Szabados feels stress from heavy playing schedule, personal tragedies
Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team goaltender hopes to earn starting job at Sochi, Russia
Team Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados makes a save against Sweden as teammate Jaya Johnston looks on during a women’s hockey exhibition game at Pembroke, Ont., on March 30, 2013.
Photograph by: FRED CHARTRAND, THE CANADIAN PRESS
EDMONTON - Shannon Szabados sent the tweet in the wee hours of Saturday morning as she and her Team Canada teammates were busing home to Calgary from a long, exhausting road trip.
“Taking a mental hiatus from the world this weekend. Can’t wait to take a break from life after 1 of the toughest months of my life. #overload.”
The 27-year-old Canadian women’s hockey team goaltender was not alone in her fatigue, although the hockey grind was the least of her stress load. Szabados has suffered the loss of a beloved uncle and his son — her cousin — in the last two months.
Wayne Szabados, the brother of Shannon’s dad, Gary, died of cancer on Nov. 8. Her cousin, Graham, a diabetic, died Oct. 1 from unexpected complications from that condition.
“It hasn’t made it any easier,” Szabados said. “I’m lucky to have a good organization that gave me time at home.
“This has been my first week back since all that. It’s been a little rough.”
Overload understates the burden she’s carrying, despite Szabados’s evident inner strength and stoicism.
“My cousin was a year older than me, so he was 28,” Szabados said. “I’m 27, my other cousin is 26 and my brother is 25. We’re very close. They live five minutes from us; we grew up with them.
“It’s a tragedy, but I think it brings your family even closer together.”
As you’d expect, Hockey Canada gave Szabados all the time she needed to go home to provide support to her father and their extended family. She returned to action last week, understandably distracted.
“Goaltending, for me, is 90-per-cent mental, so it has taken a little bit of a toll,” Szabados said. “I haven’t quite played the way I’ve wanted to since everything (happened).
“A busy schedule helps keep my mind off of things. With the girls around me and the support I have, I’m pretty confident I’ll get back into it.”
The schedule certainly has been punishing. On Friday night, Canada’s 2014 Sochi Olympic hopefuls concluded a string of five games in 10 days, including three in four days — all losses — to Edmonton-area midget AAA teams.
Since the team centralized in Calgary to compete for Olympic roster spots and prepare for the Winter Games, the women have played a total 32 games against midget AAA boys’ teams as well as international play against women’s teams. That included a gold-medal performance at the 4 Nations’ Cup tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., in early November.
Team Canada is 6-8 in games against the midget AAA teams, a crucial component of Team Canada’s Olympic preparation.
“I think I’ve been home in Calgary for two nights this month,” Szabados said Friday night after a 6-1 loss to CAC’s Gregg Distributors at the Bill Hunter Arena.
All the travelling has made it tough for Szabados to connect with her husband, Alex, who moved to Calgary to support her as she lives through her second experience as a full-time hockey player, preparing for her second Olympic Games.
“He understands,” she said. “He knew going into it this is what he signed up for.
“He’s been very supportive. Just having him in Calgary for the days I am home makes it that much better, makes me that much less homesick.”
The hockey grind is tough, but it’s something Szabados, a Vancouver 2010 gold medallist, has coped with since her early teens, playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League at Sherwood Park, Fort Saskatchewan and Bonnyville, as well as a brief but landmark stint with the Tri-City Americans, where she became the first female to play in the Western Hockey League.
In Tri-City, she split time in one game with Carey Price, the current Montreal Canadiens netminder, who may well be the starter for Canada’s men’s team at Sochi.
Szabados said it “crossed her mind” when the men and women were in Calgary at a pre-Olympic camp in August that she and Price could well be the starters for Canada in Russia.
“That would be pretty cool,” Szabados said. “I’m rooting for him.”
Just 75 days out from the opening ceremony, Szabados can take some solace in knowing that, barring injury, she will be going to Russia for the Olympics.
The three women’s goalies — Szabados, Charlene Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., who played in the gold-medal game for Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and first-time Olympian Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont. — are the only members of the Canadian women’s team who already know they are going.
Two goaltenders will dress for the games, so the competition remains fierce to see who will start.
“It’s tough for us, but I think it keeps us on our toes,” Szabados said. “There are three of us battling for one spot.”
Through it all, Szabados knows she can count on the support of her teammates. Team Canada forward Jayna Hefford, who at 36 is expected to play in her fifth Olympic women’s tournament, said the support from teammates is automatic, unconditional.
“It’s hard,” Hefford said. “I think Shannon, overall, is a relatively private person and, as a goalie, she puts a lot of pressure on herself.
“I know it has been weighing on her. Playing in net, some games, I think she felt like her mind was elsewhere. To us, well, I think she’s the best goalie in the world.
“But the great thing about a group like this is we spend so much time together, we’re close and we’re there to support each other. We’ve all had our tough times. But we support everyone in their own personal life and family always comes first.”
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