Thursday, November 24, 2011

Into the cage; into the spotlight: Female goalies should get their moment in the NHL

Cory Schneider is everyone's favourite Canuck right now. He is a co-Jennings Winner, uncanny Jannik Hansen impersonator, and the best backup goalie the team has ever had. The love for our beloved ginger is aplenty on the West Coast. And, while Schneider's rise to the NHL is a good story, it certainly doesn't rival that of fellow ginger and once (literally once) loved Canucks backup goaltender Chris Levesque.

Everyone remembers the story of Dan Cloutier getting injured in the Canucks' morning skate and the team needing a goalie to back up Johan Hedberg for the game that evening. Since the farm team was not an option (the Moose were away on a road trip out east), the Canucks turned to the unknown but soon to be famous Chris Levesque - goalie for the UBC Thunderbirds to assume a front row seat for the game that night. Even just sitting on the bench, the young ginger became the story of the game. Though he was never required to step in and play during the game, no one will forget the view of him on the bench calmly chewing his gum as trainers frantically tended to the injured Hedberg so as to spare Levesque from having to make an unplanned NHL debut. All ended well for the Canucks - Hedberg was able to finish the game, and the team won 4-3 in OT - and for Levesque, who got his moment of fame and then returned to the real world where he is now a sous chef at Joey's on Broadway.

There have been similar stories to that of Chris Levesque. A UBC goalie was once again summoned last season, this time to play for the opponent, as the San Jose Sharks needed a backup on an emergency basis for their game against the Canucks. And just yesterday, the Minnesota Wild signed a 51-year old beer leaguer to backup against Nashville. And while everyone loves a feel-good story like that of Levesque, one can't help but wonder what might have happened if Levesque, or the 51-year old Paul Deutsch, or anyone of those other callups would have been required to actually get into the cage and play a portion of the game. With the way goalies are being run nowadays, injuries are always a possibility. Even on an emergency basis, why not call up someone who would at least be capable of holding their own in the net just in case they were actually needed? "How many NHL-calibre goalies are out there just waiting for their moment of glory" you ask? Not many. Not many at all. But how many elite goalies are out there ready and willing to step in if needed?  Just ask Shannon Szabados.

When the Edmonton Oilers were looking for an emergency backup, one name that was thrown out there as a possible option was Canada's Olympic hero and gold medal winner Shannon Szabados. Minus international competition, Szabados has played most of her hockey career against men. She played games for the Tri City Americans of the WHL and went head to head against the Camrose Kodiacs (Mason Raymond's junior team) in the Alberta Junior Hockey League Finals. Despite being the only female player in the league, Szabados was named the league's most valuable goaltender. Who better to play backup for one game in the NHL? Who is more deserving of a moment of glory like that? The Oilers didn't follow through on the plan. They opted instead to sign a University of Calgary goalie who hadn't played a game for the Dinos all year.
"I'm just so disappointed," Szabados said. "It's the story of my life, being a girl goaltender. They don't give you the opportunity. That shows you right there."
Shannon wasn't backing down from the challenge. But apparently the Oilers were. The disappointment in that quote from Szabados says it all. I felt so bad for her that I felt the need to send her an email of encouragement. To my surprise (and elation), she responded back only a few days later conveying her gratitude for the support. She reiterated her disappointment at not getting the call but didn't dwell on it. Instead she opted to send me some encouraging tips on how to be a good goalie myself! Spread across Canada and the US are female goalies who are playing the game at the highest level there is. The Canadian Women's Hockey League is home to some of the game's best goalies:
  • Sami Jo Small - Toronto - Team Canada Olympic gold medalist
  • Molly Schaus - Boston - Team USA Olympic silver medalist
  • Brianne McLaughlin - Brampton - Team USA Olympic silver medalist
  • Christina Kessler - Brampton - Team Canada Four Nations Cup gold medalist
  • Kim St Pierre - Montreal - Team Canada Olympic Gold Medalist
  • Noora Raty - University of Minnesota - Team Finland Olympic Bronze medalist
Many of the above mentioned goalies have played for Ivy League universities and have spent their entire careers playing elite-level hockey. Certainly they would be equally, if not more qualified to play in the NHL than some of the men who have actually gotten the call. It may be seen as a publicity stunt, or it may open up a debate about women in the NHL (trust me guys, we don't want to play in the NHL - we want our own league!), or it may lead to many unpleasant jokes about "a girl in the locker room." But in that moment of glory, I doubt any of these players would care. They've spent their whole lives going up against the doubters and naysayers of the sport they love. Doing it once more won't hurt them one bit. Female goalies should not get the call with the intention that they can someday gain employment in the NHL. At the end of the day it's about growing the game, raising awareness of the sport, and giving its current stars a well-deserved opportunity to take their place among highly skilled players. It should have no implications on a co-ed NHL (which is where the panicked minds of some will go if they even hear about a woman playing in one NHL game!). It's just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the players, and some much needed insurance for the team who requires her services. And heaven forbid a women does have to step into the cage and play a few minutes of goal in the NHL, I think she'll do just fine. Just ask Manon Rheaume :)


  1. Great points! Would bring much needed exposure to CWHL and support for the women's game.

  2. I hope the opportunity for a female goalie to get into an NHL game is just around the corner. There are so many talented and deserving goalies who could show the world that female goalies can stop shots in the NHL.