Tri-City Americans

Ams' 1st female goalie now Canadian Olympian

VANCOUVER, British Columbai -- There are moments in life -- no matter how small -- that help shape the future.

For Shannon Szabados, it was the month she spent with the Tri-City Americans in the fall of 2002.

The highly touted goalie from Edmonton, Alberta, was invited to the Americans main camp. She stayed on to play in four preseason games and became the first female to play in a Western Hockey League regular season game on Sept. 22, 2002, against Vancouver.

On Saturday, Szabados will proudly wear the colors of Canada as the Canadian women's Olympic hockey team opens play at the Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C.

"Getting invited to camp at Tri-City was really exciting," Szabados said in a phone interview Wednesday from the Olympic Village. "Playing there, even though it wasn't for very long, really helped my confidence and let me know I could play at a higher level."

The Canadian women's team will play Slovakia in its first game Saturday, which will be televised at 5 p.m. on MSNBC, followed by a matchup with Switzerland at 2:30 p.m. Monday, also on MSNBC.

Szabados, 23, is one of three goalies on the team, including two-time Olympian Kim St. Pierre and Charline Labonte, who helped Canada win Olympic gold in 2006.

"I don't think there is a country that has three starting goalies," said the 5-foot-8 Szabados. "We aren't sure who is going to play or when. Coach (Melody Davidson) will keep the starters under wraps until the day of the game to keep the pressure off of us."

Szabados' journey to the Olympics started long before she stepped on the ice at Toyota Center.

She started playing hockey at age 5 and always played with and against boys. She was the first girl to play at the midget AAA level, and in her first season with the Edmonton Maple Leafs she posted a 2.45 goals against average in 17 games.

She was invited to play in the prestigious Mac's Tournament in 2001, which was where Tri-City general manager Bob Tory got his first look at Szabados.

"I don't think I'd be the goalie I am today if I hadn't played against the guys," Szabados said. "Playing against them helped my reaction time and you face harder shots."

Szabados broke the gender barrier in the WHL in August 2002 when the Americans extended her an invitation to training camp.

On Sept. 4, she became the first female to play in a WHL exhibition game when the Americans played the Vancouver Giants in Ladner, B.C. She posted her first exhibition win Sept. 7 against Spokane with 24 saves in a 6-4 victory.

On Sept. 30, she was reassigned to the Sherwood Park Crusaders Junior A Hockey Club of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

At that time, Tory said: "For her to be able to realize her dreams of playing professional hockey and/or play in the Olympics, it is imperative that she continue to develop. This will give her an opportunity to play on a regular basis, something that was not going to happen this season in the WHL."

Szabados has fond memories of her time in Kennewick and still keeps in touch with several players from the 2002-03 team, including Brett Festerling, Clayton Stoner, Dylan Stanley and Ben Kilgour.

"I talk to a lot of the guys on Facebook," she said. "It was a special time for me there."

And for the fans.

"When we played against the U.S. in Spokane (on Oct. 16), people from Tri-City came up to me after the game and told me they remembered when I was there," Szabados said. "That's something I'll always remember."

After leaving the Tri-Cities, Szabados played four years in the AJHL for Sherwood Park, Bonnyville and Fort Saskatchewan, where she was named AJHL goaltender of the year for the 2006-07 season after leading her team to a 45-11-0-4 record and posting 31 wins with a 2.13 goals against average.

Before being named to the Olympic team, she played two years at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton -- on the men's team, even though the school has a women's program.

"I was done playing junior, and it was just a natural fit," she said. "The league was filled with guys I had played with and against."

And Jamie Langley was happy to coach her.

"Shannon grew up playing in the AJHL and for her to come to college and play on the men's team wasn't anything out of the ordinary," Langley said. "She shared the net, but she was our No. 1 goalie. She was our MVP last year, and not just because she's a good goalie but because she's also a phenomenal person. She's a different breed as female hockey players go."

Langley said he will tune in to watch his former player over the next two weeks.

"It's always nice to see your players move on and grow," he said. "When a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity rolls around, it's nice to see them on center stage. For those who played with her, we are rooting for her."

Szabados has been a part of the Canadian women's program since 2006, playing in U-22 tournaments, the Four Nations tournament and exhibition games with the Olympic team. Her record with the national team is 38-6-0.

During the past year, the women's team has played about 50 games all over the world, leaving her little time to catch up with friends or set a wedding date with fiance Alex Ritchie.

"Our schedule has been so busy and so hectic," said Szabados, who was headed to a media event with her teammates Wednesday morning.

"To be honest, I didn't even have time to think about the whole Olympic experience until we got to Vancouver. We got here early, and we've been able to take it all in. The Olympic Village is amazing -- the buildings, the athletes' lounge, all of it."

-- Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; afowler@tricityherald.com

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