Some people say the goalkeeper makes up 50 percent of the team’s performance. The number may be true or not, higher or lower, but almost every David-beats-Goliath upset has at least one parallel: extraordinary goaltending.
This rule becomes obvious in women’s hockey, where international tournaments on the highest level have kind of a three-tier structure with Canada and the U.S. battling for the gold, Finland and Sweden for European supremacy, and the Euro-Asian rest of the top division contenders simply for survivor.
A closer look at two of the biggest upsets in international women’s hockey does at least not refute the importance of goalkeepers. Number one on the list is undoubtedly Sweden’s 3-2 victory against Team USA in the semi-finals of the 2006 Olympics. Sweden netminder Kim Martin made the Americans desperate with 37 saves while Maria Rooth scored both goals to tie the game in the middle period. Martin remained tall for the rest of the game, and kept her net clean in the shootout.
Although the Swedes lost the gold medal game to Canada, 4-1, it was the biggest accomplishment of a European team as no other squad from the old continent has reached the final of the Olympics or the World Women’s Championship, neither before, nor after the Turin Olympics.
Sweden was also part of another upset at the 2008 World Women’s Championship in Harbin, China, but this time as the fallen favourite. The Damkronor missed the medal games following a 4-3 defeat in shootout against Switzerland, which hadn’t been better-ranked than fifth before.
Sweden outshot the Swiss 31-11, but Florence Schelling had a strong day in the Swiss net while her teammates scored the lead three times. The tournament ended in fourth place for the Swiss after losing the bronze medal game to Finland.
There are even more parallels between the 2006 and the 2008 heroes. Both Martin and Schelling began their college career in the U.S. some months after having been in the spotlight in their international upsets. Before that, they played women’s and boys’ hockey in their native country and also got the chance to practise with the professional men’s teams of their club.
Schelling also practised at a goalkeeper camp with men during the summer, receiving hard shots from national team blueliners Mark Streit (New York Islanders) and Yannick Weber, her boyfriend who was called up by the Montreal Canadians last week after having played most of the season for the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
“I can profit much from such a camp because their style is much different compared to women’s hockey, it’s great to be there every year,” Schelling said. “It’s tough, but it’s so much fun despite getting hard shots. It’s sometimes good to be challenged that way.”
Schelling is in her second season with Northeastern University in Boston. Her team, the Huskies, play in the Hockey East conference in NCAA Division I, and hope to win the first title in 13 years – and to play for the national championship.
On the international stage, the 20-year-old is no rookie anymore. She was already part of the national team in 2006 when Switzerland took part for the first time in the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament.
“I learned very much in Turin, now for Vancouver I’m much more experienced,” Schelling said.
Meanwhile, she has not just added experience, but also a couple of awards. She was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 and the team’s MVP. Also this year she won several Defensive Player of the Week honours and challenged Team USA with the Hockey East All-Star Team. The Americans won 4-0 while Schelling deflected 20 out of 21 shots during her half hour in the net. It was the closest score in USA’s series of exhibition games against college teams.
Most recently she played in one of the three games of the Winter Classics Event at Fenway Park – a game witnessed by 38,000 spectators in the baseball stadium and many more on TV. The game against New Hampshire ended in an unusual manner – with a defeat.
Schelling has an 11W-5L-3T record this season and leads the league with a 95.0 save percentage and a 1.35 goals against average. Her team is currently in second place just one point behind Providence College.
“At the beginning it was a huge difference to play there, but women’s hockey is women’s hockey despite the much higher level in the U.S.,” Schelling said about her freshman season. “At the end it was simply a new team for me, despite having other opponents and being in another country.”
Schelling, whose older brother Philippe plays for the ZSC Lions Zurich, realized late that she could have a career in women’s hockey. “Until I was 13, I even didn’t know that there is such a thing as a women’s national team and a women’s league,” Schelling said. “One day the national team coach called me and I thought: ‘Nice, there’s a national team? Sounds great!’ That’s how I joined the team at age 13.”
It was a phone call with huge significance in her life as international hockey brought her around the globe, from the World Women’s Championship in China to her current life as a business student in Boston.
“We’re living in a dorm and have lectures from morning till evening and then practice. There’s not much space for other things,” Schelling describes the college life. “On the weekend we play our games, but it’s pretty well organized. I feel we’re even travelling less than in Switzerland. I think the longest trip we had was five hours, but then we play two games and have enough time to learn.”
With women’s hockey improving in Europe, the U.S. college life has become more popular for Swiss players too.
Schelling is one of five national team players who play college hockey in North America. Julia Marty is Schelling’s teammate and captain at Northeastern University while her twin sister Stefanie plays for Syracuse University. Darcia Leimgruber plays for the University of Maine while Lucrèce Nussbaum, at St. Thomas University, is the only Swiss national team player in Canada.
“Players going to North America is also an advantage for the national team as long as they go to a team they know they will get ice time. If you get enough shifts, you will profit from that,” Schelling said.
While the goal set by the Swiss Ice Hockey Association is the Olympic diploma, meaning at least the sixth place, Schelling knows how to surprise. And might be in the middle of the attention as the starting goalie if the Swiss should surprise.
“The Olympic Games are very special for us, especially because some teams like Canada and the U.S. are together for a full season,” Schelling compares the Vancouver event to a World Women’s Championship. “You basically play the same team, but they’re ten times stronger.”
A great performance is in huge demand for the smaller teams when they’re outshot by the two big favourites. “It’s a good chance for any player to show their skills. We’re always the underdog [against Canada or the U.S.], but sometimes we can surprise,” Schelling said. “I remember when we played in China and after two periods the U.S. was leading just 1-0, which was a great score for us.”
For many women’s players in Switzerland, the international career begins early, but also doesn’t last that long. Asked if she will still be with the team in four years in Sochi, she isn’t really sure about. “I’ll be studying until 2013 and will decide later in which direction I’ll go,” Schelling said. “There’s professional women’s hockey in Canada, but for me hockey is just a hobby and it shall stay one. I don’t see a future as a hockey professional for me. I want to finish my study with a good performance and start a new career afterwards.
“But this season the Olympics are particularly important for me,” she said.
The Swiss will open a three-day camp in Switzerland on January 29 before transferring to Canada for the training camp starting on February 2 including games in Winnipeg against Balmorall Hall (Feb. 5), the University of Manitoba (Feb. 8) and in Squamish against Russia (Feb. 10).
Switzerland will open the women’s ice hockey tournament with its game against Sweden (Feb. 13) before facing Canada (Feb. 15) and Slovakia (Feb. 17) in the preliminary round.
The opening game will be the first meeting of the two teams in an IIHF-sanctioned tournament since the Swiss surprise in China two years ago.