That’s quite a revelation. Now 33, the legendary goaltender is standing in front of a packed room of wide-eyed girls aged eight to 18 at the Surrey Sport and Leisure Complex in British Columbia. It’s late January, and Szabados, who made history by starting for Canada in the last three Olympic finals and winning gold twice (2010, 2014), is here to share her knowledge with some of the 1,500-odd attendees at WickFest. This is six-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser’s annual women’s hockey festival.
2020 will be a different kind of year for Szabados. She has already ruled out playing at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship even before the coronavirus pandemic sadly forced the cancellation of the tournament in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia. She is expecting a child with Carl Nielsen, her husband and former teammate with the Peoria Rivermen of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL).
Regardless, giving back and continuing to grow the women’s game is a year-round opportunity. And Szabados naturally realizes that most members of the 100-plus teams here from as far away as California and Manitoba won’t go on to IIHF medals or pro stints like her 2018-19 campaign with the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts. Some advice is beneficial no matter where life takes you.
“On our Olympic team, every single player has gone on to post-secondary education, college or university in Canada or the U.S.,” the former Grant MacEwan University and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology student tells the girls. “That’s the route you want to go in women’s hockey. Some of you guys are getting to that age now. Hockey is important, but make sure your grades are up there.”
Emphasizing the importance of being a well-rounded athlete, she points out that playing hockey 365 days a year isn’t the optimal route: “I played baseball, volleyball, basketball, golf – pretty much anything my parents would let me get my hands on. I credit much of my development to that, from hand-eye coordination to footwork.”
She recommends taking advantage of opportunities with new friends at WickFest. The festival, which has come to Surrey two years in a row, offers lessons in martial arts, bhangra dance, make-up, and other topics, in addition to hockey games and skills development.
Szabados also provides valuable perspective on mental toughness and consistency. She backstopped coach Dan Church’s squad to gold at the 2012 Women’s Worlds in Vermont, but that tournament wasn’t always so kind to her.
“At my first two Women’s Worlds in 2008 and 2009, I didn’t even see the ice or the bench – I sat in the stands,” Szabados recalls. (One girl audibly whispers: “That’s depressing!”) “You sometimes have to play different roles on teams. It was all about being prepared and confident, practising hard and making sure the coaches knew that when I got an opportunity, I would make the most of it.”
You can see she’s connecting with the girls as she talks with that characteristic Canadian humility. She lays out her practice habits, strategies for managing her mobile phone use, favourite pre-game meal (eggs, toast, and turkey sausage), go-to playlist (Eminem and country music), and more.
Szabados, who is sponsored by Warrior Hockey, also discusses the challenges of landing endorsements as a women’s hockey star: “It’s a tricky thing to navigate. I think social media is great for building a brand. You know Natalie Spooner and the thousands of selfies she takes, and she gets a lot of endorsements!”
The young players light up as Szabados passes around her three Olympic medals, particularly the 2010 gold medal with its distinctive Indigenous artwork.
They’ll learn from other Team Canada stalwarts during the four-day WickFest, including IIHF Hall of Famer Wickenheiser, 2010 Olympic MVP Meghan Agosta, and 2020 U18 Women’s World silver medalist Jenna Buglioni, who plays for the Greater Vancouver Comets. But this session with the recently named IIHF Women’s All-Decade Team goalie is special.
There will be ups and downs, but these girls are getting opportunities to play with their peers that Wickenheiser, Agosta, and Szabados could only dream of. And that bodes well for the future of women’s hockey.