New Englanders know Phoebe Stänz well from her prep school days and her collegiate career at Yale, but Stänz, 26, is now in the prime of her career and is one of the best Swiss hockey players in the world.
When the former Bulldog made her debut with Switzerland’s senior national team at the 2011 IIHF Women’s World Championship. At that time, the Swiss national team was beginning to get back on track after derailing at the turn of the century. Switzerland finished last at the 1999 Worlds, resulting in relegation to Division I, and then see-sawed between divisions until sticking in the top division just in time for the 2016 Olympics.
In 2013, Stänz was one of 908 registered female players in Switzerland. According to the IIHF that number swelled to 1,924. If that growth doesn’t seem exceptional to you, you should remember that Switzerland has a population similar to the state of Virginia (8.2 million) and that women’s hockey is, judging by the percentage of female registered players against male players, only about half as popular as it is in the States. “Women’s hockey is not very popular,” Stänz told The Ice Garden. “It’s slowly growing more in popularity. However, it’s still very much seen as a male sport and is still male-dominated.”
Stänz, who helped her country achieve a historic bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, didn’t learn about the women’s national team until she was cut from Switzerland’s U15 boys’ national team. There was no Cammi Granato or Angela James for Stänz to idolize even though Switzerland competed in the top division of the first four Women’s World Championships. By the time that Stänz was in skates, Team Switzerland had been overtaken by Germany and China and was a far cry from a team that finished fifth in the inaugural 1990 Worlds in Ottawa.
“Honestly, I was quite clueless about the team before I joined,” said Stänz. “I only knew what I saw on TV. The men were the only ones playing on TV. So I looked up to several men’s hockey players.”
That story speaks volumes about the importance of media coverage of women’s sports. Consider the fact that Stänz played some of her junior hockey in the states at Choate Rosemary Hall where she was the MVP of the prep school league. How many potential young Swiss girls didn’t pick up a hockey stick because they couldn’t picture a future for themselves in the sport?
Today, Switzerland is ranked fifth in the world by the IIHF. They were bulldozed by the rest of Group A at the 2019 Worlds, but the future remains bright even though it appears the team is still reeling from the retirement of all-time great Florence Schelling. “She was an extremely good goalie. World class ... she will be an even better GM for SC Berne.” said Stänz.
The Swiss are defined by their skating and collective potential, best represented by Alina Müller, Lisa Rüedi, and Rahel Enzler. Veterans like Stänz acknowledge Switzerland’s underdog status, but also believe in the team’s skill.
The majority of the national team players, including Stänz, hone their skills in the SWHL, the Swiss league that was established in 1986. Despite it’s rich history, it is a far cry from where the SDHL, ZhHL, or the NWHL are today. When asked to compare what her experience in the SDHL was like with Luleå Hockey/MSSK, Stänz made the gap between the two leagues abundantly clear.
“I think we should define professional hockey and what professionalism means,” said Stänz. “If we say that getting paid for playing, receiving a salary, then Switzerland is nowhere close. We pay to play. The imports, which are few, depending on the team get some sort of compensation. I don’t know numbers, but I know that Swiss players do not get paid.”
It’s hard to believe that a player of her caliber hasn’t been getting paid to play, especially after scorching the Swiss league with 15 goals and 22 assists in 15 games last season and looking brilliant in the 2020 SDHL playoffs with four goals and two assists in six games. But, frustratingly, that’s where Swiss women’s hockey is right now.
After dominating the league as a member of the flagship franchise HC Lugano which culminated in a championship in 2019, Stänz signed with the Thurgau Indien Ladies on Aug. 6 after a short stint in the SDHL. This will be Thurgau’s first season in the SWHL, they are replacing SC Weinfelden who finished last in the standings last season. It’s a big test for Stänz, but it’s one that she’s ready for.
“I am excited. I will face the challenge head on! It will be cool to build a professional team in Switzerland, such as the ones we find in Sweden. The goal is without a doubt to win the championship and make Thurgau the team all the women in Switzerland want to play for!”