Shannon Szabados Practices With Edmonton Oilers; Everyone’s Got An Opinion

Two days ago, the Edmonton Oilers traded for Fasth, and people immediately began speculating about whether he’d be able to make it from Anaheim to Edmonton in time. This isn’t the first time the Oilers have been in a situation like this, and last time, fans clamored for hometown player Shannon Szabados to get the call. That didn’t happen, and at the time, she voiced disappointment. Two nights ago, Oilers fans got #SzabadosForBackup trending – and yesterday, she practiced with the Oilers. Awesome? Probably! A stunt? Almost definitely. So we’re gonna break it down a bit.

First off, a little history. This isn’t the first time a female goaltender has worn an NHL jersey; it’s also not the first time Szabados has played with men. In 1992, Manon Rhéaume dressed for a Tampa Bay exhibition game. She played one period and allowed two goals. Like Szabados, Rhéaume played with men professionally in minor leagues. She was considered a very good women’s goaltender and remains the only woman to play in an NHL game, exhibition or otherwise.

Shannon Szabados is a 2-time gold medal winning female goaltender with an impressive resumé that includes time with the men’s college team at Grant MacEwan in Alberta, and time in the AJHL. Do I have that memorized? No; I pulled it from Wikipedia. But the point is, she’s played with both men and women before, and backstopped the Canadian Women’s National Team to Olympic gold this Olympics in addition to being on the 2010 team and recording a shutout in the gold medal game.

So, to restate: in 2010, rather than engaging Szabados (who was from and in the area), the Oilers signed someone from the Calgary Dinos to an amateur tryout contract. At the time, this move was heavily criticized. This time, people campaigned on Twitter to get her in net for Edmonton, and it actually happened. She practiced with them yesterday morning.

As The First Line and Nicole Haase pointed out on twitter, there’s a lot of grossness surrounding a move like this. At a grassroots level, there are people being pretty weird about it on Twitter and in the media. A media member asked Szabados if she was worried Oilers players would hit on her. People on Twitter were wondering why one of the guys she was walking with didn’t carry her pads. Essentially, if you can think of an “oh, a lady! With lady parts!” comment, it was probably made this morning. After the practice, Oilers players praised Szabados, but even Eberle admitted they’d gone easy on her at first.

That reaction points to the second part of the equation; namely, whether or not this is a publicity stunt. Our opinion is that it unquestionably is, just like Rhéaume was in 1992. It’s been 22 years since then, and the reactions were considerably different. For starters, this was a practice, rather than an exhibition game; it was only semi-public, thus limiting the sensationalism the Oilers could gain from the event. She played the full practice, rather than just part of it. And, finally, women’s hockey is an Olympic sport, and Szabados is coming off a gold medal win and a lot of publicity.

So, yes, it was a stunt. That’s driven a lot of talk both from fans of women’s hockey, and from fans of the men’s game. People such as @mc79hockey have argued that there are better goaltenders to be had at the University of Alberta. Is that true? Probably. Those guys get regular practice, better training, and a better paid staff than any woman in hockey ever has. Personally, I’m not sure how much it matters. It’s a single practice; Szabados was available; Szabados has tended goal before. Some teams have goaltending coaches stand in for goaltenders when the goaltenders have days off or are ill. They’d do poorly in an NHL game, and would look bad compared to college players, too.

The second argument, and the one I’m more interested in, is that women’s hockey players (and fans) shouldn’t want a piece of the NHL pie. The argument generally goes: the women’s game is different, and that’s good; female players don’t want to play in the NHL, they want their own league; women playing hockey is not just about wanting what men have.

All of these statements have truth to them, and it’s important to note that women’s hockey isn’t the only sport having this debate. The formation of various women’s soccer leagues within the US over the years has pointed to a desire to differentiate that sport from the men’s game, even as MLS grows in national visibility and popularity. Famously, basketball player Brittney Griner was offered a try-out from Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He texted her to tell her that he genuinely would offer her a try-out (rather than the statement just being a media stunt); she turned him down to focus on making it in the WNBA, and growing that league.

People who don’t watch the game regularly can be forgiven for thinking women’s hockey doesn’t have an identity, though their assertion of that opinion is certainly less understandable. But it does. Women’s hockey is a finesse game, a game about end-to-end action and impressive passing plays. That’s changing, to some extent, and for the better; women’s hockey is getting more physical and the game is seeing more players who are prepped to snipe instead of pass. Balance is certainly desirable. But the CWHL has not stated that they want to market to the same crowd that goes to NHL games – and to be blunt, I see no reason why they should.

People who currently go to women’s hockey games are a diverse bunch. The proportion of children, girls’ teams in particular, tends to be higher than at an NHL game. It’s easy to dismiss this as a women/babies correlation, but – having been to women’s and men’s games in various sports – I think it’s more about accessibility. Women’s sports are gaining an identity of being more open to families and young women; you’re less likely to get a drunk bro spilling beer on you and yelling cusses than you will at an NHL game. And I’m not knocking that experience, because I’ve definitely been to plenty of NHL games and enjoy the atmosphere (beer spills aside). But we tend to believe there’s only one right way of enjoying sports, when in reality, there’s no reason not to market to people who’d like the beer-spillage likelihood to be lower.

Now, women’s hockey might not always cater to that market, and the fact that they currently cater to it is certainly not divorced from how women in general and female athletes particularly are viewed. But right now, women’s hockey is focusing on youth development, community outreach, and family engagement, not men in the 18-45 bracket. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Essentially, stunts like this always make me feel divided. There are two sides to them. The first side is: more visibility to a female player, more visibility to women’s hockey, a reminder that female hockey players exist. The second side is: a reinforcement of the fallacy that the only way for women’s sports to succeed is either assimilation or becoming exactly like, and catering to the same market as, men’s sports. And let’s be honest – I think most women have at some point encountered the mistaken assumption that what women really want is to be like men. That’s very far from a universal truth.

Kate and I talked it over, and our conclusion was that this isn’t particularly groundbreaking. It won’t lead to the CWHL having $48 billion profits overnight, or even any profits at all. But it does raise the visibility of women’s hockey, and it did give Szabados a chance to play with the Oilers. She was denied that in 2010, for no particularly good reason. This time, when fans clamored for her, the Oilers organization listened. Did the entire world shift? No. But even if it’s not world-changing, it’s not particularly damaging, either. And you have to admit, it’s pretty cool.