Shannon Szabados' package deal was 'cancerous': Ex-coach

Goalie Shannon Szabados, a two-time Canadian Olympic gold medallist, says she wants to have fun and play hockey, not engage in a war of words through the media with former coach Jean-Guy Trudel after the Peoria Riverman released her earlier this week.

Canadian refuses to get in war of words after being released by men's team

Canadian national women's team goalie Shannon Szabados was cut from the Peoria Rivermen of the Southern Professional Hockey League after signing a package deal in September with defenceman and good friend Carl Nielsen. "They were always together and it became kind of weird. ... It was cancerous toward the team," said Rivermen head coach Jean-Guy Trudel. (Courtesy Bob Hunt/Peoria Rivermen)

Shannon Szabados says she wants to have fun and play hockey, not engage in a war of words through the media with her former coach.

After the Canadian goalie was released Monday by the Peoria Rivermen, just two games into the Southern Professional Hockey League season, head coach Jean-Guy Trudel told CBC Sports that he only signed the 30-year-old as a "package deal" in order to get defenceman Carl Nielsen, a friend of Szabados, and that their relationship was "cancerous" within the dressing room.

Trudel said he noticed a drastic change in team morale shortly after the pair joined the men's team in September — on the initiative of Szabados' agent, Russ King — saying cliques began to form that turned a close-knit group into one that had become quiet and unproductive on the ice. 

"They were always together and it became kind of weird," said Trudel of Szabados and Nielsen, a native of Lorain, Ohio. "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."

"The story's already out there and I don't want to fuel the fire," Szabados told CBC Sports on Thursday. "My focus is signing with a new team. There's a lot more to [the Peoria release] and misleading information but I don't want to put [Trudel] in a bad spot, or the team.

"I don't know why he said some of those things," Szabados said, noting she had a good player-coach relationship with Trudel. "It was a very strange situation."

Trudel, the reigning SPHL coach of the year, reluctantly accepted the package deal because he wanted to upgrade the Rivermen blue-line with the six-foot-four, 225-pound Nielsen, a former captain with Orlando of the ECHL who had two stints in the American Hockey League with Syracuse.

But getting Trudel meant also taking Szabados, whom he said "was fourth on the depth chart after camp."

The two had been inseparable since meeting at a hockey camp in Denver this past off-season and wished to be teammates in Peoria so King brokered the "unique signing."

Trudel had tabbed Szabados, an Edmonton native, for a backup role behind rookie Storm Phaneuf after she posted a 20-20-6 record the past two seasons with the SPHL's Columbus Cottonmouths, including a .910 save percentage last season.

The first female to appear in the SPHL when she debuted with Columbus in the spring of 2014, Szabados relieved Phaneuf early in the second period of the Rivermen's season-opening 6-1 loss on Oct. 21 and allowed two goals on 15 shots to the visiting Huntsville (Ala.) Havoc.

The next night, Trudel pulled Szabados from her first start after a pair of Huntsville goals in the first four minutes five seconds of the second period in an eventual 5-1 defeat.

By Monday of this week, Trudel had seen enough — on and off the ice — and sent Szabados and Phaneuf of Gatineau, Que., packing while the team placed Nielsen, 28, on indefinite suspension and retain his SPHL rights. Trudel tried to talk Nielsen into staying without Szabados but he chose to join the latter in leaving the club.

"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."

It feels like a lot of weight has been lifted off everybody's shoulders. It's back to being a team.- Peoria coach Jean-Guy Trudel on the departures of goalie Shannon Szabados and good friend Carl Nielsen

Trudel said the Szabados-Nielsen deal is the "most different situation" he's been involved with in all his years coaching and 13 seasons playing mostly at the minor pro level.

"I'm paid to make sure my ownership is happy, that we win a lot of games, so I gotta do what I gotta do to make sure my team is in a good state of mind to win hockey games," said Trudel, who hails from Sudbury, Ont.

"The last two days of practice have been phenomenal. It feels like a lot of weight has been lifted off everybody's shoulders. It's back to being a team."​

In less than a month, Szabados went from being the first female to appear in a game in the Rivermen's 35-year history to the first to be cut, departing Illinois with a 6.10 goals-against average and .792 save percentage.

Stronger league

A better calibre of play in the SPHL and Szabados' small stature seemed to catch up to the five-foot-nine netminder, whose butterfly style is more exposed in the men's game.

"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."

King, a NHLPA certified agent and president of Kingdom Player Management in Stouffville, Ont., acknowledged in an email to CBC Sports that the SPHL has become a stronger league over the past two seasons "because NHL teams have utilized developing their players at the ECHL level, forcing good non-contracted players to the SPHL."

Szabados is still in the United States with Nielsen hoping to soon land a job with one of the SPHL's 10 teams. While she said "a few" have expressed an interest to King, Szabados said a deal is not imminent.

"Not a lot of teams are going to cut goalies after one weekend, so I would assume I'd have to wait a week or two before there's an injury or someone is consistently not playing good," said Szabados, whose preference is to play men's hockey.

"I'm pretty comfortable in the [SPHL]. I know players on pretty much every team and I've heard a lot of good things about almost every team in the league.

Szabados off Four Nations Cup roster

"I just want to play somewhere and have fun," continued Szabados. "I'm 30 so who knows how long I'll be playing for."

Contrary to some belief, Szabados will not play for Canada at the Four Nations Cup from Nov. 1-5 in Vierumäki, Finland. Canada's two-year title reign ended last year with a 3-2 loss to the United States in Sweden.

"Shannon is focused on future opportunities in the men's game," Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada's general manager of national women's teams program, said in a statement. "The lines of communication remain open, and if Shannon would like to be considered for any other events throughout the 2016-17 season, we will have those discussions at that time."

Trudel said he harbours no ill feelings toward Szabados and Nielsen, noting he had a good coach-player relationship with the goalie.

"Shannon's a great person, she loves the game of hockey and she's a good leader on the ice," he said.

"Maybe … if she had come [to Peoria] by herself, gave it her all and focused on the team, maybe [the outcome] would have been different."


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