Meet two Beauts who traveled the world and never gave up on their chance to play professional hockey
The NWHL’s second place team, the Buffalo Beauts, had mixed results this past weekend winning a game against Connecticut and losing one to the still undefeated Boston Pride. It was their first action in nearly a month. This upcoming weekend they face the league’s third place team, the Minnesota Whitecaps, for two games. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with forward-defense Ashley Birdsall and goaltender Tiffany Tsu about how the season is going and discussed their incredible journeys to play professional hockey.
Buffalo Beauts are in second place in the NWHL. Couple of tough losses against Boston. Some convincing wins against Connecticut. Let’s start by talking about the long break. Before this weekend you didn’t play for nearly a month. How was it having that much time between games?
AB: I think the long break is a little tough. You get out of the rhythm of things, but it’s good as well because you get to work on things in practice. I feel like our second time around in Boston was a lot more comfortable than the first. Obviously playing a brand new team to start the year out. You don’t really know what to expect or what their strengths and weaknesses are. I’m pretty proud of my team. The score doesn’t reflect completely what happened during the game. But I feel like we played a stronger game then the first time around. It’s not to say that Boston is unbeatable. They are a good team. I respect them for that. They are good players. But we’ll be coming back for them.
TH: I think the break is definitively tough, like threw us off our rhythm and everything. But it also gave us time to regroup, try out new things, new strategies. We have a new lineup this time going to Boston. Yeah they are a good team, but I also feel good about our team. We have a lot of talented players.
What would you say is the biggest difference between your first games against Boston this year and what you did this past weekend?
AB: The second time around we just had a better gameplan. Coming in the first time you don’t really know what to expect, but building off of that and coming in to the game and coming in with a better plan and changing up a forecheck and little things like that help us play a better game.
What’s the blueprint to beat a team like that? The difference between Boston and everybody else is glaring right now. What’s it going to take to give Boston their first loss of the year?
AB: So I think that we did pretty well with them for about a period and a half and then kind of lost it after that. Our first period play is what we need to do for three periods. They are very talented. They have speed and skill. If you stick to a very strict defensive zone and neutral zone, kind of take them off their game with the skill set of playing man on man body, and always having a player on a player slows them down. And controlling the neutral zone. They’re good at coming through the neutral zone in to the offensive zone once they get that speed up. So just a strict defense of the neutral zone will help towards potentially beating them.
One of the highlights of this past weekend for Buffalo was the goaltending. Can you tell me your take on what you’ve seen in net Tiffany?
TH: Mariah (Fujimagari) did very well to try and keep us in the game against Boston this past weekend. We definitively need to tie up some defensive zones and help our goalie a little more. Our goalie has been facing a lot of shots not just against Boston, but also against Connecticut. It would be good if we could get more help from our defense to clear out some rebounds, a lot of stuff that our goalie can’t really get to. Mariah definitively did amazing this past weekend.
Mariah finished with 36 saves, many of which were highlight reel plays. Kelsey Neumann won VEDA NWHL Player of the Week for her goaltending performance Sunday against Connecticut. Good goaltending seems to have become a staple of Beauts hockey.
TH: It’s always good to have strong goalies to build around when things are not going well. But, trust our team. We can definitely turn it around.
Speaking of turn around, you had just over 12 hours after Saturday night’s game to travel to Connecticut for an early afternoon game. How was it getting ready on such short rest?
AB: That was pretty tough. It was a short turn around with travel to hop on the bus and get to Connecticut pretty late. Wake up the next day and be ready to go. That’s just individual player responsibility to reel yourself in and be mentally prepared because we have a job to do and go out there and perform and play. And I’m proud of our team that we’re able to do that and come out with the win because obviously two points is important at this point in the season and we just want to continue working towards our ultimate goal for the Isobel Cup.
TH: Mental and physical preparation is the key. We were on the road. When you play back to back games. It’s tough. As a goalie, it’s definitively tough for goalies. But, it’s just something the individual player has to work on their own to make sure that they’re ready and trust their teammates that they’re ready as well.
So with Buffalo in second place, there’s a big pair of games this weekend coming up this weekend against the Minnesota Whitecaps. And you’re smiling now.
