Country comes first for NWHL rookie Ashley Birdsall

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Ashley Birdsall can trace it back to her youth. It was then, well before she knew of any familial connection to the armed forces, that she first had the feeling that it was her calling to serve. She can recall the way the hair on her arms stood at attention as she watched images of the men and women of the United States military flit across the television screen. But it wasn’t until her late teens that her interest in serving her country was truly piqued.

“My first encounter with the real military would be when I was 16, going on 17,” said Birdsall, a rookie with the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts. “My grandfather passed away. They did the whole military funeral – the 21-gun salute, folding up the flag and handing it to my grandma. It was interesting, because we didn’t know that he served in the army. He never talked about it. My mom never talked about it. So, we weren’t really briefed beforehand, before attending the funeral, that all of this was going to occur. It was a very unique experience as a younger adolescent to witness.”

At that point in time, however, Birdsall’s future was already mapped out. A standout at Duluth East High School, where she was captain during her senior year, Birdsall was soon off to the University of Wisconsin-Superior where she was set to skate with the NCAA Div. III Yellowjackets. Her focus was on the ice and pursuing an education. But midway through her collegiate career, with the draw of the military ever present, Birdsall enlisted. In the nine years since, she has risen through the ranks, now a captain with the Minnesota Army National Guard.

Despite the commitment that her career in the armed forces requires, Birdsall, 29, has found ways to remain close to the game. Her first two years in the service came during her junior and senior seasons at Wisconsin-Superior, and while she spent the following two seasons away from competitive play, she took it upon herself to continue to hone and refine her skills through pickup games and any ice time she could find. Come 2015-16, though, Birdsall made her return to the women’s game, earning a spot on the then-independent Minnesota Whitecaps. It’s there she spent the next three seasons, racking up the miles with several weekly round trips from Duluth, Minn., to the Twin Cities.

But just as the Whitecaps – and potentially Birdsall – were set to make the move to the pro ranks, her career was temporarily derailed. In March 2018, Birdsall was forced to undergo an unplanned emergency surgery, the details of which she wishes to keep private. Just months later, it was announced Minnesota was set to become the NWHL’s first expansion franchise.

That was the beginning of a frustrating year for Birdsall, one that saw her spend six months off the ice. Even once she laced up again, her recovery was only beginning.

“We’re talking starting over, learning how to skate again, getting my stride back,” she said. “I pretty much had to do everything from square one. I had to start over in the gym in the fall and start over on the ice. Building blocks, right at the bottom.”

Birdsall’s dogged effort on and off the ice had her back up to game-speed by the time the NWHL’s open tryouts rolled around this past off-season. And while she acknowledged there are aspects of her game that have been forced to change, what Birdsall did and continues to bring to the table impressed Buffalo’s coaching staff and GM Mandy Cronin.

“Once she got to camp, she really showed her true colors and really impressed us skill-wise but more so the drive, the work ethic, the standard that we knew she would set and what we expected of our team,” Cronin said.

That she was one of the more versatile skaters on the ice didn’t hurt Birdsall’s cause. Though a natural center, she’s moved between forward and blueline duty, and that adaptability was a boon for the Beauts.

How long she’ll be able to be that player for Buffalo, however, is a question. The Beauts would surely welcome her back again, but Birdsall is the first to note her on-ice career is likely on the clock.

“I want to play hockey as long as I can. This is my first love, I would say, the game of hockey,” Birdsall said. “But I also have to acknowledge and realize that I took an oath to an office, and I’m a commissioned officer in the United States Army. I have a duty and a responsibility to fulfill. At the end of the day, that is my No. 1 priority, and that’s always going to come first.”

This is an edited version of a story that appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Rookie Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.