Jessica Campbell became the first woman to be named an assistant coach in the American Hockey League when she was hired by Kraken affiliate Coachella Valley on Tuesday.
She’ll work alongside Dan Bylsma, who was promoted to Firebirds coach in June.
Campbell’s historic hiring had humble beginnings. Bylsma said her name kept coming up as he reached out to coaches while seeking someone who is passionate and knowledgeable. Bylsma, who coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup, reached out through Campbell’s website.
Name, email, “type your message here” — the kind of generic box one only half expects to get a response out of.
“I actually thought, ‘Is this spam?’ ” Campbell said. “It was such a nonchalant request. It was all professional, but usually I get dads of youth hockey players that are messaging me, looking for skating development.”
The request was real, and Campbell is now the Firebirds’ first assistant coach.
“It was a little bit of a roundabout way, but all signs and all indications of what we were looking for in a coach led me to Jess,” Bylsma said.
Campbell, 30, played at Cornell and spent three seasons in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. She captained the Canadian under-20 world championship team in 2010 and was the tournament MVP.
As a strength and skills coach, Campbell said she’s worked with many AHL players. They’re just a step below the NHL as far as skill level, and confidence can be an area that needs work.
She had her own confidence-building stretch in the summer of 2020 shortly after returning from Sweden, where she was a player and later a skating coach for the Malmo Redhawks. The remainder of the 2019-20 NHL regular season had been scrapped March 12 due to the pandemic. As rinks began to open up, she was approached by high-level players in the Kelowna, British Columbia, area preparing for the playoff bubble.
Luke Schenn, Tyson Jost, Shea Weber and Mat Barzal were among those asking to skate with her. A few more players arrived every day. Once COVID policies relaxed and they were able to work in larger groups, Campbell wound up leading something of a “pre-playoff training camp” and said she’s grateful for that time.
“I said, ‘Someone had better come home with the Cup here,’ which is ironically the year that (Schenn) won with Tampa,” Campbell said.
“Definitely, for me, that was the moment where I realized these guys want me running these skates. There’s obviously value there. I need to continue to challenge myself to grow and to grow my knowledge base to be able to be in this situation (longer) than just an offseason.”
Last season, Campbell was an assistant and skills coach with the Nurnberg Ice Tigers in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany. She also made history as an assistant coach for Germany at the 2022 IIHF Men’s World Championship, a team that included Kraken goaltender Philipp Grubauer. She was the first woman on the coaching staff of a men’s national team at the event.
Other notable hires this year include Meghan Hunter (Chicago Blackhawks), Cammi Granato and Emilie Castonguay (Vancouver Canucks) being named NHL assistant general managers and Emily Engel-Natzke being promoted to video coordinator of the Washington Capitals just last week. She’s the first full-time female coaching staff member in NHL history.
“It’s not surprising, and at the same time, I’m very honored to be part of that group and to know that I’m carrying a torch behind the bench for others that have aspirations to coach at the highest level,” Campbell said.
Campbell is set to join Seattle’s development camp at Kraken Community Iceplex from July 11-14. She was invited to be a guest coach at the New York Rangers’ development camp this summer but will turn her focus to the Kraken instead.
“(Bylsma) asked if I was open to all candidates, male (and) female,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “I said absolutely.”
“In Jessica’s case, I think she combines a lot of interesting things. She’s got a strong background as a skating coach and in some skills stuff. That’s intriguing to bring in.”