Coachella Valley Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma knew he wanted to speak to Jessica Campbell about becoming his assistant coach, but had no way of contacting her.
He eventually got in touch via email from JC Powerskating, their skating development school.
“I actually thought it was spam,” said Campbell, who was unveiled Tuesday as the first female assistant coach in American Hockey League history. “I was honest. It was such a nonchalant request, it was all professional. But I usually get dads of youth hockey players sending me messages for the development of skating, and not too often the pros end up there themselves.”
The top assistant to former Stanley Cup winning coach Bylsma will begin her duties coaching a development camp for the Firebirds, the AHL’s newest team, which opens this fall as a partner of NHL team Seattle Kraken.
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“For me, it was a very simple yes,” Campbell said. “Our conversations were very focused on what we want to achieve together. I look forward to learning from Dan and our staff, but just being a part of the Seattle Kraken organization and all that it stands for.”
Campbell was assistant coach for Germany at the 2022 Men’s World Cup, becoming the first woman to join the coaching staff of a national team participating in the World Cup. Last season, Campbell joined the Tri-City Storm, a United States Hockey League development program, actively ran the Windy City Storm Girl’s Hockey program in Chicago, while also serving as an assistant coach and skills coach for the Nuremberg Ice Tigers of the German Ice Hockey League .
The 30-year-old Saskatchewan native and Cornell graduate was also a top player, representing Canada at two U18 World Cups. Campbell played three seasons for the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and won the 2016 Clarkson Cup.
This experience coupled with a dedication to development is what led Bylsma to hire Campbell.
“I asked around a few other coaches [looking for] who those types of coaches might be or where they were, and Jess’s name kept popping up,” Bylsma said. “So I turned to Ron [Francis, the Kraken’s general manager] like, “Hey, that’s how I think I want to build my people.” Who we want, who we need, what these coaches are like. Again it kind of led back to Jess.”
Campbell said her approach as a skating skills coach has made a huge difference in her past three years behind the bench.
“I understand when I work with players in skating and developing their skills that the ice can be a very vulnerable place for them to work on their shortcomings,” Campbell said. “Of course they come to me to improve their strengths, but ultimately also to work on their game. In some cases, this can be a pretty vulnerable area. You need to be able to trust the coach to work for you and not against you, to support you and to communicate when communication is difficult.”
Campbell reflected on some of the coaches who had helped her along the way. Her youth coach when she was 10 made her feel integrated and instilled her confidence as the only girl in the squad, she said. Campbell also praised Doug Derraugh, her trainer at Cornell.
“I think now, and I’m sure Dan can disagree with me when I say this, I feel like we’re just a product of all the people we meet, good and bad,” she said. “And we take those pieces with us along the way that we meet from. …
“From a coaching mentorship perspective, Doug has been instrumental in supporting me. You know, in fact, he encouraged me not to take the Cornell women’s hockey job and to keep pushing boundaries, to pursue that dream and stay in men’s soccer. He’s inspirational, but I think it’s all the components that make a great coach a great coach. I hope to emulate the qualities he shows every day.”
Campbell joins a wave of new women being hired or promoted in hockey. The Chicago Blackhawks recently announced that Meaghan Hunter was promoted to assistant general manager, while the Toronto Maple Leafs promoted Olympic gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser to assistant GM on Tuesday. The New Jersey Devils in May named Meghan Duggan, former US women’s hockey captain and 2018 gold medalist, as their player development manager. Last week, the Washington Capitals promoted Emily Engel-Natzke to NHL video coordinator, making her the first full-time coach in league history.
“It was quite remarkable just to see the journey of women in football,” said Campbell. “I’ve been looking up for the last three years, four years since I switched to coaching. There are a lot of people who broke down these barriers for women to show what’s possible. You are coach. you have knowledge You play the game. They are professionals there. They went to Ivy League universities. It’s not surprising. At the same time, I am honored to be part of this group and to know that behind the bench I carry a torch for others who have ambitions to train at the highest level.”
Featuring: Shad Powers, Palm Springs Desert Sun