By Andrew Vitalis, special to WCHA.com
Sometimes in hockey, as in life, all you can do is hold on.
Sometimes the puck bounces the right way and sometimes it doesn't.
Back in the spring of 2015 Nicole Schammel wasn't sure what side the puck was going to land on….and when it was going to stop bouncing. Fresh off her freshman season as a member of the Minnesota State Mavericks women's hockey team, the former Red Wing High School star had just steamrolled through her first season in the WCHA, striking for 11 goals and 11 assists in 36 games. Despite the fact that MSU had struggled as a team- only winning three games that year and just one in the WCHA, her future (and their future) appeared bright. After all, after leading the Mavericks in scoring that season as a league rookie, things could only get better right? Instead, after the season came to end, then-Minnesota State head coach Eric Means announced he was resigning. It was a blow to the program and much more than that to Schammel. She remembers feeling the sting- like a puck from a slap shot that finds its way through the pads and strikes you square in the back of the leg. All of a sudden the former Minnesota Ms. Hockey finalist found herself with more questions than answers.
"It was a tough time for me," recalled Schammel. "After the season my head coach resigned and he was a big reason why I went there in the first place. Sometimes I think when you get to college the school you go to doesn't always fit you personally and I think that's what I found throughout my freshman year."
Never known as a player who stood still for very long, the second all-time leading scorer in Minnesota girls high school hockey history took a deep breath and looked at her options. She had plenty, but one stood out amongst the rest so she picked up the phone and on the other end Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Brad Frost answered the call.
"She contacted us and let us know she was interested in transferring," Frost recalls. "We knew Nicole very well from when she played in high school at Red Wing High School; especially with Paige Haley, a former teammate of hers who was on our team at the time. Paige spoke very highly of Nicole. We just thought it was a good fit. Nothing was guaranteed for her; she had to come and prove that she could be a good fit on our team and she definitely did that."
"In high school I looked at quite a few schools. I knew I wanted to play in the WCHA. At the time Minnesota State seemed liked the best fit for me and it just didn't work out with the coach resigning, it was pretty devastating and over the years there have been a lot of changes within our league with UND (University of North Dakota) folding, so I think a lot of people can relate to that. Just the process of being recruited was something I never expected but it did end up working out for me," commented Schammel. "Growing up you always dream about playing for the Gophers so when that opportunity came it was hard to pass it up."
And just like that she was back on track- the puck had stopped bouncing and it landed in Dinkytown. Still the challenges kept coming. Challenges like the daunting task of siting out a year due to transfer rules. Making the roller coaster even more nauseating was the fact that while she was able to practice with the team, she had to watch the games from the stands- all the way to the National Championship! Don't get her wrong: She was ecstatic for the university and her teammates, but the then-sophomore was a competitor and she wanted to compete.
"It was long; it was tough. One thing that made it easier was that we had so many really good players that year to learn from, so practice was extremely competitive," commented Schammel. "We won the National Championship that year, so it was fun being a part of that success, even if I wasn't competing in the games. It's a process. Going from being in the line-up every day to not being in the line-up at all; that was a change."
So instead she decided to compete in the classroom. Schammel used her time away from the rink and applied it to her degree. She took extra classes, which put her on the fast track to an undergraduate degree in Business and Marketing. Now two years later as a redshirt senior, Schammel not only has an undergrad degree on her resume but is moving towards a master's degree in Sports Management. If overcoming adversity was a major, the Gophers' #25 would already be qualified to teach the course to others.
"It's very tough to go through something like that and it was tough for her too. With her maturity she was able to handle it really well. She's somebody who was able to move forward and start working on her degree and begin her masters. She used that time to become better as a hockey player but also she used that time to bang out some classes and different things within her major to prepare for the future," remarked Frost. "She's a character kid and someone who is very mature and has her priorities in the right place."
