SAM WALTHER: A NETMINDER’S TALE

 

Cetacean Nation spoke with another of our new members of the Whale Pod, and she hails from Maryland. That state is largely and rightly known as ground zero in lacrosse, not hockey. But the Chesapeake Bay area where our newest goaltender Sam Walther was born, lies just thirty minutes south of the site of the first organized ice hockey game in the United States. In 1896, Johns Hopkins hosted Yale on the ice in Baltimore, the teams skating to a 2-2 draw. But it wasn’t that history that drew Sam to the sport of hockey however. It turns out Sam was a “Future Draft Pick” by the now Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. Here’s how Sam explained it to us. “When I was about 4 or 5 years old, Ken Klee, a defensemen for the Washington Capitals moved in right down the street from us. There weren’t many kids in our neighborhood, but they had a son (Garrett) my age who was always outside shooting pucks around, and he just happened to need a target to shoot at. So naturally, I decided to play goalie. We played almost every night after school and during the summer. Eventually Ken told my parents that they had to get me on the ice, that there was just something there. So my parents took me to the skating initiation clinic and the small rink by our house- the same program that Garrett Klee was going to. I hopped on the ice for the first time and just took off.”

 

Amazing enough story of the start to her hockey career, but there was more to the netminder’s tale. Sam continued “ I never took any skating lessons growing up, which probably sounds bad, but it came naturally and I loved it. My parents were probably a little hesitant at first, when their five year old daughter said she wanted to play goalie for the boys team. But I think they knew it was the right fit considering I had already been kicked out of ballet class when I was four for kicking the teacher after she told me I had to wear a tutu. I also quit gymnastics because I didn’t want to wear a leotard, so hockey gear definitely seemed more my speed. I ended up making the boys AAA Team Maryland squad, and then went to boarding school at the Gunnery, which eventually lead me to Hamilton.” And as we are becoming increasingly glad, to the Whale. But before we go there, let’s see how the next chapter of Sam’s tale played out.


After her less than traditional path up to that point, Sam’s career began to take a somewhat more recognizable shape. She related to us “ I played a few seasons with Team Maryland before high school, because there was really only one local girls program. But I was a bit too young to play for the Washington Pride at that point. One of my teammates, Logan Adams, was being recruited to the Gunnery by the boys coaches. Logan’s father had also worked in several boarding schools, one of them being the Gunnery, before they moved to Pennsylvania, which is when he joined Team Maryland. So they knew the independent schools well but my family and I had never even heard of or considered the idea of me going to a boarding school for high school.” So a decision was made by Sam and her family to pursue her prep career in Connecticut, through her hockey contacts.

 

But we are talking with a goalie here, and every goalie will tell you they are a little “different”.  So not unexpectedly there is another layer to the tale. Sam continued “ I didn’t know this story until after I had already been at the Gunnery, but I guess when the Gunnery boys varsity hockey coach came to watch Logan, his wife, Shannon Baudo, happened to notice that there was a girl goalie in net that was holding her own. I vaguely remember meeting them after the game, but I didn’t actually understand that they were recommending that I look at the Gunnery and that they were essentially beginning my recruiting process and wanted me to speak to the Girls Varsity Coaches. Somehow I ended up talking to coaches at NAHA, Holderness, Choate, Deerfield, and the Gunnery, but I only applied to a local Catholic school and the Gunnery. I think I got both acceptance letters the same day and after hockey practice,  my mom asked me what I wanted to do. Without even thinking about it I said the Gunnery and they kind of had a nervous laughter but said okay, then that’s where you’re going.”


It is a bit different spending your fall along the coastal plain of Maryland than it is in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Sam told us “ My first few months at Gunnery was a huge adjustment period, especially academically. I didn’t know how to study, I didn’t want to study, I hated soccer practice and all I cared about was hockey. My freshman year roommate was Sarah Hughson, who just signed with the Whale as well. We were having a blast, so much so that my advisor had to lock me in her apartment to call my parents because I had forgotten to call them for almost 2 months hahaha.” After we picked the phone back up, Sam continued “I still played for Pittsburgh Penguins Elite even when I was at boarding school in CT. My parents would book me a flight and a taxi to the airport, I would fly out to Detroit or Wisconsin, or wherever the games were for the weekend, play a couple games, and then fly back to school on Sunday night. But it was clear to my professors that I was putting effort into hockey and not much into school.”

