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Playing The Field: Ashley Birdsall

After bulking up in the gym, the UW-Superior graduate returned to the hockey rink, where she's giving it her all

Aug. 3, 2015
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Photo courtesy Ashley Birdsall
In Playing the Field, we profile women who are making an impact in the world of sports, either in competition or behind the scenes. For this installment, we spoke with UW-Superior graduate Ashley Birdsall, a fitness enthusiast and aspiring professional hockey player.

The hockey rink is Ashley Birdsall’s oasis. When she’s on the ice, she can shake off everything else that’s weighing down on her and focus on the slide of the blade on the ice. She calls it her escape from the chaos of her life.

There was a time that Birdsall took off her skates and walked away from hockey to focus on more pressing family issues. But that time away from the game only put in stark relief how important and precious the time on the ice is for her.

So two years after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Superior (UW-S), Birdsall has committed herself to finding success in hockey. She’s not exactly sure what that looks like, but right now she’s content to say she wants to reach the highest level she can reach.

After taking a personal training course her senior year of college, Birdsall became committed to fitness and spending time in the gym. As she went through the class, she couldn’t help but consider how the things she was learning would apply to her game on the ice. “That’s when I started training in the gym,” she says. “Prior to that, I always considered myself a decent athlete. I was good at my sport, but I never seriously dedicated myself to weight training. I wasn’t knowledgeable about it. (I learned) this is what the human body is capable of ... I 110% believe that if it wasn’t for me finding that passion in the gym on the fitness side that I wouldn’t be the hockey player that I am today. I can say I’m definitely not the hockey player I was in high school. I’m not the hockey player I was in college. I’m an athlete completely different. I’ve revamped my focus on the sport and my abilities.”

Being on the ice was second-nature to the Duluth, Minn., native, who grew up in a hockey family. Her dad Bob coached the AAA Minnesota Ice Dogs for more than 16 years. Ashley started out with figure skating, but soon switched her toepicks for hockey blades. By the time she was 11, Birdsall says you couldn’t get her off the ice.

What followed should have been a clear course of high school and college success.

Instead, Birdsall was verbally committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) but then received what she called “one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever received in my life.” The way Birdsall understood it, UMD had offered for players because they thought some of their upperclassman from other countries would not be returning. When those players decided to return, there was no longer a position for Birdsall or a few other recruits on the roster.

For the Duluth native, playing on her hometown team and for a Division I program was a dream come true, so the phone call from then-UMD coach Shannon Miller was heartbreaking. The decision came late in the recruiting process. Birdsall had already turned down a few other programs and was now left without many options. Wanting to make sure she was on the ice for her freshman year, she enrolled at nearby UW-S, a Division III school.

Birdsall had a successful freshman season at UW-S, but her family situation led her to walk away from the rink during her sophomore year. She joined the army and believed she’d strapped on her skates for the last time.

When she returned from her initial military training, Birdsall realized how much she missed the freedom and respite she found at the rink. She attempted to rejoin her team at UW-S, but found the coaches weren’t receptive to it after she’d left mid-season. She looked into the rules and regulations and was granted a tryout and eventually rejoined the team. Strained relations with coaching staff combined with missed time for military training meant Birdsall’s final two seasons were not how she imagined closing out her hockey career.

Upon graduation, Birdsall spent time at Fort Lee, Va. for army logistics training.

“When I finally returned in September 2013, that was the turning point—the decision making,” she says. “My college career didn’t go as planned. It didn’t go very well. I wasn’t very happy with it. I knew personally the potential I had as a player. I knew that I loved the sport too much to give up on it. That’s when I made the decision. I’m going to train and do whatever I can to play the highest level of hockey available to me.”  

There’s a single-minded focus to Birdsall. She sees a goal and looks to accomplish it. But there’s also compassion that underlies a lot of what she does.

On the surface, she’s a military girl. A gym rat. A rink rat. She’s got drive and muscles to spare. But as she pushes toward her goals, she does so with a positive message and a desire to help inspire others.

Clearly Birdsall’s path hasn’t been the one she imagined as a little girl. Rather than give up on her dreams or make excuses for why they haven’t happened, she finds the positive where many would not.

“My parents got divorced; there was a lot of drama,” she says. “Alcohol abuse. Substance abuse. Domestic violence. All this stuff that’s happened throughout my life. I’ve always been the stable one out of the siblings, that rock for everybody. I’ve always been the one that’s always taken care of other people and doing whatever it takes to keep going ... My whole message, to anyone, even if it’s not related to hockey, it’s just having a positive outlook on life, having a positive outlook on any situation in your life. I take pride in being a kind person and motivating and inspiring others to do the same.”

The push to achieving her hockey goal included relearning how to use her new body on the ice. She went back to the basics, spending hours each day working on her skating, shooting and puck-handling.

Birdsall uses her personal Instagram and YouTube pages for personal PR. She posts herself working out and on the ice. She believes that’s what earned her an invite to attend a training camp with the Buffalo Beauts of the newly formed National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).
For two days in May, Birdsall joined about 40 other hopefuls in an attempt to break through. Though camp wasn’t successful for her, it was another step to being recognized and finding her place in the women’s hockey landscape.

She doesn’t know what comes next. For now, she spends her days traveling all over Minnesota, looking for opportunities to play. She plays with a women’s league out of the Twin Cities, driving the two hours between there and Duluth multiple times a week. She seeks out ice time wherever she can find it. She admits to sitting in her car and Googling rinks, looking for open ice time and the chance to join a pick-up game.

The whole thing sounds a little unbelievable and it’s not easy to understand why Birdsall is committed to this goal or where the crazed obsession with “making it” comes from. But there’s also something everyone can relate to in her story. By the time mid-20s hit, most people know that life doesn’t always go as planned. Birdsall accepts that this is the case, but isn’t satisfied with “c’est la vie.” She’s chosen to own her past and use it to fuel her future.

“From high school on, in hockey it was a never-ending uphill battle for me,” she says. “It was me always trying to prove to the coaching staff, prove to my teammates, prove to the public that I was worth it; that I was that good leader, I was that good teammate. People weren’t really paying attention to me, people weren’t giving me credit. I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to lose, have no one to impress because no one even knows who the hell I am. All I know is I’m me. I know the person I am, I know the player that I am. I know what I’m capable of. I know my potential. I believe in myself.”

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