Florence Schelling already had quite the resume. She’s one of the top goaltenders in women’s hockey history, having won the Olympic tournament MVP representing Switzerland in 2014. She was a Patty Kazmaier finalist when she played Div. I college hockey at Northeastern University. In the last three seasons of her career, playing for Linkoping in the SDHL, her worst goals-against average and save percentage were 1.65 and .938, respectively. She’s the only woman ever to compete in the Swiss Men’s National B League, too. She retired in 2018 with a list of accolades that could earn her Hall of Fame juice someday.
And yet, with all due respect to what she had accomplished leading up to this week, what she accomplished April 8, 2020 may eventually define her hockey career more than anything else. SC Bern of the Swiss League, a.k.a. the NLA, named her GM. She’s the first female GM of a major, tier-1 pro men’s team in the history of the sport.
What’s particularly exciting about the hire is that Bern isn’t some fledgling operation. Ownership is entrusting Schelling to run a franchise that has posted the best attendance marks of any European pro team for close to two decades running.
“For us it was important to have a young, intelligent and visionary person. In our thoughts it was irrelevant whether this person would be male or female,” said Bern CEO Marc Luthi, per the IIHF. “More important is that the person knows something about hockey. She of course played in women’s hockey, but she also played in men’s hockey, knows men’s hockey as TV analyst at Swiss TV. We have the feeling that she will deliver.”
While Bern’s fan support is as strong as ever, the team has slipped on the ice. One season after winning the league championship, Bern tumbled to ninth place and missed the playoffs this season. Now Schelling, 31, gets a chance to mold the clay to her liking. Per the IIHF, topping her list will be hiring a new coach and bringing in a couple import players, though both will be difficult to do until the COVID-19 pandemic calms down.
“I was surprised like all of you when I received the call from Marc Luthi,” Schelling said, per the IIHF. “We had a couple of discussions about working together, and they were very positive. I knew immediately that I wanted to accept the challenge. My main goal is to do a good job and bring SC Bern back to the top.”
While Schelling doesn’t have pro-league front office experience, she’s worked as an assistant coach and, later, head coach of the women’s under-18 national team. She’s been around the game her entire life. And this is a case of a team taking a leap of faith to bet on an intelligent, capable person rather than rehashing someone with years of GM experience. Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s a matter of getting the opportunity.
Now that Schelling has hers, it’ll be interesting to see who follows her footsteps. It could mean we see another prominent ex-player get a chance to prove herself in a major men’s league. Or maybe we see a woman already working for a pro men’s team get promoted to the big chair someday. Hayley Wickenheiser is the assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The names to watch especially closely are those working for the progressive Seattle expansion NHL franchise. It has already made Cammi Granato the first female scout in league history, and Alexandra Mandrycky works as Seattle’s director of hockey strategy and research. Seattle has committed to a 50/50 gender split in its hirings and has women holding more than half its vice-president positions.. Breaking that barrier to build high-level experience should put several women on the path to earning more powerful positions in the NHL in years to come.
So Schelling’s hiring means a lot for her personally and to Swiss hockey, but it should do a lot more. It should open up some hockey-brass minds and make them consider more women for big decision-making jobs in hockey. Schelling is the first, but chances are she won’t be the last.
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