Jessica Campbell to be first woman behind AHL bench; will coach Seattle Kraken's top minor league affiliate

Jessica Campbell is being hired by the Coachella Valley Firebirds as an assistant coach, making her the first woman behind a bench as a full-time coach in the AHL. A woman has never filled that role in the NHL.

The Firebirds, the top minor league affiliate of the NHL's Seattle Kraken, will debut as a team this fall.

"I always had a belief as a young girl, playing boys' hockey until I was 17, that I was equal and capable too. I've never focused on my gender," Campbell told ESPN. "Growing up, I never dreamed of coaching, because I didn't see it and therefore didn't know what that path looked like. But for young athletes now, it's so important to have that visibility for them to understand they can literally be anything they want. Some of the guys I will be coaching, their daughters can now watch them have a female coach. And that opens up the conversation, which can inspire young girls for something they might not have seen as possible."

It's shaping up to be a monumental offseason for women in hockey operation roles. Cammi Granato and Emilie Castonguay (Vancouver Canucks) and Meghan Hunter (Chicago Blackhawks) have all recently been named assistant general managers. Emily Engel-Natzke was promoted to video coordinator of the Washington Capitals last week, becoming the first full-time female coaching staff member in the NHL.

Campbell, 30, spent last season as an assistant and skills coach for the Nurnberg Ice Tigers of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany, and is coming off a stint as assistant coach for Germany at the 2022 IIHF Men's World Championship -- becoming the first woman on the coaching staff of a men's national team at the event.

During that time, Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma -- knowing he needed to fill out a staff -- reached out to colleagues for potential candidates. Campbell's name kept coming up.

Bylsma said Campbell received "rave reviews" from her work at the world championships, but he had a hard time getting in touch.

So in June, he blindly sent an email through her personal website with the subject line: "Coaching Inquiry" and wrote "I'd like to have a conversation about the possibility of a coaching position."

After connecting on the phone, Bylsma, too, was impressed.

"Obviously this is significant, and it's important Jessica is getting this opportunity," Bylsma told ESPN. "But more importantly, I wanted a coaching staff that had a ton of passion for the players, a willingness to put in the work with them, and a plan to help them develop, because our job is developing players for the Seattle Kraken. We just wanted that person, and Jessica was the person who best exemplified that. It's what she's all about."

Campbell is a native of Rocanville, Saskatchewan. She is a former captain at Cornell University and played in the Canadian Women's Hockey League and for the Canadian national team before retiring as a player and shifting her focus to skills coaching and power skating.

She was beginning her own business when COVID-19 hit. However, she had access to a rink in Kelowna, British Columbia. When NHL players were scrambling to get back into shape for the 2020 bubble, defensemen Luke Schenn called Campbell and asked whether she would help him.

Soon, Campbell was running sessions and developing drills for roughly 20 NHL players, including New York Islanders forward Matt Barzal and then-Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.

"It was a challenge," Campbell said. "But it was a hard realization if I could do this and prep these guys, clearly they're getting something out of it."

In Germany, Campbell also worked closely with Ottawa Senators forward Tim Stutzle and Red Wings defenseman Moritz Seider.

Campbell spends her offseasons in Chicago, where she works for the Tri-City Storm and the USHL development program; she also spearheads programming for Windy City Storm girls' hockey.

Campbell has been involved in the NHL Coaches Association's mentorship program for the past two years. She says she prides herself on listening to players and helping them reach their individual goals through clear and detailed communication.