 

Sam’s life did not get less colorful at that point, but she did have an epiphany, thanks to a dedicated teacher. Sam admittedI would goof off a lot, and one day my math teacher, Mr. Small, called me out in front of the entire class. He told me that I had to be more than just an athlete. He didn’t say it to be rude, and honestly I didn’t take it that way either. I just kind of shrugged it off in the moment, but I never forgot it. He was the first person I went to find and hug after graduation from Gunnery four years later. He’s a big reason I chose Hamilton over less academically rigid schools. He’s 100% the reason I see myself as more than an athlete today, even after signing with the Whale for the upcoming season. I was a college athlete, but I was also able to find other passions outside of hockey.” Cetacean Nation recognizes and greatly admires the mental toughness it took for a young high school student to sharpen her focus in that manner. Sam continued “Writing has always come easy to me, but I started to actually embrace my ability to write. I found that I didn’t actually want to be a doctor, but I cared a lot more about human rights. I could go on and on, but I think everything I have learned to embrace outside of hockey is because of that one teacher, actually having the courage to put me in place and encourage me to branch outside of just one sport.”

 

Sam’s athletic career at Gunnery included playing soccer and lacrosse, as well as hockey. All as a goalie, and as a teammate of another new Whale Sarah Hughson. And her play as well as her academic turnaround, led her to Hamilton College. Sam told us “Hamilton prides itself on its passion to teach each one of its students to write, and to write well and for me, that was a perfect fit. One of the greatest things about Hamilton is that it has an open curriculum, but within that each student is required to take three writing intensive courses during their four years there. But those writing intensive classes aren't just English and Lit courses. Hamilton offers writing intensive math courses, foreign language courses, and science courses. Hamilton helps students learn to write well, while also allowing them to study what they are interested in. My first writing intensive course was a literature class my freshmen year and let me tell you,  I did horrible. But then I took an American Politics class on a whim just to fill my schedule. I thought I was going to hate it and I was honestly dreading the first day. I loved it. I switched my major that semester to Government, took Comparative Politics, and that’s when I really found my calling.”

 

We asked Sam about that and she elaborated “It sounds a little dark, but I loved learning about the scary stuff. Prison reform, the Holocaust, the nuclearization of North Korea, the authoritarian regimes, the Arab Spring- all of it. I was a bit behind on credits for the government major so I jumped right into an upper level course, which required a 25-30 page final paper. We were allowed to pick any topic of US international relations. So I chose to focus on the US involvement in the Nuremberg Trials and prosecuting the Nazi leaders after the end of WWII. I thought the paper was pretty bad, as I’ve never had much confidence in my academic work. But then I was nominated for a  Class and Charter Award, which is our big academic award ceremony. I received the Raphael Lemkin Essay Prize on the Practice of Genocide. It really boosted my confidence in my ability to write. I thought there was no way I would EVER be able to write that much, But now I’m hoping to publish one of my senior projects, which was just over 75 pages. It surveyed the treatment of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, specifically in the corrections and forensic environments in Oneida County, which is where Hamilton is located. After running dozens of interviews and collecting data, I wrote a report, suggesting what is working and what is not in the county and how to better the treatment of its mentally ill inmates. I collaborated with other professors and students and we’re hoping the survey will be published and dispersed this fall.“


But writing wasn’t the only new found passion Sam pursued at Hamilton. As she put it “Hamilton also encourages every student to go abroad at least once. But with hockey overlapping with both the fall and spring semester, I couldn’t find a program during the academic year that I could attend without missing part of the season, and that wasn’t something I was willing to give up. My advisor mentioned that him and another professor were designing a summer independent study trip focused on comparing the Swedish criminal justice system to that of the US. He knew I already interviewed one professor at Hamilton who had previously taught inside prisons, and asked me to apply for the project. I went abroad two summers in a row, first to London and then again to Sweden. It was the perfect opportunity for me to make up some credits, travel, and not miss any hockey. I had to make up credits in the summer anyways because I ended up dropping a course my freshmen year after a pretty bad concussion. I don’t get emotional much, but I was pretty sad when it was time to leave Sweden. Besides Maryland, it’s probably my favorite place in the world”

 

