Coachella Valley Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma knew he wanted to talk to Jessica Campbell about being his assistant coach but had no way to contact her.
He finally reached out through the email associated with JC Powerskating, her skating development school.
“I actually thought it was spam,” said Campbell, who was introduced on Tuesday as the first female assistant coach in American Hockey League history. “I was being honest. It was such a nonchalant request, it was all professional. But usually, I get dads of youth hockey players that are messaging me for skating development, and not too often do I get the pros themselves landing on there.”
The top assistant to former Stanley Cup-winning coach Bylsma will begin her duties by coaching a development camp for the Firebirds, the AHL's newest team that opens this fall as an affiliate to the NHL’s Seattle Kraken.
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“For me, it was a very easy yes," Campbell said. "Our conversations aligned a lot in just what we want to try to accomplish together. I’m excited to learn from Dan and our staff, but just to be a part of the Seattle Kraken organization and everything it stands for.”
Campbell was an assistant coach for Germany at the 2022 men’s world championship, becoming the first woman to join the coaching staff of a national team participating in the world championships. This past season, Campbell joined the Tri-City Storm, a United States Hockey League development program, actively heading the Windy City Storm Girl’s Hockey program in Chicago while also serving as an assistant coach and skills coach for the Nurnberg Ice Tigers in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
The 30-year-old Saskatchewan native and Cornell grad also was a top-level player, representing Canada in two under-18 world championships. Campbell played three seasons for the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, winning the Clarkson Cup in 2016.
That experience, coupled with the dedication to development, is what led Bylsma to hire Campbell.
“I asked around to a few fellow coaches, [looking for] who those types of coaches might be or where they were at, and Jess’s name kept coming up,” Bylsma said. “That was when I approached Ron [Francis, the Kraken's general manager] as, like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking as to how I want to build my staff.’ Who we want, who we need, what those coaches are like. Again, it kind of led to Jess again.”
Campbell said her approach as a skating skills coach has made a big difference in her last three years behind the bench.
“I understand when I’m working with players in skating and skill development, that the ice can be a very vulnerable space for them, working on their deficiencies,” said Campbell. “They’re coming to me in ways to improve their strengths, of course, but ultimately to work on their game. In some instances, that can be a pretty vulnerable space. You’ve got to have a trust in the coach that they’re working for you and not against you, that they’re working to support you and to communicate when it’s hard to communicate.”
Campbell reflected on some of the coaches who helped her along the way. Her youth coach when she was 10 made her feel included and instilled confidence in her as the only girl on the roster, she said. Campbell also praised Doug Derraugh, her coach at Cornell.
"I think now, and I'm sure Dan can argue with me when I say this, I feel like we're just a product of all the people that we come across, good and bad," she said. "And we take those pieces along the way, of who we meet. ...
“From a coaching mentorship standpoint, Doug has been instrumental supporting me. You know, in fact, he encouraged me not to take the Cornell women’s hockey job and to continue to push boundaries, to chase this dream and stay in the men’s game. He’s inspiring, but I think it’s all of the components that make the great coach a great coach. I’m hoping to emulate the qualities that he shows every day.”
Campbell joins a wave of recent 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 named former U.S. women’s hockey captain and 2018 gold medalist Meghan Duggan as manager of player development in May. Last week, the Washington Capitals promoted Emily Engel-Natzke to NHL video coordinator, making her the first full-time female coach in league history.
“It’s been pretty remarkable just to see the journey of women in the game,” Campbell said. “I’ve been looking up for the past three years, four years since transition to coaching. There’s a lot of people that have been breaking down these barriers for women showing what’s possible. They’re coaches. They have knowledge. They play the game. They’re professionals there. They went to Ivy League universities. It’s not surprising. At the same time, I feel honored to be a 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.”
Contributing: Shad Powers, Palm Springs Desert Sun
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY Sports: Jessica Campbell named first female AHL assistant coach