Growing up, Maddie Norton spent her days playing street hockey.
But she didn’t play ice hockey competitively until the seventh grade.
And she didn’t think she had a chance of playing professionally until her senior year of college, when she was starring for UB’s ACHA Division-II women’s club hockey team.
Last August, Norton signed her first professional contract with the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League. In doing so, she became the first UB player ever to sign with an NWHL team. Club hockey provides an outlet for student-athletes to work on their games and compete in a structured environment, but it rarely leads to opportunities at the highest level.
“Playing in the ACHA is really fun,” Norton said. “It definitely wasn’t always that competitive — there were some teams that had a lot of girls that were new to the sport, who didn’t play their whole lives. But then there were some teams that had a really good group of girls that played competitively their whole lives.”
On the first day of 2019, Norton wrote down a New Year’s resolution on a sheet of paper: “Play higher-level hockey.”
Norton knew her goal was the NWHL, and she knew it wouldn’t be easy. Few NCAA Division-I athletes make the league. Even fewer ACHA club hockey athletes do. And after she made her New Year’s resolution, Norton still had no idea how she would make the jump from club hockey to the pros.
“I thought it was impossible to make an NWHL team from club hockey,” Norton said. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
So Norton put her head down. She spent hours each day at the gym and the local rink. She consulted Hayley Williams, a former Beaut who played college hockey in the ACHA, at Robert Morris and Miami (OH).
“I reached out to her and asked her, ‘What should I do? How should I go about this?’” Norton said. “She had some really good advice. I took it all, did what she said, reached out to some different teams, collected some film, signed up for free agency and it kind of all came together.”
In free agency, Norton tried out for multiple clubs in the then-five team league (in April, the NWHL expanded to Toronto). She received offers from Buffalo and the Metropolitan Riveters. By signing with the Beauts, she guaranteed that she would stay in Amherst and would play her home games at the Northtown Center, which is also where the UB club team plays.
“It’s just funny, really,” Norton said. “It’s been my home arena for the fifth year now. It was my home arena for four years of college and now it’s the Beauts arena. It’s kind of n ice. I’m familiar and I know the ins-and-outs of the arena. It’s just like home at this point.”
Norton grew up in Lancaster, a 25-minute drive from downtown Buffalo. She had an athletic upbringing, playing soccer, softball and basketball — “anything I could get my hands on,” she said — before the age of ten.
Growing up with a younger brother, Norton never had to worry about finding something to do. She played goalie for Lancaster/Iroquois/Depew in high school. She played travel hockey for the Buffalo Regals and other programs. Then, she looked to her next chapter: college.
While choosing a school, Norton considered factors like tuition, academics and location. But she didn’t give much thought to hockey. In hindsight, she thinks she should have done so — but she isn’t beating herself up over picking UB, either.
“As much as I enjoyed the education at UB and everything they offered me, I probably would have done it differently,” Norton said. “I probably would have sought out an NCAA team. I probably would have gone that route rather than the club hockey route.”
The Beauts’ roster is composed of players from Mercyhurst University and the University of Maine, among other NCAA Division-I programs. These players were able to compete against some of the best talent in the world while in college.
Norton may have missed out on that opportunity, but she has still been able to find the silver lining in her journey.
She starred for a UB team that made the trip to the national tournament for all four years of her college experience. In 2018, the Lady Ice Bulls got their first-ever victory in nationals, over Liberty University. It was there that Norton made a name for herself as a quick-footed forward.
Norton is widely considered to be the best goal-scorer in UB women’s hockey history. In four years, she tallied 137 goals, 55 assists and 192 points in just 61 regular season games. At the end of her senior campaign, she was honored with the Zoë M. Harris Award, which is awarded to the best club hockey player in the nation.
In her first season with the Beauts, Norton appeared in only three games and failed to record a goal or an assist. But she took full advantage of her opportunity and is looking forward to proving that she belongs in the NWHL in the future.
“It was fun,” Norton said. “I met a lot of great girls. I definitely improved as a player. I didn’t get as much ice time as I would have liked, but I never expected anything more or less, because I knew I was playing in a professional league. It’s really fun to be able to compete with these girls. Being in their presence and being able to get better because of them every day.”
At 5’3”, Norton is a bit undersized for a professional hockey player. But she subscribes to the belief — both in hockey and in life — that “it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” as she tweeted out in February.
“It’s not about how tall you are or how much you weigh or how much you can lift or anything like that,” Norton said. “It’s about how much you’re willing to fight for what you want. How much you’re willing to fight for what you believe in. I don’t think you should limit yourself because of your size or because of what you don’t have.”
Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jwmlb1.
Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.