The two-time Olympic champion goaltender for the Canadian women’s hockey team earned some practice time with the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers Wednesday, briefly becoming the exceedingly rare woman to play or practice alongside a men’s professional sports team.
The Oilers brought in goalie Shannon Szabados as a stopgap for new backup goaltender Viktor Fasth, who had not yet arrived after the team acquired him in a trade. Edmonton fans had launched a Twitter campaign calling on the team to invite Szabados, who posted a .954 save percentage in the Sochi Olympics, to practice with the team.
Less than a week after practicing with the Oilers, Szabados earned a professional contract from a men’s team. She announced on Twitter Friday that she had signed with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Szabados is accustomed to playing with men’s teams. She played college hockey on a men’s squad, and she has only trained exclusively with women’s teams in preparation for the past two Olympics, according to a CBC News profile.
Szabados has expressed a desire to play professional men’s hockey, following in the footsteps of Manon Rheaume, another former Canadian Olympic goaltender. Rheaume played in 1992 and 1993 NHL exhibition contests.
Many women have played with men’s teams in high school and collegiate sports, but seldom has a woman been offered an opportunity at the professional level. Ann Meyers Drysdale famously earned a tryout with the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers in 1979, and the rumor mill briefly swirled that the Dallas Mavericks could draft Baylor University superstar Brittney Griner. Recently, Jennifer Welter played running back in an Indoor Football League, making her the first woman to play a position other than kicker or holder in a men’s pro football league.
Women have gained the most recognition in men’s leagues in individual sports like NASCAR — where Danica Patrick races with the men — and golf, where women like Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie have played in men’s tournaments.
Still, women lack many of the opportunities men have in sports. The biggest women’s hockey league in North America — the Canadian Women’s Hockey League — has just five teams. The Sochi Olympics, meanwhile, were dominated by talk that women’s hockey could soon be eliminated from the Games, though international officials now say that won’t happen. Despite the success the U.S. women’s soccer team has earned on the world stage, women are fighting for the third time to create a lasting pro soccer league here. And even in established women’s sports, athletes have had to fight for equal pay and equality in other ways.
At the youth level, it can be even worse. Though there are 1,500 girls playing high school football across the country, several youth football leagues have tried to ban girls from playing with boys in recent years. While Title IX has improved opportunities for women and girls in the 40 years since it became law, there remain significant gaps for women in sports, whether it’s in coaching, executive opportunities, journalism, or the chance to play professionally. Now that Szabados has a professional deal, she’ll get the chance to both highlight those disparities and prove that she’s good enough to play with the men. And maybe her next trip to Edmonton won’t just be for practice.