“We have a forward on our team right now at Robert Morris,” Buffalo Beauts player Kelley Steadman said back in November of 2015, when asked about upcoming talent that could make it in the National Women’s Hockey League. “She’s a captain; her name’s Ashley Vesci. She’s pretty underrated in our league and the country. She doesn’t get a ton of points but she’s super talented and a really good kid. I think she would have a bright future in something like the NWHL. But we’ll see.”
A forward for the Buffalo team of the National Women’s Hockey League and an assistant coach with Robert Morris University’s women’s ice hockey team, Steadman’s words mattered, though we wouldn’t see the result for some time. Six months later, however, Vesci is, as predicted, trying out for the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts.
Vesci laughed, excited, when reminded of that quote.
“That was awesome,” she said. “I would say that’s one of the things that led me to think, wow, maybe I can really do this. For a woman who’s been so successful in this league to believe in me that much, that gave me a huge confidence boost.”
For Vesci, that confidence was the difference between either moving in to what she called the “real world,” which entailed graduating, finding a job and finally being willing to let go of hockey or keeping the sport she loved in the center of her world.
As soon as that day came, Vesci said, she knew she couldn’t let go of hockey.
Luckily for her, she had access to players like Steadman and Brianne McLaughlin who went pro with the NWHL. She watched them practice, took the ice with them and above all asked questions: about the league and if playing in it was worth pursuing.
They said yes. While for many, regular leaks of behind-the-scenes troubles of the NWHL has taken some of the shine off the apple, for many returning and hopeful new players, getting paid to play is still beyond anything they thought they would see. Vesci is keenly aware of that.
“It’s sad but I think that’s a mentality that girls are brought up with: you are playing so you can go to college and if you’re really good you’ll go to the Olympics but that’s about the extent of it,” Vesci said.
“Honestly, I think it’s tragic that for so long girls have reached this point and have just run out of options. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of players but on the men’s side it’s totally different. They’ve got a ridiculous amount of options to keep playing and get paid sufficiently. They don’t have to have side jobs while they’re in season. Now, all of a sudden, we have this option where we can get paid to play. And it might not be as much as they get paid on the men’s side but I still think it’s an incredible opportunity.”
Vesci, an intern with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, has a very clear view of the difference in levels of compensation for the men’s and women’s game. As she and her coaches have noted, Vesci loves an underdog. In hockey, there’s no bigger underdog than the women’s game.
“These guys [the Penguins] are living the metaphorical dream,” said Vesci. “This is why people get into sports. You want the opportunity to make a career out of this.
“Unfortunately for girls, hockey is such a new sport and although [it is now a pro sport], the NWHL isn’t going to match up with the NHL anytime soon. Probably not in my lifetime or playing career,” Vesci said. “But to be a part of these first seasons that are paving the way for the future of women’s hockey is just so incredible.
“If you look at the NBA and the WNBA, those women are getting paid enough to support themselves just by playing their sport. If I could be a part of a team that helps that to happen for future female hockey players, I think that would be unbelievable.”
Vesci has set her sights on Buffalo for now, a team that her coaches say will fit her well, beyond reasons of location and familiarity with McLaughlin and Steadman. As noted before, Vesci loves an underdog.
“All season they battled something,” Vesci said, admiration filling her voice. “I actually got to go to one game, and in that game they actually fell 5-0 in the first period or something crazy along those lines and they ended up coming back and tying the game. It actually went to a shootout. It was unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe the resiliency they showed.
“I really appreciate a team that works that hard. That’s how they get results.”
In a recent interview, Steadman said she felt Vesci would fit in best on a team like the Beauts, whose players spent last season feeling like they had something to prove thanks to a disastrous first half.
“She is the type that thrives in those kind of environments,” Steadman said. “If she were on a top team somewhere she wouldn’t be as motivated to play. I think, like some of the top players on our team, she was underestimated growing up and even maybe through college a little bit. She plays better when she has a chip on her shoulder.”
Logan Bittle, assistant women’s ice hockey coach at RMU and husband to Beauts goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, agreed, adding that she played well under pressure.
“Some of her best games were our last three, four games where she threw the team on her back and helped us get to the semifinals,” Bittle said. “Every single year she got better and better for us. It is a shame that 90 percent of women’s college hockey players are done by the time they’re 21, 22 years old.
“I think she kind of fell in love with the game again this year and realized how much she’d miss it if she didn’t play.”
Beyond her bit-between-the-teeth mentality, Vesci’s former coaches see her speed speed and skills as a playmaker as assets that will mesh well with Buffalo’s team.
“One of her biggest assets is not just her skating, but making plays at that speed,” said Bittle. “Making plays at full speed and being able to control the game a little bit. At that level the pace picks up just a little bit more, and it’s those that can make the play at that speed that will be successful. That’s why I think she’ll be a good fit.”
“She’s the gutsy, hard-working kind of player that made our season what it was last year,” Steadman said. “Without guys like Brownie and Skeats and Kunichika we wouldn’t have won as many games as we did. She’s fast, she’s hard-working and she fits right in with those guys.
“You know that kind of player that’s everywhere, all the time? That’s her. She’s a busy bee.”