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The greatest women’s goaltender in the world is ready for a new challenge

Throughout the final week of June, the hockey world was abuzz. Reporters had flocked to the headquarters of CAA, one of the world’s top agencies, where John Tavares was set to meet with several teams as arguably the most prized free agent in NHL history. Inside, representatives from teams including the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks were courting Tavares with promises of big money, pitches of greater success and a snapshot of the life he could lead if he put pen to paper to join their respective organizations. And amidst all of this, on the opposite side of the continent, one of the most significant signings in women’s hockey history happened, yet it flew somewhat under the radar as a result of the hubbub surrounding Tavares.

On June 26, when most were too focused on Tavares to pay attention to much else, Shannon Szabados inked a deal to become the new starting netminder for the Buffalo Beauts. That’s the same Shannon Szabados who was fresh off of a silver-medal winning performance with Team Canada at Pyeongchang, who had been named the tournament’s top goaltender and who is considered by many to be the greatest women’s goaltender in the history of the sport.

So, you may be asking yourself, if that’s the kind of effort teams were putting in to sign Tavares, how then did the Beauts woo Szabados? How did they land a netminder so talented that she instantly became the frontrunner for the league’s goaltender of the year honors? How did Buffalo beat out every other team on every other women’s circuit for a netminder they all would have leapt at the opportunity to sign?

They didn’t. She called them.

“A few years ago, I was like, ‘Maybe after the Olympics I’ll hang ‘em up. Or who knows where life will take me at that point.’ But the closer it came, and after the summer, I wasn’t ready to hang them up, I still wanted to play,” Szabados said. “So, I reached out to Buffalo and that’s how things got rolling. It wasn’t a league over a league or a team over a team. This is just where life brought me and the right fit for me.”

Indeed, Buffalo’s good fortune was bred out of nothing more than proximity. Szabados’ post-Olympic plan was to move with her boyfriend, now fiancé, to Ohio. She knew that even before she led Team Canada into battle in Pyeongchang. And because Buffalo was the closest club to her new home, Szabados decided the NWHL, and the Beauts, would be the best fit for her. One can only imagine that the Beauts have never been happier to call Buffalo home.

To land Szabados heading into the new campaign is an absolute coup for Buffalo, too, if nothing more than because of the circumstance in their crease. Only days before Szabados’ signing was announced — eight, to be exact — Buffalo was dealt a blow when defending NWHL goaltender of the year Amanda Leveille joined on with the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps. Safe to say Szabados makes up for the loss.

This does mark a new chapter in Szabados’ career, however. For the entirety of her playing days, barring international competiton, she has tended goal against boys and men. Stops have included the Western League’s Tri-City Americans, Alberta Junior League’s Sherwood Park Raiders, Grant MacEwen University and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in the Alberta college circuit. Most notably, however, was her time in the Southern Pro League, where she spent parts of four seasons with the Columbus Cottonmouths and Peoria Rivermen. But Szabados, who had to battle injury throughout last season, is welcoming the change.

“The league is more so my peers than any other league I’ve played in,” Szabados said. “I know what these players have gone through to get to this point. For example, one of our players the other day, she normally starts work at 7:30 in the morning and works until 3:30, but she went in an hour early so she could come for a skills skate during the day, took her lunch break as our ice session, and went back to work. It’s cool to me that my goalie partner (Nicole Hensley) went through the same season as I did last year in the Olympics, too. That for me is the coolest part of it, getting to play with those types of players.”

Szabados, too, has her obstacles in playing with the Beauts. She makes a three and a half hour drive to practice, and takes the same roads back home. She does it all again ahead of games, too, meaning she’s logging some serious road hours. But that doesn’t change her excitement for this opportunity, nor does it change the expectations of onlookers as the best women’s netminder in the world gets set to tend goal in the NWHL.

“My goal today is the same it was when I was five years old,” Szabados said ahead of her season debut on Sunday afternoon. “I’m here playing because I enjoy it, I love the game and it’s something I have fun doing. If anything, that’s my expectation — to come out here and have fun.”

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