Shannon Szabados: Never Just Another Player

I had my notes from sitting down with two-time Olympic gold medalist and Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados up on my laptop for more than a week. Every day I’d open them up and stare without any story materializing and I started to despair that this story would ever see the light of day.

I’m used to taking interviews and turning them into straight profiles the way I was taught in school. But when the story I thought I was going to write just wasn’t coming together, I realized it’s ok to break the rules a little. After all, this started off as a profile of a woman who’s done nothing but challenge standards and rules her whole career.

So instead, I want to use my conversation with Shannon to open a larger dialogue about breaking ground, role models, scrutiny and attention.

She and I spoke a bit about removing gender from the conversation because she had Tweeted the link to this blog post written about her. Not wanting to do the same “you’re in a men’s league” interview everyone else had done, I asked her a bunch of questions about her intentions, making a statement and how I didn’t necessarily agree with the post because I felt it was important to keep her gender a part of the conversation. In the end, maybe I’ve changed my mind?

While I – and, I think, many of you reading this – are incredibly proud of Shannon and the ground she’s breaking by playing in the SPHL, are we doing her a disservice by constantly talking about it?

Can she ever just be a goalie or a hockey player, or does she always have to be the female hockey player? While we tout her gender because we want to point out how amazing she is, is putting a constant emphasis on it actually doing more damage to the cause?

If Shannon plays two or five or 10 years of professional men’s hockey, is there a point where we ever stop talking about it? Can you she ever lose the “female” qualifier?

Because while we use her gender to point out what a bad-ass she is, by constantly bringing it up, we’re making it allowable for those who use it as a negative qualifier to do so, as well. While we talk about what a great female role model she is, we’re allowing them to get away with saying “She’s a decent goalie – for a girl.”

It’s not entirely clear there’s a correct answer to this question – it might be a catch-22.

For Szabados, she does her best to ignore the constant scrutiny and attention, positive or negative. Goalies have a unique ability to focus and tune things out and that ability is coming in handy for her this season.

I play today for the same reason I did when I was five years old

“It is (a lot of pressure) and I feel like I have eyes watching me all the time. But at the same time, it’s just hockey. I play today for the same reason I did when I was five years old – just to go out there and have fun and challenge myself. I don’t try to go out there and put the added pressure on myself. I think you could (let it get to you), but hockey’s a sport, so why over-analyze it. I guess what I more want is that it’s the norm one day that girls are playing at a high level and just well-known and one person doesn’t have to be covered so much. I’m just here to play hockey and have fun. All the media is not my favorite,” Szabados said.

The support, she said, has actually been pretty overwhelming. She was genuinely surprised by the warm welcome of everyone in the league, from all levels on her own team and the players she’s encountered on other teams. She absolutely loves all the fan interaction and meeting and inspiring all the little girls. However, in the end her life has become a circus.

I kind of feel like a sideshow everywhere I go, being the girl

I kind of feel like a sideshow everywhere I go, being the girl (while the rest of the team just gets to go home/to the hotel)….I’m looking forward to the day where me winning a game or me being a starting goaltender in this league or whatever the case may be is not written about and I can just fly under the radar and be like every other player on my team.”

When you’re the one asking the questions and holding the recorder when someone says that, you can’t help but want to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. It’s easy to lose track of all that when you’re the reporter crazy-excited to get the interview.

(And let’s be clear that at no point did she make me feel uncomfortable or did I feel like she was trying to put me off. She was gracious and open and I appreciated the honest answers. The fact that I feel a bit icky about it all afterwards is down to my conscious and ruminating on all the stuff she said for a few weeks.)

The teams in the SPHL are predominantly in the southern United States – not exactly a hotbed of ice hockey, adult or youth, male or female. The day we talked the Cottonmouths were playing in Peoria, IL – by far the most northern city in the league. Szabados had met a little girl in town to see her play whose parents had driven her in from Minnesota – about a six-hour drive.

Szabados said there are groups of fans waiting for her at every arena she visits and she said that she has been frankly surprised by the support. She thought that between the southern states and the fact that she’s Canadian, she might not be well received.

But on Twitter and in person, she continues to meet little girls with ponytails so excited to see her. And that’s part of this whole situation she loves.

It’s also the part that makes it difficult for me to think that we should stop talking about her. Girls in Georgia and Alabama have little enough access to hockey and female hockey role models. That they can go online and to the rink and see Szabados and walk away with the “I want to be her when I grow up” feeling makes me think that shouting about Shannon from the rooftops is a thing I never want to stop doing.

Is there any possible middle ground?

It seems so often that the players with the most talent – the one’s most likely to end up in front of all the microphones and cameras – are the ones most reluctant to be there.

Whether she didn’t quite grasp what a big splash she would make or she just felt like she could deal with the parts she hates until they died down, it’s clear being under this much scrutiny is not something that thrills Szabados.

“It’s really been like this for me, every league I’ve gone to. I played in the Western Hockey League for a few months. I went and played in the Junior-A league back home. I played on a men’s college team back home. I feel like every time I’ve made the next step, for the first little while I was there, it was the same little fuss about a girl being in the league and then the longer I was there, it died down. I wasn’t really too worried about it, coming here, as a stunt or anything. I played college with three of the guys that were on the team, so I knew I could play here. It was kind of a little more overwhelming than I thought it would be as far as media and fans and things like that,” Szabados said.

While she knew that fan interaction – something she repeated over and over that she loves to do – would be a part of this decision, what she didn’t anticipate was being asked for interviews after games she didn’t even play in.

I hate the spotlight. I don’t like being in it. But especially after playing in the Vancouver Olympics, winning gold on home ice, you don’t really have a choice.

“I hate the spotlight. I don’t like being in it. But especially after playing in the Vancouver Olympics, winning gold on home ice, you don’t really have a choice. You’re kind of thrown into the media and the spotlight. And then again in Sochi, so it’s just something I learn to deal with. It’s good for the young girls to see. That’s the part of it I like. I like interacting with fans on Twitter and seeing at the games. It’s just the media stuff I’m not huge in to.

(In mid December) we played in Knoxville and I didn’t even play in that game and I got interviewed after the game. That would never happen to a guy backup goal. As a hockey player, me playing here isn’t a statement or anything. It’s just me wanting to play the highest level possible like every other player on my team,” she said.

In my reality, Shannon would have wanted to be the standard-bearer for breaking gender barriers and stereotypes and earning gaps in professional sports and that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

She didn’t intend to pick up any mantle. She wasn’t looking to be the poster-child. She’s quiet and unassuming and she just wants to do a job. She wants to play a game that she’s very passionate about but also happens to be very, very good at and she’d like to make enough money doing that to pay her bills.

I don’t play for the attention or the media or to make a statement. I just play to have fun and challenge myself

“Like I said, I started playing hockey when I was five years old and I loved it and I enjoyed it and that’s why I still play. I don’t play for the attention or the media or to make a statement. I just play to have fun and challenge myself

Perspective is so very crucial to these situations.

It’s actually a wonderful and important lesson. We can’t anoint her anything she doesn’t want to be. She made a career decision and it’s an inspiring one and we should admire it and appreciate it, but we shouldn’t make her feel like a fish in a very small bowl.

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