InGoal Interview: Olympic MVP Florence Schelling
While the final may have been contested between two old enemies, this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi demonstrated both how far the women’s game has come in many other nations, and how the standard of goaltending has risen across the board.
It was essentially a “given” that either Canada or the United States would take home gold in the women’s hockey tournament, but where Amanda Kessel et al were the focus before the tournament, it was two European netminders who ultimately stole the show.
Noora Räty was sensational for Finland, a wall against both Canada and the Americans during the group stage before the Finns fell in the second knockout round. Her Swiss counterpart, Florence Schelling, was equally impressive in the round robin phase; before back stopping Switzerland to wins over Russia and Sweden on the way to the bronze medal.
Schelling was named Tournament MVP for her efforts, and became a star both at home and abroad. After a hectic end to the season, and a busy summer as she prepares for the 2014/15 season, I caught up with the Florence to get her thoughts on the Winter Olympic experience, Swiss hockey and her own hopes for the future.
After such a strong showing in Russia, the conversation began with Sochi, and what stuck with her the most about that fortnight.
“The Sochi tournament as a whole stood out,” Schelling said. “It was incredible to see how hard we were training leading up to Sochi; but what we were able to show in Sochi was absolutely amazing. Throughout the whole tournament, we never gave up on our dream, we fought for each other. We were one team with a hell of a team spirit.”
The backbone of that Swiss team, Schelling is the latest goaltender from a nation whose hockey credentials are growing rapidly. Jonas Hiller is an established NHL starter, and Reto Berra’s reputation continues to grow. A silver medal at the 2013 World Championships underlined just how far hockey in Switzerland as a whole has come and it’s a rise that everyone involved in the sport there is justly proud of.
“Over the past few years I believe Swiss hockey has emerged as a major nation in the world game” Schelling said “We are no longer underdogs in all of the games, and we have more players being scouted for the NCAA and NHL.”
With the likes of Mark Streit, Roman Josi and Damien Brunner heading up an increasing number of Swiss players in the NHL, and other prospects such as Reto Suri garnering interest from North America, the future appears bright – but Schelling is quick to point out there is still work to be done.
“The players being scouted, these are all individual players – they make the difference on international ice but as soon as the best aren’t available, the level of competitiveness decreases,” she said. “This needs to be worked on a lot more in Switzerland, to ensure we have a broader selection of players able to compete at the level of the NCAA or NHL.”
The ever increasing quality of the NLA seems to suggest Switzerland is on the right path though. With a strong focus on the core skills being taught to young players by junior coaches, the foundations are being in place for Switzerland to continue their rise to the top of the game.
Combined with an increasing number Swiss players having success for club and country, there is plenty of inspiration for Switzerland’s next generation. And following Schelling’s efforts in Sochi, I asked the 25-year old if she hoped it would help inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
“Definitely. I really hope that not just me, but every player in Sochi was able to inspire girls around the world to play hockey. For my side, I will organize a girl’s hockey day in Switzerland, to help the game grow more here. As for the improvement, I hope all of us were able to show that women’s hockey is definitely a sport that should be invested in and could improve a lot more with outside help.”
After a strong season with EHC Bülach, Schelling’s own career is beginning to take off. With Canadian counterpart Shannon Szabados signing for the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths last season, I asked the Swiss stopper if she hoped to test herself abroad, or look to break in to Switzerland’s top tier – the NLA – in the future.
“It is my goal to go higher than the league EHC Bülach is in,” Schelling said. “I believe that I have the skills to be playing in a higher league than that. My problem right now is that no team in Switzerland is willing to give me a chance to proof myself in the NLB. Also because I don’t earn any money playing hockey, I need to work full time, so it’s even more difficult to find a team in the area. I would like to come back to the US or Canada to play hockey one day if I get the chance.”
It will be a familiar problem to many young hockey players in Europe, and especially Great Britain. But ultimately, success for Schelling or any other Swiss player hinges on continued investment from the Swiss Ice Hockey Association and the teams.
“From a girl’s point of view, we do not have a girl’s league here until the age of 18. So we all grow up playing boy’s hockey growing up,” she said. “This has helped me a lot in my game. Playing men’s hockey is really good here, no matter at what age you are, because a lot of money is invested in these teams. Money that girls can benefit from by being able to attend camps over the summer and so on. A lot more can and should be done by Swiss hockey though.”
While the Swiss game may still be a “work in progress” in some respects, it has also come a tremendously long way over the past two decades. And with stars like Schelling on board, further success seems like a matter of “when” rather than “if.”
Thanks to Florence for her time. You can follow her on Twitter @schellingf