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Rinkytown blog: Beat 'em, then join 'em, as former Bulldogs defender Lizi Norton transfers to Gophers

The Minnesota Gophers are adding another burst of experience to their already loaded women's roster, as defender Lizi Norton is transferring from UMD. Also, former men's captain Sammy Walker will test the free agent waters, and Buckeyes national champion Liz Schepers signs with the hometown Whitecaps.

Minnesota Duluth faces Harvard in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Hockey Tournament at Ridder Arena
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Lizi Norton (6) skates with the puck against Harvard on Thursday, March 10, 2022, at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS – “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the old saying goes. In fact, Lizi Norton and her former UMD Bulldogs teammates could and did beat the Minnesota Gophers in the NCAA playoffs last March, but over the summer, she decided to join the Gophers anyway.

Norton, a defender from Orono, Minn., is a grad transfer who will join a loaded Gophers roster as coach Brad Frost and company look to repeat as WCHA champions in 2022-23. In four years on the Bulldogs blue line, Norton had six goals and 32 points in 126 games.

“We are really excited to have Lizi as part of our program,” said Frost, in a statement released by the school. “She has played important minutes in the WCHA and has some great experience playing in big games. Lizi will fit in very well with our team.”

While this will be Norton’s lone season calling Ridder Arena her home ice, she will see several familiar faces in the Gophers locker room. Norton was previously teammates with current Gophers Taylor Heise, Abbey Murphy, Maggie Nicholson, Gracie Ostertag, Makayla Pahl and Madeline Wethington on USA Hockey’s gold medal-winning teams at the 2017 and 2018 U18 Women’s World Championships.

She played key minutes as the Bulldogs upset the Gophers in the final eight last season at Ridder, and advanced to the NCAA title game. Ohio State got a late goal to beat UMD and claim the Buckeyes’ first NCAA title in women’s hockey.

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Sammy Walker stops to talk with a young fan and sign a puck after playing in Da Beauty League on Monday, August 5, 2019. Tyler Schank / The Rink Live

Walker expected to go the free agent route

While the NHL Draft is generally a time when the best college players learn which one of the league’s 32 teams is in their future, for one former Gopher, the 2022 draft in Montreal last weekend provided the opposite kind of news.

Once he becomes a free agent in the middle of August, there are 31 teams that Sammy Walker could sign with, and one that he will not.

Walker, the three-time captain and former Mr. Hockey winner from Edina, finished his college career in April at the Frozen Four. Originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2017 seventh round, when he was still a high-schooler, Walker had attended the Lightning development camp in the past, while consistently being one of the Gophers top scorers. He was named the Big Ten’s freshman of the year after his rookie college season.

Before the opening round of the 2022 draft started on Thursday, July 7, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois told Joe Smith of The Athletic that he does not expect Walker to sign with the team. Under NHL rules, he can become a free agent on Aug. 15, which is just a few days after the second annual Sammy Walker Hockey Camp will conclude.

While Gopher fans would surely love to see Walker sign with Anaheim for a potential reunion with Blake McLaughlin, his long-time linemate in maroon and gold, Walker’s older brothers Ben and Jack have both played professional hockey in Europe, and that is a route he could consider as well.

OSU title.jpg
Ohio State women's hockey captain Liz Schepers held the NCAA champion trophy and celebrated with her teammates after the Buckeyes won the program's initial Frozen Four title, beating Minnesota Duluth 3-2 on March 20, 2022 at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa.
Contributed / Buckeyes Athletics

Happy homecoming for a Buckeyes hero

Liz Schepers had a dream ending to her college hockey career, playing in and winning the national championship game for Ohio State last March. The former Mound, Minn., star, playing in her fifth and final season for the Buckeyes, skated off the ice with a NCAA title and a college degree. Her next educational stop will be physical therapy school, and she had been accepted in a program at St. Scholastica in Duluth. But after some consideration, Schepers wasn’t ready to hang up the skates just yet.

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“At the end of the year, I still felt like I had a lot of hockey left to play and I love the game, so I started looking for opportunities in the weeks after the season, after things had kind of settled down," Schepers said.

Growing up in Minnesota, Schepers had played in the Junior Whitecaps organization, so her first (and last) call was to the State of Hockey’s pro women’s team. On Monday, July 11, the Whitecaps announced they had signed Schepers to a one-year contract.

“We are happy to have Liz continue her career back in the state of Minnesota after an impressive five years with Ohio State,” said Whitecaps head coach, Ronda Engelhardt, in a statement released by the team. “Liz is someone who will do the little things, go the extra mile, and work hard daily. As a player that can find the back of the net, we know Liz will make an immediate impact with our offense.”

As the Buckeyes’ captain last season, Schepers had 21 goals and 27 assists in 38 games. Ohio State rallied to beat the Gophers in overtime in the WCHA playoff title game. In the NCAA playoffs they survived a two overtime battle with Quinnipiac, then beat Yale and UMD in the Frozen Four for the title.

“We had a really special group and a very unique group when you look at how the team was built,” Schepers said. “The way we were able to come together and realize the potential we knew the team had, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better ending.”

In addition to playing hockey, Schepers said she hopes to stay involved in the physical therapy realm. And because the drive of 30 miles or so from Mound (on the west side of Lake Minnetonka) to TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul can take an hour or more in Twin Cities traffic, Schepers confirmed that she is looking for an apartment somewhere closer to work.

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Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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