The hiring made headlines around the hockey world, and rightly so. Florence Schelling, named general manager of Swiss club SC Bern last week, is the first woman in charge of the hockey decisions of a top-level men’s professional team.
Even for a four-time Olympian who racked up an incredible resumé during a storied playing career, it’s arguably the most significant accomplishment of an already remarkable hockey life. Schelling, along with being the first woman to play professionally alongside men in Switzerland’s second-best pro league, made her Olympic debut at age 16 and was MVP of the women’s hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Games. But this is bigger.
And it gets even more impressive when you consider the enormity of the extenuating circumstances of the past 14 months. Schelling broke through this particular glass ceiling a little more than a year after she broke her neck.
It was only in February of 2019, less than a year after she announced her retirement as a player, that Schelling found herself lying on a Swiss mountain after suffering a freak ski accident on an otherwise sunny Saturday outing with her family.
“I hit a break in the snow … I fell head first and I heard a crack,” Schelling was saying the other day, over the phone from Zurich. “So I knew right away that something really bad had just happened.”
An accomplished skier who’d grown up on the slopes, Schelling said she still remembers her first couple of thoughts after the fall. First, “I’m still alive.” Next, “Am I paralyzed?” And she recalls being relieved to discover she was still able to wriggle her fingers and toes.
But things got grimmer from there.
“I was screaming. I experienced pain like I’ve never experienced pain before,” she said. “I’ve had my fair share of injuries before, but nothing was as bad as this.”
Her father, hearing her cries, was the first to find her. He tried to call for help, but because they were in an area with no cellphone reception, he was forced to climb back up the mountain to a point where he could make a call. It wasn’t long after that a helicopter was airlifting her to a Zurich hospital.
And while she lauded the efficiency of the Swiss medical team that promptly ordered a CT scan and performed the surgery that repaired the damage to her C6 vertebra, the road to health hasn’t been without obstacles. She wore a neck brace for three months. In the beginning, she wasn’t allowed to carry anything weighing more than five pounds for fear of reinjury. And even today, she grapples with the effects of the damage.
“My whole left side, I still can’t really feel it as well as I can my right side,” she said. “A lot of things are really good now, but sometimes I’m still struggling with neck pain.”
She’ll begin her new job at what’s being called “50 per cent” capacity — learning the ropes of the gig while she completes regular bouts of physiotherapy. If hockey’s a boys club, she’s long been a member. Her older brothers, Philippe and Nicolas, both played hockey, Philippe at Switzerland’s highest pro level. Schelling started playing at age four, played with boys until she was 19, and played professionally among men for two seasons in Switzerland’s second division.
“I’ve been in this world for such a long time. It’s home for me,” she said. “(Hockey) is where I grew up.”
SC Bern is a club in a down moment. After winning the championship for the third time in four seasons in 2018-19, the team stumbled to a ninth-place finish in the 12-team loop this past year, which led to a management shakeup. Schelling said she was surprised to get a call from the club. But once it came, she said she grew quickly convinced that the team’s hierarchy believed in her potential as an executive despite her lack of experience.
Bern CEO Marc Luthi told IIHF.com that the team was looking for a “young, intelligent and visionary” general manager.
“It was irrelevant whether this person would be male or female,” Luthi said. “We have the feeling (Schelling) will deliver.”
Schelling said one of her first priorities will be “building a network” of player agents and fellow executives, the necessary web of relationships that’s important for gathering information. That, she said, will take time to cultivate.
But if the past is prologue, Schelling will approach her new craft with a persistence that’s as fearless as it is relentless. It was only a couple of months back, on the anniversary of one of the worst moments of her life, that she returned to the scene of her ski accident. She was still relatively weak; she only skied for about a half an hour that day. But she stayed on the mountain long enough to see the windblown break in the snow that threw her off balance. She stayed long enough to ponder the pain she’d endured and the months of rehab still to come.
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“It was very important to me from a psychological perspective. It was important to get back on my skis and get that confidence back, knowing it was just an unlucky accident,” she said. “Looking back and thinking how far I’ve come in this year, and knowing what could have happened, knowing how lucky I was — it was a very emotional moment.”
An emotional moment, but an educational one, Schelling said. And one that helps explain why she’s a fitting choice to blaze a difficult trail.
“If you have an accident like this, you really do start appreciating life. You learn to look at things in a different way,” she said. “I see a lot more positive in the world than I see negative now. And in every negative there’s always a positive, too, even if that’s just an opportunity for learning.”