Some very cool recollections there, but remember this tale is being told by a goalie, so there is always a twist. When we asked a little more about her travels, Sam expanded her answer by adding “So not only did I get an inside look at the prisons in Sweden, but I also got to experience their great medical services first hand. I am hands down the most accident prone person in the world and Sarah will vouch for that. I missed a month of our season at the Gunnery my junior year because I fell off a treadmill and blew out my knee because I hit the wall behind me so hard, haha. So when I called my parents from an ER in Sweden they were not the least bit surprised. My classmates and I found a skateboard on our way to class one morning, but our train was coming so we put it up on a rafter to get after school was over. Once we came back I wanted to grab it, so I stepped up on a bench and tried to jump up to the rafter to knock it down. I hit the skateboard, but I lost my bearings, fell off the bench,  and landed on the side of my ankle, while simultaneously being smacked in the head by the falling skateboar.” Sam paused because Cetacean Nation had to pick our phone up again, then continued. “ I heard a loud pop and just collapsed. I laugh when I’m nervous so I was just cracking up, because it was definitely funny but I was also really freaked out by the size of my ankle. It was immediately the size of a soft ball and already blue. Somehow I got out of the train station, but the 911 operators only spoke Swedish. We ended up having some random guy call for a taxi to take me to the hospital, where I was X-rayed and put on crutches. I tore just about every ligament and tendon in there and had a small fracture. The funniest part was when I was done my X-ray my professors were waiting for me and so were my friends.” Sam said despite everybody's concern, they had an impromptu celebration. Cetacean Nation is not sure if that post injury celebratory behavior is more goalie or Swedish related,

 

On her other overseas adventure to London, Sam had an opportunity to travel to the continent and had a unique experience not usually mentioned in the guidebooks. “She said “I think my favorite memory of all my trips abroad was when the group of friends that I had met in London decided to head to Montmartre for an evening just to see the city lights after sunset. There was a group of 5 of us that became really close even in just a few short weeks. Our class took a trip to Paris and we had an evening to ourselves. The Euro Cup was going on at the same time as our trip to Paris and France had just advanced to the quarterfinals I believe. So we’re sitting on the steps of Montmartre, and if you’ve been, you know it's one of the higher points throughout the city besides the Eiffel Tower. We could see most of the city, it was so cool with all of the lights. So all day there had been people in the outdoor cafes and in the streets crowding around whatever TV they could to watch the tournament. France won their match that evening and all of a sudden cheers and yells broke out across the entire city and for us up on Montmartre you could just hear everybody celebrating and fireworks ended up going off by the Eiffel Tower, which was miles away but it just lit up the entire city. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. You could literally see people on the rooftops for miles. I think it meant a lot to me because at that time France was grieving recent terror attacks and was nervous that the tournament would bring about another one. But in that moment it was clear just how powerful sports were and the ability of a game to bring all those people together and for France to finally have a positive moment. It was really cool.”

 

Sam’s hockey career continued to blossom as well for the Hamilton Continentals. She graduated as a two time first team All-American, and was honored as the 2018 NESCAC Women's Hockey Player of the Year. She holds the school programs records in saves, goals against and shutouts. Her .948 save percentage ranks second in Division III history  as do her twenty-six shutouts. Her.960 save percentage last season was third best in NCAA history. She was honored with the school’s 2018 Jack B. Riffle Senior Varsity Female Athlete of the Yesr Award. So with her building success on the ice, when did the NWHL pop up on her rader? Sam replied “ I remember when the NWHL was announced a few years ago. I joked with my mom that I had found a job for after graduation from college even though I wasn’t even in college yet. I even tagged Sarah in the facebook post. So I knew deep down I wanted to play after college, but I really did doubt that I would ever play in the NWHL. I didn’t think as a DIII  player that anyone would take a chance on me. So last summer when a coach from the EWHL in Europe reached out to me I was excited that I might have some opportunity. He actually asked if I would sign for the upcomign season, meaning I would leave Hamilton my senior year haha. There was no chance that was going to happen, I needed to graduate. But he kept in touch throughout the season and we went through basically an entire recruiting process with game film, resumes, visa stuff, etc. Eventually he got a little distant and stopped responding and eventually he informed me that he changed teams and no longer needed a goalie or a forward. Sarah was talking to him too. We were supposed to be signing with a team in Europe together, but at the last minute right before out contracts were supposed to be sent, he backed out. This was all happening at the end of my senior season and it really put a damper on my play and my confidence to play at the next level.”

 

But this is a netminder’s tale, so the narrative might take a quirky turn at any point, and so it did.

Sam continued “But after a solid end to my season, my coaches and family encouraged me to register as a free agent in the NWHL. I didn’t think anything would come of it and I had honestly forgotten I registered when we all received the email that it was now free agency period and we could reach out to coaches. The first coach I reached out to was Coach Equale with the Whale. But then I received an invite to attend the Buffalo Beauts free agent camp. I was starting to have a lot more confidence, but still a little nervous that nothing was going to come of it after already having a coach back out on me. Coach Equale emailed me back while I was on my way to Connecticut to skate with Sarah before heading to Buffalo a few days later. He asked for a good time to call, but we played phone tag for about a week. Ironically, we finally connected as I was getting in my car to drive to the Beauts try out. He said he wanted to sign me but would wait to send me any information if I wanted to see how the try out with Buffalo went. I told him no, I wanted to play for the Whale and that was that. I still skated at the Beauts try out because I paid and can always use the ice time haha. I kept the phone conversation to myself but it definitely took a lot of stress of my shoulders knowing I was taking the next steps with the Whale.”


