LAFAYETTE, LA — On September 21st, after months of summertime speculation, the Peoria Rivermen signed former Columbus Cottonmouths netminder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados with great fanfare.
The honeymoon lasted slightly over a month.
Once the Rivermen took to the ice against the Huntsville Havoc, the two-time defending regular season champions were drubbed in uncharacteristic fashion by 6-1 and 5-1 results over the team’s opening weekend. Szabados and fellow goalie Storm Phaneuf gave up 11 goals over the weekend. Phaneuf allowed six goals on 28 shots, while Szabados let five pucks pass on 24 shots. Phaneuf, the opening night starter and Szabados, Saturday night’s netminder were both yanked during the second period of their respective games.
When enduring defeats of this nature, we knew there would be some fallout and Peoria Head Coach Jean-Guy Trudel acted quickly. The Rivermen bench boss released Szabados, Phaneuf, and forward Ian Harris while suspending defenseman Carl Neilsen – the former captain of the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears.
At first glance, we simply have a case of buyer’s remorse from Trudel. The Rivs had five goaltenders in training camp and perhaps Trudel decided to go in a different direction. Peoria signed netminders Matt Grogan and Tyler Green – both from the Rivs’ training camp – soon after releasing Phaneuf and Szabados.
Then, the story took a turn for the tabloid. Unsubstantiated rumors began to arise of a friendship between Szabados and Neilsen which was upsetting the atmosphere of the locker room. At the time of Szabados’ departure, Neilsen – wishing to only play with Szabados – requested his release from the team. Trudel denied the 6’4″ blueliner’s request and suspended Neilsen indefinitely.
In the interest of clarity, we know of no inappropriate conduct by neither Szabados nor Neilsen and we make it abundantly clear there is no insinuation of such.
In an interview with CBC Sports, the usually unfiltered Trudel came clean: Szabados was never a recruiting target of Peoria. Trudel was looking to sign Neilsen to bolster a blue line missing stalwarts like Ben Oskroba, Brandon Greenside, and Dave Pszenyczny. Neilsen, a close friend of Szabados since meeting at a hockey camp in Denver, would only sign with Peoria if the team also signed Szabados.
The tactic backfired. “They were always together and it became kind of weird,” said Trudel of Szabados and Nielsen. “Seeing the [other] players in the locker room, I just saw the situation being heavy on everyone. It was cancerous toward the team. I coach 18 players here so I need to make 18 players happy, not just two.”
A devasting, potentially career-killing term to describe a player.
“I tried to do something to get this great defenceman that plays 25 minutes a game, and it didn’t work out,” Trudel told CBC Sports. “It’s the first time I’ve dealt with a package deal and I won’t deal with it again. I think it’s wrong for the game of hockey. Maybe I’m old-school but I like to coach players who deserve to be here.”
The package deal is something not unfamiliar to sports teams; see LeBron James & Chris Bosh in Miami; Zach Parise & Ryan Suter with the Minnesota Wild; even Teemu Selanne & Paul Kariya in Anaheim or most recently, but perhaps unfamiliar to SPHL fans, Vincent Arseneau and Alexis Loiseau in Wichita. Rare is it that you hear the “package” be cancerous to the team.
Szabados, according to Trudel, was fourth on his depth chart during training camp. “Down low, she’s very strong, very fast, but hard shots up high were kind of tough for her,” said Trudel. “You could see in practice she was struggling and the top of the net was open a lot. At this level, guys know how to pick corners.”
From a pure hockey standpoint, Trudel’s assessment is completely valid. Szabados is a technically gifted netminder, especially when going low and moving from post to post. However, there is a reason why teams covet taller goaltenders – shooters, even at the SPHL level – are great at hitting the top corners. The 5’9″ Szabados was at a physiological disadvantage, and it was a matter of time before shooters began to figure out how to get pucks past her.
Unfortunately, the past few days will likely result in the unfortunate end of Szabados’ aspirations as a professional men’s league netminder. While Szabados is a great hockey ambassador and highly accessible to fans, it is unlikely any other SPHL teams will sign her, based on Trudel’s remarks. Additionally, Hockey Canada has already set their roster for next month’s Four Nations Cup without Szabados on the team.
The Rivermen organization, normally one of the SPHL’s example franchises, also takes a hit. On our podcast earlier this week, Matthew Harding and I were discussing the initial story and even then we found the turn of events highly unusual. It’s unheard of to make such drastic changes to a lineup only two games into the season. We originally chalked up the purge to what is unfamiliar territory for the Rivermen: getting crushed at Carver Arena and feeling radical actions were needed.
Instead, we got a glimpse beyond the locker room door and into the internal workings of a professional hockey team. The saying “what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room” has never been more appropriate here, and it’s both disturbing and fascinating to bear witness to this breach in confidentiality.
While the unfiltered nature of Trudel is typically refreshing, this is one of those examples where coach-speak or keeping your mouth shut would have been the best policy. The most prudent policy is when you release your players, simply wish them well and move on. By going public, Trudel made himself, the Rivermen organization and by proxy, the Southern Professional Hockey League look bad on a continental level.
Despite these events, we hope we haven’t seen the last of Szabados in net. We wish her the best wherever she goes and may she find a new team soon.