Impossible as it might be to imagine at a time when she’s among the NWHL’s leading rookie scorers, there was a point – and one not all that long ago – that Minnesota Whitecaps rookie Nicole Schammel’s development could have been stunted.
The story goes like this: after an excellent freshman season at Minnesota State University, where she registered 11 goals and 22 points to lead the Mavericks in scoring, Schammel decided to move on. In doing so, and in transferring to the conference-rival University of Minnesota, the brakes were temporarily put on Schammel’s career.
As a result of NCAA transfer rules, the 2015-16 campaign was a wash for Schammel. Not once did she step foot on ice for the Gophers, not a single second of meaningful game action. Instead, as the likes of Dani Cameranesi, Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein guided Minnesota to a national championship, Schammel sat on the sidelines and waited patiently for her turn. And though some might have seen that lost season as a negative, Schammel can recognize when she looks back now that it might have been the very thing that helped her take an important step forward.
“We had a really talented team that year, so I was still skating with a lot of the best in the United States and the world,” Schammel said. “I got to work out pretty hard for a year, get in really good physical shape without worrying about having games every weekend and kind of take a step back and learn our systems at the ‘U’. I definitely think that I could focus more on my skills throughout a whole year, so I think it definitely benefitted me.”
What strides she had made, mind you, were not evident immediately. As a redshirt sophomore, Schammel was relatively quiet, her six goals and 12 points an offensive downturn for a promising second-year skater. It turns out, though, what Schammel was seemingly waiting for was opportunity. After the departure of a few key Gophers ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, Schammel stepped into the spotlight with a breakout 17-goal, 32-point season. That was followed by last season’s 16-goal, 47-point campaign, an output that landed her among the top collegiate scorers and earned her a nod as a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top women’s player in the nation.
“Looking back on last year, you kind of want to go out on a high note as a senior,” Schammel said of her standout season. “I felt pretty good about that. Didn’t win a national championship, but as an individual and contributor to the team, I felt really good about my performance last year. That definitely does give you a boost of confidence going into this year.”
It’s a confidence that hasn’t been at all shaken by making the jump to the professional game, either. In fact, she appears as confident as ever with the puck on her stick. In her eight NWHL games, Schammel’s six goals are tied for the most among all rookies. Her 12 points are only one off the freshman lead. At her current scoring rate of 1.5 points per game, there’s not a single first-year player who has produced at a higher clip than Schammel.
“She just picked up where she left off with the Gophers,” said Minnesota Whitecaps defender Sydney Baldwin. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit. She’s such a smart and talented hockey player and really plays to her skillset, which I think has shown.”
Baldwin has a unique perspective on Schammel’s skillset, too. Now teammates with the Whitecaps, the two also spent three seasons together with the Gophers, ending with Baldwin’s graduation following the 2018-19 campaign. But more than a half-decade ago, the two 23-year-olds, born only four months apart, were high-school rivals of sorts, Baldwin the captain of Minnetonka High and Schammel wearing the ‘C’ for Red Wing High. Suffice to say, Baldwin has seen plenty of Schammel, enough to know how tricky she is to defend.
“She does a good job of not necessarily telegraphing what she’s going to do with her eyes, and she’s got such a broad skillset that you never know entirely what she’s going to do on a rush,” Baldwin said. “If she’s going to try to beat you wide, delay, hit the other player, and she’s also got a really good set of hands on her, so if you overcommit on her as a defender, she’s going to dangle right through you and walk right past you.”
As Schammel explained, her knack for keeping defenders guessing was born out of necessity. “I was never the fastest player on the team, so I had to learn how to be unpredictable in ways unrelated to speed,” she said. “Growing up, I loved watching hockey, seeing all the creative things that some of the best in the world do. I’ve always tried to learn those things and allow myself to be unpredictable in that way, as well.”
And though that has made her one of the league’s most lethal scorers, Schammel still sees room for growth and wants to be an every-game game-changer. Consistency is what she’s seeking.
“I’ve had some high-scoring games and then dropped off,” Schammel said. “I’d like to see myself become more consistent. And from a defensive standpoint, get better in the D-zone and help my team out in that way.”
If she does both of those things, who knows what the Whitecaps’ ceiling will be this season. The defending Isobel Cup champions are third in the NWHL and not near as dominant as they were in their expansion season. But with a game-breaker like Schammel, there exists plenty of championship potential, and maybe the crown she missed in college can rest atop her and her teammates’ heads by season’s end.
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