And at the end of the day that's what has, and continues to, set Schammel apart. Now in her final season wearing the Maroon and Gold, Schammel not only finds herself as the Gophers' leading scorer through ten games (3G-9A-12 points), she's also excelled in the leadership department as one of eight seniors on the roster and the "older sister" to sophomore line-mates Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Wente. The line, which first started skating together in December of 2016, has perhaps been Frost's most dynamic. To date, of the seven games the trio has skated together this season (Wente missed three games) they have registered at least one point in six of them. The only game they failed to appear on the scoresheet was last Sunday's 4-1 loss at No. 1 Wisconsin (a day after Minnesota's 1-0 win in Madison), which was just the second-ranked Gophers' second loss of the season (7-2-1 overall, 5-2-1 WCHA). The defeat also marked the first time Schammel failed to score this year.
"It's been a lot of fun to watch her. She has the ability to score. She sees the ice well and she's developed some great chemistry with Taylor Wente and Grace Zumwinkle," replied Frost. "Last year was a great building block for them as a line and they have come in this year and have been the most consistent line we've had. You add Taylor Wente to the mix and she's a great centerman; she has great speed and distributes the puck well and she has two goal-scorers on her wings. She understands that if she gets them the puck in certain spots they are going to be successful. I think the other thing with Nicole in particular, is her defensive game has really improved throughout her three years here. She's now being used on the penalty kill, where she never was her first year. She is blocking shots and is more of a 200-foot player and, because she's put the time in and understands the importance of that, she gets more ice time and finds herself in more situations where we need big blocks and big goals."
"I think what has really brought our game out and pushed it to the next level is how well we get along off the ice, which is even more important than the relationship on the ice. We are really good friends and I think that is the biggest thing and that translates onto the ice," continued Zumwinkle, the 2017-18 WCHA scoring champion. "Her stickhandling and being able to be aware of potential plays on the ice is what makes her so good. I think one of my biggest strengths is my shot; just her making the play and me being in the position to finish it or vice versa. We have a way of finding each other on the ice and I think that has the most to do with the success we had last season and the success so far this season."
"In general we have been really fortunate to play with centers who are good at breaking the puck out and going from there. Whoever Grace and I are playing with, they are always good at distributing the puck and bringing that grit to the line. We all complement each other. Specifically for Grace and I, we both know our strengths and we use them to help one another," remarked Schammel, currently tied for third in the WCHA in scoring and tied for second in assists. "I think as a line; not necessarily looking at it as an individual but as a line, we expect that we should be scoring almost every game and so far we have been doing a pretty good job of that. I wouldn't say there is a pressure to it. You feel you are contributing when you are on the ice when goals are scored. I'm happy regardless. As long as we win I don't care who is scoring the goals. I have been pretty fortunate so far this year."
Spoken by a true leader and, in the end, you can throw out the goals and assists as far as Brad Frost is concerned- you can erase the numbers. To him what makes Schammel a true talent goes well beyond the scoresheet. Sure, the Gophers' bench boss will take what he can get, but the senior's true value comes in the form of character and courage. Excellence and experience. Leadership and life. Now several years removed from that crossroads she faced as a freshman, Schammel knows that without those ups and downs she would have never been able to be the player and person she is today. Like a sponge she soaked up every experience (and lesson) she could and now shares them with the rest of her team every chance she gets.
"I remember my redshirt year, Amanda Kessel came back and kind of took me under her wing. Seeing her being the older one on the team and how she handled that, and now I feel that Kelly Pannek and I have moved into that role where we are both fifth-year seniors. You kind of appreciate the perspective you have being the older one in the locker room," replied Schammel. "This past summer we were all working really hard preparing for this season. For me, I was excited to have that last year being that it's my fifth year. I've waited a long time for this, so I think going into this year I was really excited knowing I was going to be one of the older ones on the team; was going to be a veteran and have that veteran presence. To think that from transferring and sitting out a year to where I am now, I have a lot of perspective to share with the team so I just think looking back on it, it's all worked out in my favor."
"It's absolutely huge and it's something we talked to her about as soon as we put those three together last year (Schammel, Wente and Zumwinkle); she has an opportunity to really help lead these guys and show them what it's like to be a great player in the WCHA, and not just that, but also someone who focuses on her studies and makes her teammates better," said Frost. "She's done a marvelous job and not just with those two players but the entire team. She is someone who is really well-respected amongst our group."
Amongst the group and the entire league.
Schammel and the Gophers step back onto the ice this weekend at home against Bemidji State.