­tions Cup tour­na­ment.

Sz­aba­dos has been the coun­try’s go-to goalie in many world and Olympic fi­nals since 2010.

The 32-year-old from Ed­mon­ton hasn’t played in a lot of Four Na­tions for Canada, how­ever, be­cause she’s often fac­ing male shoot­ers at this time of year.

Sz­aba­dos has spent the ma­jor­ity of her hockey ca­reer in men’s leagues start­ing with ex­hi­bi­tion games for WHL’s Tri-City Amer­i­cans at age 16 to full sea­sons in the Al­berta Ju­nior Hockey League, Al­berta Col­leges Ath­letic Con­fer­ence and the South­ern Pro­fes­sional Hockey League.

Any sus­tained time in the women’s game were win­ters she spent cen­tral­ized with the Cana­dian team in Cal­gary pre­par­ing for Olympic Games.

Her body’s needs, her per­sonal life and ge­og­ra­phy fac­tored into sign­ing with the NWHL’s Beauts.

Lorain, just west of Cleve­land, is the home­town of her part­ner Carl Nielsen and where Sz­aba­dos wanted to move af­ter Fe­bru­ary’s Win­ter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“First and fore­most the de­ci­sion was based on him hav­ing a good job there,” she ex­plained. “They’ve had a jew­elry store in their fam­ily for al­most 400 years, so it was im­por­tant for him to be there.”

Kim and Terry Peg­ula, own­ers of the NHL’s Buf­falo Sabres, pur­chased the Beauts in 2017.

“It’s kind of a huge step for women’s hockey,” Sz­aba­dos said. “A lot of our staff over­lap. Our me­dia staff, one guy puts on his Sabres jacket and then he puts on his Beauts jacket.

“We get first-class treat­ment all around as far as fa­cil­i­ties and how we’re treated.”

The two-time Olympic gold medal­list misses the com­pet­i­tive de­mands of the men’s game, but her body doesn’t.

“I loved my time play­ing men’s hockey,” she said. “I don’t know at 32 that a 65-game sched­ule is what my body needs.”

Sz­aba­dos in­jured lig­a­ments in her left knee to­wards the end of her sec­ond sea­son with the SPHL’s Colum­bus Cot­ton­mouths in 2016.

In­juries also lim­ited Sz­aba­dos to a hand­ful of games for the Cana­dian women dur­ing their 2017-18 prep for Pyeongchang.

But Sz­aba­dos stopped 40 of 42 shots, in­clud­ing nine in over­time, in the Olympic fi­nal. The U.S. pre­vailed in a six-round shootout to claim gold.

Sz­aba­dos be­came tear­ful af­ter the game while talk­ing about in­juries that side­lined her for much of the sea­son.

A healthy body that can ex­tend her ca­reer is a pri­or­ity for her now.

“I knew if I wanted to con­tinue ... I didn’t have the health­i­est of years last year, so it was im­por­tant for me to be some­where where I could be back to be­ing 100 per cent,” Sz­aba­dos ex­plained.

“Be­ing on the ice seven days a week for hours upon hours and get­ting run­ning over by 200-pound men was prob­a­bly not the ideal sit­u­a­tion for me health-wise. I miss it, but I en­joy where I’m at.”

In 64 games for Canada, Sz­aba­dos ranks sec­ond all-time in wins (47) and shutouts (17), be­hind Kim St. Pierre at 64 and 29 re­spec­tively.

Sz­aba­dos made 27 and 28 saves in the 2014 and 2010 Olympic women’s fi­nals re­spec­tively en route to gold.

How long Sz­aba­dos will tend net is a year-to-year de­ci­sion.

She echoes play­ers in both the NWHL and Cana­dian Women’s Hockey League in wishing for a merger of the two leagues into one.

“I think women’s hockey is kind of at an ex­cit­ing point right now,” Sz­aba­dos said. “I would re­gret it if I didn’t stick around to see where it goes.”

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