Florence Schelling has logged a lot of air miles to stop pucks from the best female hockey players in the world.
A year out from her third Olympic appearance, the Swiss goaltender decided to elevate her game by playing in the Canadian Women's Hockey League this season, the elite playing grounds for some of the best Olympic stars from Canada and the United States. This week, she finds herself between the pipes as the Brampton Thunder's starting goalie at the championship tournament in Markham, vying for the Stanley Cup of the women's game, the Clarkson Cup. Schelling has gone to huge lengths to get here, driven by her passion to succeed internationally as the North Americans do.
The Swiss goalie played in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics and was a star National Collegiate Athletic Association player for Northeastern University in Boston. Last spring, her sensational play at the women's world hockey championships in Burlington, Vt., helped Switzerland earn bronze, its first medal at the event. It was a breakthrough moment for the Swiss – the first time a nation other than Finland or Sweden had stepped onto the podium with the two North American powerhouses in the women's game since Russia in 2001.
Schelling was inspired to take her play even further, and accomplish more success in international play by training with the best. She had just used up her four years of NCAA eligibility, but she had a fifth year of studies to finish toward her business degree at Northeastern. The Montreal Stars of the CWHL drafted her last spring, but she lost out for playing time to Canadian Olympic goalies such as Kim St-Pierre and Charline Labonté. Schelling refused to sit on the bench, despite having already started a business internship in Montreal. She agreed to be traded to Brampton, determined to earn meaningful hockey experience to take home to Switzerland.
Schelling, 23, decided to fly back and forth between Brampton and her studies and work obligations in Boston and Montreal for the remainder of the season. She kept two sets of hockey equipment – one in Boston, and one in Brampton, jetting to and fro every Thursday in time for a practice and two or three weekend games in the five-team CWHL.
"She desperately wanted to play hockey here, and you have to admire what she's been willing to do," said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress. "She's been facing shots from the same top-level players she's about to play against at worlds in Ottawa in April. Brampton and Florence both benefited greatly from that trade."
Schelling stayed each weekend at the family home of Brampton teammate Courtney Birchard, a Team Canada defenceman and a rival of Schelling's internationally.
"I knew the Canadian and American players only from playing against them but hadn't met any of them personally," Schelling said. "To me, they were all heroes who had won Olympic gold and silver medals. I always looked up to them, so meeting them and developing friendships here has been incredible for me. I feel like I have developed as a goalie and learned so much from the way they train."
Schelling made 318 saves for the Thunder in 14 regular-season games, had a .901 save percentage and recorded three shutouts. She earned nominations for both the rookie-of-the-year and goaltender-of-the-year awards.
"She's been outstanding for Switzerland in world championship play, often facing 50-60 shots in a game there against the top nations," Brampton coach Pat Cocklin said. "She's working here on the ones she wants back – the great save that pops out a little rebound that she wants to direct somewhere else so it doesn't end up in the house."
After the world championship, she will graduate and return home to Zurich to finish her Winter Games preparation. The Swiss women don't have a centralized six-month Olympic training camp as do Canada and the United States, so she has signed to play in a men's pro league there, similar to her prep for the last two Games.
She is one of two European players in the CWHL this year. Katka Mrazova of the Czech Republic national team plays for the Boston Blades. Andress hopes to enlist more international players to the CWHL after the next Olympics, hoping to get sponsors involved in helping the players find work in Canada and the United States while they are playing.
"If more are interested after the Olympics, I hope we can put things in place so it's easier for them to come," Andress said. "Florence has certainly been a great ambassador for our league internationally."