AB: I’m from Minnesota.
Let’s talk about that first. How about your experience with Minnesota.
AB: I played with the Minnesota Whitecaps 2015-2018. Three seasons before they entered the NWHL. Talented players. Minnesota plays a little different style of hockey compared to out east. I’m used to Minnesota hockey. But I’m excited to go in to the weekend just kind of having that knowledge of how they play and how they execute. I understand they have new coaches this year and a couple new players so maybe things have changed. It will be a friendly competition to be out there with past teammates and just kind of give it to them. I’m excited. Obviously we want to win. We want to come out of this weekend with two W’s. Also I respect them and their talent and their play. Very excited to play Minnesota.
TH: I’ve watched their games against the Riveters. They seem to play very well as a team together. Again, there’s a lot of returning players and they’ve been playing together for quite some time. It’s very different because we haven’t. It’s going to be interesting to see who comes out on top. I have full confidence in our team and I definitively hope we can get two W’s this weekend.
This is a team you could see come playoff time. Boston is far ahead in the standings at one and a potential 2-3 matchup against Minnesota for you is possibility. What’s the difference for you between second and third place in the standings and being the team that’s ahead at the end of the season?
AB: I think it’s really important for us to want to be in that two spot over that three spot. Never as a team do you want to go in to the end of the season kind of just scratching at the bit or being in a poor three slot. It’s not for bragging rights or anything, but you want to be solid throughout the season. You don’t want to play catch up. These early season games, obviously this will be the first time we play Minnesota this weekend. Kind of the same aspect of playing Boston the first time, you don’t really know what to expect. But we need to come in strong. Whatever the outcome is, we definitively need to learn from it and build off from it and have the ultimate goal of maintaining that number two spot. I don’t know if it’s out of the realm to be in a number one spot at this time because everyone knows that Boston has a really good record and the amount of points they have. But if that’s not attainable, to definitively stay in the number two spot.
TH: First time playing against Minnesota you definitely want to start it off strong and set it for your future.
Big story this season is the amount of new players on this roster. What’s one of the biggest things you can say the team has learned over the past month and a half?
AB: I think we’ve done well in a short amount of time to get used to each other. Everyone knows how easy it is to go out there with people that you have played with in the past and you just kind of have that flow and that chemistry. But in the short amount of times in the games that we’ve played and the changes that have been made in the lineup. You’ve seen defenders go to forward. Forwards go to defense. Lines changed up. We’re working really well through that. Everyone’s attitude is why that’s possible. To be able to be flexible with the coaching staff. Just work towards a final strong product. I think that just comes down to the character of our team and our work ethic. Knowing that, okay we haven’t played with each other in the past, but we’re definitely working towards the same goal.
Does that include building your relationships off the ice?
AB: Yes absolutely. My favorite part about hockey is community involvement. So all of the events that we’ve done so far have been fantastic. To be involved in the community. And then just us as teammates. Hanging out outside of practice. I believe next week is Thanksgiving and we are doing an event. Little things like that brings the team together.
TH: We started off not knowing each other, but everyone just kind of worked very well together. We kind of just became friends really fast. We’re really just a big family.
AB: Because we’re family. From (the movie) Miracle. (Everybody laughed)
The Buffalo Beauts watched the film Miracle on the bus last weekend from Western New York to the New England area.
TH: It’s very interesting. Everybody has different characteristics, but somehow we all work very well together and we quickly become a huge family. And I think that’s very important thing as a team. You kind of want that atmosphere going forward. Everyone is working toward the same goal. We all have the same goal. We all want to work towards that. I think we just need to keep working on. Rely on each other on and off the ice.
Would you say this more of difference coming on to a new roster, or have you had similar situations where you come on to a team where it’s mostly new people?
AB: No. I mean high school you play the same people. College is kind of the same thing. The only time you really are mixed up with different players is traveling teams and what have you. This is definitely new to be put on a roster and like 90% of the team are brand new players.
TH: It’s the same for me. You never have to do that in high school. I do play travel, but even then we don’t have a high turnaround rate. So it’s all pretty much people you know. You’ve been playing witht hem for a very long time.
