Columbus Cottonmouths goaltender and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados is a trailblazer for female hockey players.
Szabados is now officially one of the guys.
Columbus Cottonmouths head coach and general manager signed Szabados to a contract on Thursday morning, the first female to play in the Southern Professional Hockey League's 10-year history. Bechard introduced Szabados to a sizable crowd of Snakes fans, as well as local and national media, at a press conference held in the lobby of the Columbus Civic Center at noon Thursday.
Also present were team owner Wanda Amos and Cottonmouths captain Kyle Johnson. Johnson was a college teammate of Szabados at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and was instrumental in bringing her to Columbus.
Szabados planned to pack away her hockey gear after her season ended in Sochi last month with winning her second gold medal.
"My gear was lost on the way home from Sochi," Szabados said. "I'm a little rusty. I haven't skated or been in the gym since Feb. 20."
Bechard will give Szabados the opportunity to shake off a little of the rust before she sees game action. The Snakes practiced for only about 30 minutes on Thursday morning because of their game later against Pensacola. Szabados skated and took some shots. Friday morning, the Snakes will conduct a full practice at 10:30 at the Columbus Ice Rink.
If Szabados approves, Bechard will probably place her in net for the Snakes' home contest on Saturday night against longtime rival Knoxville. The Snakes conclude their regular-season home schedule on Sunday afternoon against Louisiana. The last two games before the playoffs begin are in Biloxi and Huntsville on the weekend of March 21-22.
"Being rusty and the transition from the women's game to men's are her main concerns," Bechard said. "I want her to feel comfortable, but I want to get her a start this weekend. I'd probably be run out of town if I didn't show her to the home crowd."
Szabados, who will wear No. 40 for the Snakes, arrived in Columbus on Wednesday night and is enjoying her first trip to Georgia.
"Everybody has been so friendly," Szabados said. "I had somebody tweet that they want to take us out for some barbecue."
Team owner Wanda Amos relishes the opportunity to break new ground in the league. Amos has owned the team for its entire SPHL tenure.
"This is a thrill for me as an owner," Amos said. "As a woman, it's always good to see a woman break out. When one woman does something like this, it's an accomplishment for all women. I grew up with three brothers. My feeling was anything they could do, we can do better."
The Snakes are bracing for a significant media presence when the definite date for Szabados' debut is set. They currently are being bombarded with media requests for interviews with Szabados and credentials for Saturday night's game. Bechard expects to announce sometime Friday when Szabados will get the nod.