Besides scoring a contract with the Whale, Sam sought to make some other employment arrangements as well. She told Cetacean Nation “I wasn’t quite sure what my next steps were going to be after graduation. I was basically waiting to figure out what was going on with hockey and figured I would take the summer to finalize a job and if I wanted to go back to school right away. I actually hadn’t considered coaching until my coaches at Hamilton reached out about a job opening at another NESCAC school but they didn’t offer what I wanted to study. So one day, the week before heading to Buffalo, Sarah and I were sitting on her couch like literally all morning.  I don’t think we had moved for hours and we both decided we needed to do something productive so we got out laptops and sat back down on the couch, haha. We both started looking at coaching opportunities and I saw the Nichols College posting online. It actually didn’t say that it was a grad assistant opportunity, but it did say the head coach was looking for a goalie. So I shot him an email, not expecting a reply right away. He called me within 20 minutes, we talked, he mentioned the grad program, and I basically accepted the position right then and there. It all happened really fast.“

 

But there is a little more to the tale, as you might expect. Sam delved into the backstory a little more saying “He knew I was trying out with the Beauts and that might’ve been a far commute, but after I saw the Nichols masters program in counterterrorism, I was sold. Growing up near DC, I’ve always been surrounded by politics and national security issues. My dad dabbled in the Pentagon a bit when I was younger and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. For a while I wanted to go into the military, and if I didn’t play hockey my dream school would’ve been the Naval Academy right by my house, but some concussions got in the way of those plans. So the next best thing- national security! Eventually I’d like to move back to the DC area and be working on national security issues. I haven’t quite narrowed it down and obviously don’t need to right now, but I find the Middle East and South Asian foreign affairs and current events compelling. So, maybe the State Department.” Cetacean Nation pondered what a future article title of an article about what a future article about Sam might be titled, and thought “Madam Secretary is a Goalie” sounded pretty good. Sam concluded her thoughts “ I’ll also be working for the Institute of Women’s Leadership at Nichols. The Institute focuses on bringing awareness to and battling issues affecting women in male dominated workplaces, such as business, politics, and sports. Our aim is to develop strong independent female leaders within those male dominated fields through events, seminars, research, etc. I’ll probably be helping with event planning and assisting on research and hopefully doing my own research on issues that impact women within government professions, which obviously are issues that may affect me in the future.”


Based upon her on and off ice activities, Cetacean Nation also asked Sam to weigh in the NWHL and women’s hockey in general. She responded “ I think the NWHL has already spread the game and I definitely see the league expanding in the future. Growing up in MD there weren’t a lot of female hockey players, but now the high schools have all girls teams. My sister played on an all girls high school team right down the road from our house. That didn’t exist even four years ago. The girls I coach during the summer know who Hilary Knight is, they know who Shannon Szabados is. They’re not just interested in the NHL, but they’re genuinaly invested in the NWHL. I think it gives these young girls role models to look up to, something to aspire to be, to push themselves to be, and to give them confidence not just during hockey,  but in all of their pursuits. I know that’s what hockey has done for me and I think the NWHL is only going to empower young girls more.” We certainly agree with Sam’s assessment on that. In conclusion, we asked Sam if she would ask to wear her old number 30 with the Whale, since it seems to be currently available. She laughed and said “I I don’t want to wear 30! I kinda got stuck with it in high school and college and to be honest, I think it’s kind of boring. I’m hoping to wear #70. Everyone laughs at me when I say that, but I’m a huge Braden Holtby fan. Not only was he the starter when the Caps won their first Cup, but I love the way he plays. He’s a very technically sound goalie, but he’s also a battler and that’s how I always try to play. He never quits on a puck. He’s not the biggest or the fastest, but his compete level is second to none and that’s always what I try to replicate in my game. So I know some people think I just have a fan girl crush on him (which I will admit I do), but there’s an actual reason that I look up to Holtby.”

 

Well, Cetacean Nation predicts that Sam will soon experience being a fan favorite with plenty of followers of her own. Fins Up to Samantha Walther for her exuberant sharing of her story, and giving us a preview of some of what we have to look forward to this year. The Netminder’s Tale continues, now to be written in Blue & Green.