Now each of you have taken unique roads to get to the NWHL. Can you tell me about your background Ashley playing as a member of the military?
AB: For hockey, obviously growing up, you look up to people. I watch the NHL. I watch the Olympics. As a little girl, your dream and your goal is to become an Olympian. I’m a little older. I was born in 1990, so back then I wasn’t aware of any women’s hockey opportunities that were at a professional level. So you just kind of transition and you play high school and then your goal is college. After college, you are looking towards a future of what can I continue to do to play. Fortunately for me a couple years of college I was able to play for the Minnesota Whitecaps even though they weren’t a part of the NWHL at that time. But it allowed me to continue towards my dream and play the game I love. And just having the opportunity to finally achieve something you’ve worked towards your entire life is something really special. And it hasn’t been easy. I have to balance my full time career as well in the Minnesota National Guard. And that’s something that’s been pretty difficult to balance the two of them to perform professionally in that regard. And then on my own time continue to train and play at the same time. It’s a little heavy. I don’t sleep much. It’s just very important for the younger girls and the younger players if they have a goal and they have a dream and they have a goal, to never give up on it. This is 20 plus years in the making for me. If I would have given up on it and looked back at it ten years from now I totally would have regretted it. I’m just happy to be here. I’m very grateful. I just want to take every minute that I have out here in Buffalo and give it my best because nobody knows what the future holds. And I’m pretty old (29). I might get hurt. Not be able to play ever again.
TH: Don’t say that. (Everybody laughed)
AB: I might expire soon.
Being the oldest player on the team, what’s your perspective on that?
AB: For the record, I don’t feel my age. Sometimes I don’t act it. And I’ve been told I don’t look it. (Tiffany laughed)
AB: I think it’s unique. I’m able to connect with people regardless of the age gap. I think that’s just the character of everybody on the team. It doesn’t really matter what your age is or what your experience is in life. Someone could experience something in 20 years of their life that someone at the age of 29 hasn’t experienced. And everyone has different backgrounds and how they mesh together. I’m definitively older and more wise and mature now than I was 8 years ago. So just being able to be in the hockey environment just compared back to my college days, I’m a little more reserved. I take situations and comprehend them differently and for myself I appreciate that. Because you know 8 years ago I’d probably get riled up about something or take it the wrong way. But now that I have a little years under my belt, I can absorb information and situations and kind of be more relaxed in that environment.
You told me after this interview you were going back to the gym?
AB: Yes. That’s my plan.
Tiffany is work ethic a defining characteristic for her?
TH: Definitively. Every day I look on my phone on social media or like Snapchat you just see Birdee (Ashley) with pictures in the gym working out. And we will go to our team workout and then Birdee will be like, ‘Oh I already worked out today.’ (Everybody laughed) So you know she’s always in the gym. She always works out.
You always hear stories across the sports landscape about workout routines for athletes to stay in playing shape the older they get.
AB: I’m a huge advocate for just fitness and health and wellness. I feel like if you continue to keep that as part of your routine, the whole saying that your age will catch up to you doesn’t really catch up to you and there are plenty of examples in life of people the age of 70 that are doing fitness competitions or power lifting. It’s very important for us as athletes to be in the gym and be active every day.
That something interesting when considering women’s hockey. I haven’t personally seen many women age late in to their 30’s in a professional league setting playing hockey for a full career. You talk about being a fitness advocate. Do you view your role as a more experienced player on this team as a job to show them how to maintain that fitness routine?
AB: I’m always open to anyone that wants advice or anything related to fitness. That’s been one of my passions for a very long time. In the army I’ve executed the comprehensive soldier fitness course as the officer in charge and that’s just a program back home that we try to help soldiers who are struggling in PT and height and weight. So any player that wants advice or wants to workout with me, I’m always open. But we do our own team workouts and from what I’ve seen everyone’s on the same page. Everyone wants to improve and they are taking the things that we learn in workouts and they are going and doing it on their own time and that’s really pleasant to see.
I didn’t expect this conversation to dive in to so much about workouts.
AB: I mean if you want to do some burpees right now. With pushups.
I’m terrible at pushups.
