The Shannon Szabados era in Columbus began with a big splash on March 12, 2014, when the Edmonton, Alberta, native became an SPHL pioneer as the league’s first female player.
Szabados’ career with the Columbus Cottonmouths ended quietly just over two years later.
The Cottonmouths protected 13 players, as dictated by league rules, for the SPHL expansion draft. The league’s two new teams — Roanoke and Evansville — were able to draft anyone not protected.
Brandon Jaeger was the only goaltender protected by Columbus. The rest of the protected players included defensemen Travis Hafner, Kyle Johnson, Kyle Shapiro and Alex Pompeo and forwards Craig Simchuk, Patrick McCadden, Andy Bathgate, Chad Bennett, Shawn Bates, Alex Kromm, Ben O’Quinn and Chris Rial were also protected.
The Snakes lost defenseman Patrick Murphy to Evansville in the expansion draft.
Cottonmouths head coach and general manager Jerome Bechard categorized the parting with Szabados as a mutual decision. Szabados did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
“At our end-of-the-year meeting, I wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page,” Bechard said. “I told her that nobody on my team has a job for next season.
“Everybody will be vying for a position, and you’re one of those. I don’t want to block you from playing somewhere else. She told me she was not 100 percent sure whether or not she would play in the next Olympics (in 2018), but she definitely wanted to play another year.”
After the meeting, she reached out to Bechard again.
“She e-mailed and said it would be best if I didn’t protect her. She wanted to see what’s out there,” Bechard said.
Szabados has already mentioned Huntsville and Knoxville as possible locations in remarks made on her Twitter account shortly after the season ended.
Szabados enjoyed mixed results in her two-plus seasons in a Snakes sweater. She compiled an impressive 15-9-1 record in her first full season, 2014-2015, with a .907 save percentage and a goals-against average of 3.12. Last season, she started 22 games, compiling a record of 5-11-4. Szabados’ GAA rose to 3.63, but her save percentage increased only slightly to .910.
Bechard attributed Szabados’ struggles to a lack of protection by her teammates.
“The huge difference between the two seasons was the team in front of her,” Bechard said. “We didn’t protect her. We need to put personnel back there to defend the net better. She needs to be 100% physically able to play. She took a beating.”
After a training camp competition between Szabados and Joel Danyluk, Bechard named Szabados his No. 1 goalie and she got the nod on opening night. Asked if he thought Szabados possessed the skills of a No. 1 SPHL goaltender, he replied, “I believe so.”
Bechard said he doesn’t regret bringing her to Columbus.
“I still believe that what she brought to the table as a role model, setting a goal for the Olympics and achieving it, then re-focusing that goal to compete against men is totally admirable. She displayed fearlessness when guys were shooting from all over, off her shoulder and mask. She was standing up and facing it,” Bechard said.
Szabados added to her list of hockey achievements. In addition to being the SPHL’s first female player, she was the first female to record a shutout in professional hockey, a 3-0 win on Dec. 26, 2015, at Huntsville. Szabados was also the first female to make a playoff appearance. She relieved Andrew Loewen in net in Game 1 of the SPHL finals in Pensacola on April 10, 2014.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist — Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014 — drew scores of fans in visiting arenas and spent time after every game signing autographs and posing for pictures, many with young female hockey players.