Shannon Szabados and the Columbus Cottonmouths will make Southern Professional Hockey League history next week.
The two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist will suit up for the Snakes as the first female goaltender in the league's 10-year history.
Szabados, 27, will join three college teammates on the Snakes roster. Captain Kyle Johnson, forward Jordan Draper and defenseman Andy Willigar played with Szabados in 2011-2012 at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Cottonmouths coach and general manager Jerome Bechard hopes to put Szabados in goal next weekend.
"It all depends on her," Bechard said. "I'd like to get her playing
time before the playoffs. Hopefully that will happen next weekend but definitely the following weekend. Her biggest concern is the speed of the puck and the game itself compared to the women's game. I'm not going to throw her to the dogs, but I'm going to play her when she's ready."
Draper is eager to welcome Szabados to the team.
"I think she can definitely stand in this league," he said. "She can handle the shots. She'll have to physically stand in there. Mentally, she's stronger than anyone I've ever played with. I look forward to making her feel comfortable. The guys who haven't played with a girl before will find out she's just one of the guys."
Szabados, an Edmonton, Alberta, native, thought winning the gold medal for Team Canada on her home ice in Vancouver in 2010 was the ultimate experience, but she said winning last month in Sochi was equally thrilling.
"Winning in Vancouver with that team was pretty exciting," Szabados said. "I wondered how we would top that in Sochi. But that game was the most exciting game I've ever been a part of."
Szabados hasn't had much time to focus on the possibility of a professional career.
"I didn't think about it too much during the season because I was focused on one thing," Szabados said. "I played college hockey with Kyle, Jordan and Andy and I knew I was potentially coming there, but I thought it would be next season. The guys started texting and telling me, 'No, we want you to come right now.'"
Bechard eagerly anticipates Szabados' arrival.
"I've not wrapped my head around the logistics yet," Bechard said. "Obviously, she'll need her own dressing room to change. But at the end of the day, she's a hockey player. Her familiarity with several of the guys is going to be tremendous. The guys have already talked with the rest of the team. I can't see that they'll treat her a whole lot differently."
Szabados will arrive Wednesday and will participate in the Snakes' morning skate the following day. The Snakes have three home games next weekend, March 13, 15-16. They finish the regular season with road games in Biloxi, Miss., and Huntsville, Ala., on March 21-22.
Szabados has been hitting the ice with boys since she was a child.
"Since I was 5, I've played with the boys," Szabados said. "The only two full seasons I played with women were with the Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014. My last year in college, when I played with Jordan, Kyle and Andy, we won the championship. It will take me a little while to make adjustments to the guys' game. The speed of the shots and the game itself changes my angles and the depth at which I play."
Bechard doesn't foresee any adverse affects on his team by bringing in a new player this late in the season, especially one with such a high profile. The Snakes are riding a four-game winning streak and have won six of their last seven games. They're moving up the SPHL standings and jockeying for playoff positioning. They're currently in seventh place with eight games left to play. The league's top eight teams advance to postseason play.
"Everybody's aware that she's coming," Bechard said. "(No. 1 goalie) Andrew Loewen is aware, as is (backup) Curtis Martinu. Shannon is another piece of the puzzle. We know the type of player she is. I can't see her not fitting in."
Veteran defenseman Tom Maldonado expects Szabados to receive unqualified support from her new teammates.
"We're all excited and she won't be a distraction at all," Maldonado said. "Talking to the guys who have played with her, she's proven herself. We're confident she can step in and be a legitimate goaltender."
Bechard is excited about being the SPHL groundbreaker in this arena.
"I couldn't pass up this opportunity," Bechard said. "The whole story of a woman coming into our sport is great. It's a win-win situation for our team. Selfishly, this is great for us business-wise. It will help put us on the map and increase the credibility of the league."
Though Szabados is the first female goaltender in the SPHL, there are three other women who played professionally in other leagues. Kira Hurley played at single-A Evansville, Erin Whitten with Toledo of the ECHL and Manon Rheaume in both the ECHL and IHL. Rheaume had the longest career, playing from 1992-1997 and making a brief appearance with Flint of the IHL in 2008-2009.
SPHL President Jim Combs is thrilled to welcome Szabados to the league.
"It's very exciting to have an Olympic gold medalist coming," Combs said. "I look forward to her competing in the SPHL. She has the talent. She'll fit in here and maybe go much farther. I'm glad Jerome is giving her this opportunity."
Combs cautioned those who would label this a publicity stunt.
"This is not a stunt," Combs said. "She wants to win. He wants to better his team. If he didn't think she could help make his team better, she wouldn't be coming."
For Szabados, it will be the farthest south she's ever ventured.
"I've never been anywhere," Szabados. "When Kyle first went there, I thought it was Columbus, Ohio, at first. He told me quickly he was going to Columbus, Georgia. Having three of my best friends there will make the transition a little easier. The older I've gotten, the easier it is to deal with. The guys are a little more mature. I'm sure there will be a guy or two on other teams, and I'll hear some chirping from fans. But 95 percent of the time I haven't had a problem. The response so far has been overwhelming."