AB: Well you are going to learn quick. (Everybody laughed)
Last thing I wanted to ask you was about your mention of not getting a lot of sleep. Your schedule sounds exhausting. How do you balance it all?
AB: For starters, none of this for where I am in my life right now would be possible without the support of my chain in command. Coming in to the military I was 21 when I joined. Every unit and every role that I’ve been involved with, my command team is knowledgeable with the fact that I’m an athlete as well. So it’s nothing new to them. At the end of the day, Army is my number one priority. That is my job. So that falls back on me to ensure that I am executing my responsibilities. I’m ahead of the game or I’m getting things done early to open up time and space for outside of the Army things that I want to do. But in the last eight years of my service, not only have I played hockey, I competed in Red Bull Crashed Ice for three years. I’m on the biathlon team for Minnesota. I give and they’ll give me some leniency there. But being very prioritized is number one. With your time. You have to be able to get all your jobs and responsibilities done and plan out those very few hours that you have to be in the gym, get on the ice, stay in shape and be able to compete at the level we’re competing. Like I said, without my chain in command, I wouldn’t be able to be here. I’m super grateful for that because they acknowledged the fact that it’s important to me and as long as I’m getting my job done for the Army they’re going to allow me to do this as well.
What’s your future with the Army?
AB: When the season is done I will go back to Minnesota. I’m based at joint force headquarters in St. Paul. I’m keeping up on my responsibilities while I’m out here. I’ve already gone back to Minnesota once to execute some tasks. But I stay in communication with them on a daily basis with all my higher ups. They track everything that I’m doing. It’s open communication lines. And hopefully in the future here I’ll probably take a command with a potential deployment. A lot to say what could happen in the next 18 months. That’s kind of how the Army is. You never really know what the next 12 months is going to look like… perhaps I’ll be fortunate enough to continue hockey for one more year, but that’s something personally that I have to reflect on, on what that next year looks like for me professionally.
Now Tiffany you have traveled the globe in your pursuit to be a goalie. Where did your journey begin to becoming a Buffalo Beaut?
TH: I come from a place with basically no hockey. I’m from Taiwan. We don’t even have proper training there. We don’t have proper education for what an athlete or a hockey player should do to do their work and get better. I was very fortunate that my first goalie coach, he’s a Canadian. He was there for about two years training me and he said I’d be really good at fundamentals for me like skating wise. Movement wise I was very good. I was lucky enough to have him because after that it was on and off that I just don’t really have any coach. When I was 14 I went to Sweden to train. That’s where I met Pernilla Winberg, Kim Martin and all those Swedish Olympians. They showed us pictures of how they go to the Olympics and all their dressing rooms and what it’s like. And that’s when I really really want to come to North America to play hockey. So at that time, Pernilla and Kim they were in Duluth, Minnesota.
AB: Go Bulldogs! (Everybody laughed) That’s my hometown.
TH: So when I see all that I set my mind on playing in the NCAA. And hopefully one day I’ll be able to play in the Olympics. But at that time in my country we didn’t have a women’s team. We literally just started our women’s national team about five years ago. We’ve been doing very well, but it’s definitively not close enough to playing on the Olympic stage. When I was 15 I went to a showcase in Prince Edward Island. That’s when I got recruited to play in high school there. So I left home when I was 15. And then when I went to college at RIT, I got cut my freshman year. And I was in a really difficult situation where I was the fourth goalie that signed on. So the coach decided he didn’t need that many goalies so I was cut. At that point I was playing like intermural hockey. Really horrible hockey and it really kills me. At a point that I thought about giving up. But it was the love of the game that kept me going. I didn’t give up. And luckily a year later we started our national team. So I’ve been playing on the national team for five years now. Other than that, I’ve just been playing travel team, pickup, beer league, and all that. But luckily enough I have friends playing in the same travel team as me. She basically gave me all the contacts of all the general managers in the leagues. She told me she was like, ‘You are good enough. You should play.’ So I went to all the tryouts and here I am.
How was your experience at RIT?
TH: I love RIT. I was cut from the team and it was devastating. Honestly? I think it worked out for me because I ended up doing a combined degree with my bachelors and masters in mechanical engineering. So it worked out in my favor because if I stayed on the team I honestly don’t think I would have been able to do that.
