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‘She’s perfect for this:’ Inside Florence Schelling’s ascent to becoming a GM

After Florence Schelling retired from hockey in 2018, she became a consultant. She hated it. “That was really not my kind of job,” said Schelling, the longtime goaltender of the Swiss national team. “I really didn’t like it.” Six months in, she quit, and in February, 2019 went on a ski vacation to the Swiss Alps to clear her head.

One day on the slopes, Schelling hit a windbreak. The tip of her skis got caught in the snow and she fell forward, her head hitting the ground first. She was hospitalized with a spinal injury, and was told the recovery would be long.

“That kind of turned my life upside down,” Schelling said. “It got me thinking a lot. Before, I was a person that barely had a free minute. All of a sudden I had so much time at hand, because all I could do was lie around.”

As Schelling rehabbed, she began thinking about her path to that point, and what she wanted to achieve. She knew she wanted more. And she realized she wanted to be back in hockey.

Then, in late March, Schelling got a call from Marc Luthi, the CEO of SC Bern, the professional men’s hockey team in Switzerland. Bern was looking for a new GM, and the search committee identified Schelling as one of the two favorites. At first Schelling was shocked — “I thought it was a joke,” she said — which quickly turned into intrigue. After a series of long conversations and interviews, SC Bern named Schelling its new GM. She is just 31.

In announcing the hiring, Luthi noted that Schelling got the job because “she’s young, [will] bring new perspective and break up existing structures.” Those who know Schelling best say she is uniquely poised to handle the pressure.

“I was blown out of the water and definitely surprised by the news,” said Finnish goaltender Noora Raty, who competed against Schelling for nearly 15 years. “We’ve seen some women in front offices. But to be the GM, which is really the heart of the team, for a major professional men’s club, that’s major. But then knowing Florence, I know she’ll do a great job. She’s perfect for this.”

Luthi also acknowledged that in her new role, Schelling would become a “pioneer, probably worldwide.” And those around hockey are already considering the ripple effect.

“It takes a lot of courage to be the first of something,” said Team USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield, a former teammate of Schelling’s at Northeastern University. “It takes a really strong woman to be the first, and that’s Florence. But that doesn’t mean the second is any less strong. Once that barrier is broken, the floodgates open. I think women saw the announcement of Florence’s new role and their heads started spinning, thinking: ‘Can that be me one day? Can I do that? I didn’t know that was an option for me.'”

Schelling grew up just outside of Zurich with two older brothers. “They always played hockey in the garage with tennis balls,” she said. “I always wanted to play along with them. They always said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that.’ But then at one point they said, ‘you can play with us, but you’ll be in net.'” She was just 4 years old, but she was a natural.

There weren’t any girls’ youth leagues in Switzerland at the time, so Schelling played with the boys. “I didn’t even know women’s hockey existed,” she said. “I just grew up playing with the boys, year after year. But it was fine, I was always good enough to play along with them.”

At age 14, Schelling made her national team debut for the Swiss women. And then in 2008, she enrolled at Northeastern University. “Having Florence was really a turning point for the program,” said Huskies coach Dave Flint. “We were struggling a bit when I took over. I was lucky; arguably the best goalie in the world was already committed. And being a former goalie myself, I always know how important it is to build your team around a good goalie. She helped put us back on the map.”

Schelling was a Patty Kazmaier finalist in 2012, but what stuck out to teammates was how she handled herself off the ice. Schelling, who is fluent in four languages (German, English, French and Swedish) was meticulous in detail. “She liked her pads to be clean,” Coyne Schofield said. “She didn’t like puck marks on her pads.” Schelling also had a signature helmet; she is one of the few goaltenders to still wear a helmet cage combo, popularized by Dominik Hasek.

“She was one of the most intense players on the ice,” Flint said. “She just flipped a switch, and when she was on the ice, the only thing she wanted was to win. That was it.”

Coyne Schofield was a freshman when Schelling was a senior and said she “always looked up to Florence, and how really found the balance of being a student-athlete.” Schelling had just as many friends in hockey as outside of hockey. “Her group of friends at Northeastern were always so diverse,” Coyne Schofield said. “I loved meeting Florence’s friends, because they were always so interesting, and I liked hearing about their backgrounds. Florence was in the business program and she was so serious about her studies. There was no one wearing more blazers and professional clothes in college than Florence — at a time when most of us didn’t even own one blazer.”

After Schelling graduated, she played in the CWHL. But in 2014, the U.S. and Canadian national team players centralized to prepare for the Olympics. “Obviously, the level of play would decrease,” she said. “And I didn’t know what that would mean. So I decided to go back home.”

Schelling knew the only way she would be truly challenged would be to play men’s hockey. “I hired an agent for the first time in my life, and asked him to get me a job on a men’s team,” Schelling said. “And he did.”

Schelling became the first woman to play in Switzerland’s second division — just one level under where SC Bern is. She got 14 starts in her first season for EHC Bulach, and had a 2.19 goals-against average. “It was a great experience,” she said. “A lot of players on the team were former teammates of mine, and it was more like, ‘Hey guys, I’m back.'”

In 2014, Schelling backstopped Switzerland to a bronze medal in the Sochi Olympics, the first time the country ever medaled. Schelling was named tournament MVP. “Switzerland wasn’t always in the top division, but she was the heart of that team,” Raty said. “I don’t think they would have the success if not for Florence. Because it was always her standing on her head, and everyone else trying to solve the puzzle of Florence.”

Schelling returned to women’s hockey in 2015 when she signed with Linkoping HC of the Swedish Women’s Hockey League, and concurrently earned her master’s in business administration from Linkoping University.

Schelling then began coaching the Switzerland under-18 women’s team. Schelling called up Flint, and asked if she could come out for an informal internship. For a week last February, she shadowed her college coach. “She wanted to know a lot of system stuff, but she also wanted to know about team management,” Flint said, “How you handle the players, how you manage a team. I stressed to her that X’s and O’s were important, but being able to manage your players and understand what makes them tick is just as important.”

SC Bern is one of the most respected teams in the Swiss League and regularly draws about 16,000 fans a game, among the most in European hockey. Bern won the National League championship 16 times, including in 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2018-19. But this past season, Bern finished in ninth place out of 12 teams.

There will be intense scrutiny on Schelling in this new role, beginning with her first task: hiring a new head coach. Since she is still rehabbing from her skiing injury, Schelling is easing into the new role. Beginning this week, she will start working at 50 percent. “I know I have a lot of pressure on my shoulders once I start as a GM,” she said, “But as a goalie, which is a very special position on the team, I’ve dealt with pressure many times, from playing in multiple World Championships and Olympics and also on men’s teams. I know I just have to do my job, and I have to do my job really, really well.”

Schelling surmises that women haven’t typically gone into management roles because they didn’t see it as a viable option. And now that she’s in a position of visibility, she knows many young girls will be following her career. And she wants them to take away this message: “There’s going to be lots of roadblocks. There’s going to be people that don’t support you, but there’s going to be a lot of people along the way that will support you, too. Stay motivated, keep going. And eventually, if you work hard, there’s going to be some sort of result. And when you work hard, results will be positive.”

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