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Florence Schelling’s GM announcement means big things for pro hockey

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Schelling becomes the first woman to be named General Manager of a men’s pro hockey team

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The hockey world has been a little bereft of news lately (and that includes the Avalanche world!). So forgive me for veering a little off topic from the happenings in the mile high city for now — although the news that former Swiss national team goaltender Florence Schelling was just named the general manager of Switzerland’s SC Bern is relevant even as far away as Denver, Colorado.

Schelling, one of the most decorated female goaltenders in the last generation, was tapped to sit at the helm of the Swiss club SC Bern on Wednesday morning. With the announcement, she became the first woman to earn the post for a top-level men’s club anywhere worldwide, doing so at the impressive age of 31 and just two years removed from her retirement from professional hockey.

Her on-ice credentials put her on par with other greats who have moved from the ice to the office, even at her relatively young age. The Zürich native made her first Swiss women’s national team roster at the age of just 13 and appeared in 11 different Women’s IIHF World Championship tournaments and four different Olympic Games before wrapping up her career, taking home bronze in both the Worlds and the Olympics during her time on the ice to go with her storied professional career. She skated with men’s junior programs in Switzerland up until she moved to the United States to play for Northeastern’s women’s hockey program in 2008, then skated in the CWHL (W), SDHL (W) and Swiss Div. 1 (men’s) at the professional level all before calling it quits.

Beyond her immense experience playing developmental, collegiate, national, and professional hockey, though, Schelling already has some off-ice experience under her belt coaching with a Swedish women’s pro club and the Swiss women’s junior national team, and her attention to detail — made popular in goaltending circles thanks to the meticulous blog she kept logging her stats and improvements over the years — should serve her well in a managerial role.

The Swiss top division league is far from the NHL, both organizationally and structurally. The caliber of players she’ll be overseeing is much lower, and the Swiss leagues see far less haggling and international movement than other pro leagues. The NLA is notorious for being stingy with their foreign import rules, preferring to take care of home-grown talent over players (especially goaltenders) brought in from other countries and leagues. This means she’ll be easing into the world of being a woman amongst a male-dominated environment, negotiating with agents and managers in a country where she’s revered and respected for her storied accomplishments. It should give her a bit more grace as she navigates the inevitable learning curve that comes with moving from a role as player to coach to manager, allowing her more room to grow than she (or another woman) might find breaking into such a male-heavy field.

That’s important, and it should have ramifications reaching as far as North America before long. Because Schelling is shrewd, smart, and clearly has fantastic hockey sense; it’s hard to see a world in which she doesn’t hold her own at the managerial level, much less thrive, and that means she could set the tone for other women to follow in her footsteps. She could continue to work her way up the ladder — maybe moving over to North America and taking an assistant GM role before long — but even if she wants to stay at home, she’ll quiet a lot of the doubters and prove a lot of the naysayers wrong to help out other women who want to come after her.

We likely won’t get to see much of what she does for the forseeable future for a handful of reasons. The Swiss teams tend to be a bit quieter with their movements, and many of the European clubs have been in a holding pattern during the covid-19 sports freeze as team owners try to take stock of what their finances will look like at the end of the tunnel. Switzerland is adjacent to Italy, and so the timeline for the NLA’s return to full operations is still unclear.

When she does start to make her moves, though, we should all keep her eyes on what she does. Because as her front office career unfolds, it’s going to pave the way for others. And for a sport that’s still woefully behind so many others in terms of gender equality, that’s some good news we could all use.