You mentioned ‘love of the game’ is what kept you going. What is the love of the game? What made you fall in love with hockey?
TH: It’s a feeling that’s really hard to describe. It’s a thing that if I don’t play hockey for a few days then I will go crazy. That type of feeling. You just need to be on the ice. You just need to feel the game, feel the puck and feel the ice. I thought about giving up but honestly I can’t.
Now you are talking about how the national team is making progress. How would you say things are progressing?
TH: This past year we just had our world championship in Romania. It’s Division II B. And we just won. So we are moving up to Division II A next year. Except for the last year, our team has been moving up every single year. We’re definitely doing well and we have a lot of talent. We have a very young team too. The average age of that team is 19 years old.
So a lot of room for growth?
Do you view yourself as an ambassador for the sport of hockey in your country?
TH: Definitely. But it’s not like I like to think of myself like that. Ever since my signing news has come up I’ve gotten a lot of people, reporters from home who wanted to do a story on me. I also got our Olympic federation back home came to me and said, ‘We want you to come and do a talk to all of these people in like high school or junior high school to use you as an example. Just talk to them about your story and that kind of stuff.’ The person in charge of the hockey federation back home, he was trying to use my name to push the sport. That’s part of the reason I really really want to get this is to hope that I can set a good example and push this forward. Back home, because there’s really nothing there, we don’t really have a coach to guide the kids. I hope that one day that will change.
This is for both of you. Accessibility for young girls to play hockey---how do you feel it is right now and is it improving?
AB: My answer would be a little bias just because I’m from Minnesota and hockey is very very big back home. Every year we see a growth in youth hockey—boys and girls. Almost to the point where there’s not enough rinks which is hard to fathom because there’s rinks everywhere in Minnesota. A lot of the youth programs utilize outdoor ice. In the past five years, personally back home in Duluth, we’ve seen temperature change and change in the winters has affected that. Just cause we haven’t been able to keep ice outside. But the biggest thing for youth hockey and its growth is people I would say of my age or older, that parent realm age, of giving back. A lot of your youth programs are volunteer. And without the volunteer of the parents or a former college player or what have you in the community to take the time and give back to the youth programs, the youth programs will never grow to where they need to.
It’s an expensive sport.
AB: And I know the expense of hockey is a factor to take in to realm. I will say back at home, not trying to talk about Minnesota too much here, but there’s United Heroes League is a nonprofit back at home that supports, which started out as Defending the Blue Line. But now they support multiple sports for military families. So if there are military families out there that want to get there kids involved in hockey, reach out to United Heroes League and they will get your kids geared up in all the gear that they need. And it’s no longer in Minnesota. It’s across the country. It’s definitively a nonprofit to look in to if you are if a family or someone in need of support for the gear and what have you. But I will just go back to volunteers. It’s our responsibilities as adults to give our children those opportunities. And without our involvement, without our time, they will never have those opportunities.
Tiffany how is access to hockey for young girls now in Taiwan?
TH: I think the sport is definitely growing. Women’s hockey is definitely growing even where I am from. We also have the same problem of not having enough ice time, but that’s because we only have one ice rink. (She laughed) So that’s a little different. But every year for the World Girls Hockey Weekend my national team would try to do something. Try to find little girls to come out and skate with us, play hockey with us and try to promote the sport. But also, my national team went from pretty much every girl that plays hockey makes the team to right now we can finally start making cuts. We definitely see an increase in numbers of girls playing hockey and that’s a definitively good thing to see. And hopefully with me signing, it will set a good example and push the sport even more back home.
So what do you want to do for your hockey career moving forward/otherwise?
TH: I work as an engineer right now. I have a full time job. Hockey, if I can, I’ll keep playing for sure. Whether as a Beaut or not. Hopefully as a Beaut. I want to do something hockey related with my job. My background, my master’s thesis is actually on bio-mechanics. I do injury studies with hockey goalies and stuff. That’s something I wanted to get in to. Either injury prevention with athletes or something like equipment design. And I really want to work for like Bauer or another big hockey company like that to design equipment and stuff. I just want to combine my love for hockey with my love for engineering.