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NHL's first female coach gets emotional during interview

Published November 26, 2023 at 5:05 PM
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Last season, Jessica Campbell was an assistant coach for the AHL's Coachella Valley Firebirds, who made it to the Calder Cup Finals.

She has been coaching since 2017, but only recently has she experienced success in the AHL after primarily coaching Tyson Jost and other NHL clients in a client-coach manner owing to her business ownership background.

Even as a ten-year-old, she loved to skate under the most challenging conditions.

"When she was small we lived miles from town - on a farm - and she would say, 'Can we go skating tonight?' and it'd be a blizzard," Campbell's mom Monique says. "You could not keep her off the ice. She had so much fun skating with people. She would beg for me to drive her in even though you could barely see the road. That's how much she loved it, she just couldn't miss a night."

She has a sister who played hockey for the University of Saskatchewan and a dad who played ice hockey in the old days on outdoor rinks. Hockey was a very important sport to the Campbell family.

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While her brother Josh played AAA hockey, her brother Dion played college hockey before joining the CHL and playing in Germany. Jessica aged 10 followed their older brother, Josh, to the Saskatchewan Hockey League, where he signed with the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Hockey League. Her sister Gina followed her mother to play at the University of Regina.

She watched her brother Josh play hockey a lot, and he has always been her biggest role model. As they played shinny and shared a love of the game, they built a bond.

She has endured hardships and the community she built in the sport has helped her through even her closest brother's death. As a result of the bonds they had built, Jessica had a community of supporters. As she grew up, she used the sport to define her identity and find healing through it.

"Those were hard times on me as a young girl," Campbell says. The family leaned into what it knew best: hockey. "It was just a challenging time, but I think it only made us stronger," she says. "And, honestly, it made hockey a place for us where we could work through it. The game itself brought so much joy. I think the game of hockey is an amazing sport because there's a community of people. When you're from small towns, that rink, and the arena, it's a place of gathering where people have each other's backs and everyone knows each other."

By wearing Josh's #8, Jessica would honor her brother's memory, which later led her to become a great hockey player.

Her subsequent medals included a silver in the u18 category as well as gold the following year when she earned the captain's patch. It would take her three attempts to make it onto the senior national team before she finally made it. Later that year, she'd sign with the Calgary Inferno, in the CWHL. After playing three seasons in the CWHL, she pondered her future.

As a result, she began coaching high school girls in the Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia.

But she wanted more, which meant ascending to coaching in the NHL, something no one had ever done. By doing so, she launched her own coaching business, where players like Tyson Jost became clients. In Sweden, before returning to Okanagan, the company launched before the 2020 NHL bubble.

"I wasn't focused on trying to get to work with NHL players," Campbell says. "I was presented with an opportunity where one NHL player wanted ice time and asked if they could come skate with me. Next thing you know, there were 15 guys and I was running an entire NHL group. The realization for me was just to continue to bring that passion and not worry about any of the other barriers or perspectives that others may have about it."

"Whatever level you're at, you want to feel like (your coaches) care," Seabrook says. "She would go the extra mile. She would text me after to see how I was feeling. Is it too much? What do you want to do tomorrow for the skate? Do you think we should go harder? Should we pull back a bit? There was a plan behind every skate. She cared."

That's Campbell's personality - on and off the ice. "That's a big piece of who I am as a coach," she says. "I want to be a coach who is willing to ask the hard questions and who is willing to be sensitive. I know that is my feminine self that comes through in coaching. It is that communication piece. That level of care. Making sure the guys know my coaching style is to lead with love and lead with service for them. Making sure they know I'm in the trenches with them, and all I want to do is see them succeed."

She soon had a client list of 20, including Luke Schenn of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time. Later, she helped Brent Seabrook recover from hip and shoulder surgery, gaining notoriety among NHL players.

In 2021, she moved to Germany to coach under former Panthers general manager and head coach Tom Rowe with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers in the DEL.

Additionally, she coached the German Men's National Team at the Men's World Championships, which caught Dan Bylsma's attention. Coach Bylsma was an assistant coach with Team USA and scouting candidates for the soon-to-be-formed Coachella Valley Firebirds in the American Hockey League.

"I started my search with a couple of different names in mind. But I saw her coaching the German national team and I started an investigation into where Jessica was at and where her coaching path was at," Bylsma says.

He was even more impressed when he learned about her skates in the Okanagan. "NHL players reached out to her and asked her to put them on the ice and through the paces to keep their game fresh and relevant," he says. "That struck a big chord with me in terms of what kind of coach she is. She can put a player on a path to be relevant."

As a skater, he was intrigued by her skills and ability to keep NHL players relevant.

Byslma hired her, making her the first woman in the AHL to have a full-time assistant coaching job.

"I think that my hardships and the challenging times in my life were actually the days that prepared me for the work in this job," Campbell says. "There are a lot of hard days, there are a lot of sleepless nights. And, I am alone in this space. As much as I feel completely supported by my staff, by Bylsma, by the organization, by the Kraken - everybody has been so supportive of me - there isn't another female coach specifically in my position that I can call at the end of the day and just communicate with on that same level.

Having coached in a pre-season NHL game since high school, she is getting ever closer to her dream.

Campbell once again proved her competency in the AHL, as she was in charge of the forwards and powerplay. With 257 goals, the team that year was the highest scoring team in the AHL.

Furthermore, she helped advance the NHL prospects of forward Tye Kartye. He led the AHL rookie players with 57 points in 2022-2023 as an undrafted free agent. During the NHL playoffs in 2023, he was called up.

"Last year, I was a rookie. I came in and it was a bit of a slow start," Kartye says. "Being able to work with her after practice - she was always out on the ice before or after practice - whenever I needed to do something, she was always there. She'd pass pucks, give advice, go over video. She helped me an incredible amount as I was trying to reach my goal to get to the NHL."

She traces her path of success back to her brother, and her people-centered approach and excellent work ethic give her another path to fulfilling her brother's dream.

That work ethic and people-centered approach keep providing her chances to see her brother's dream come to fruition. "I think every day about how I get to live out my brother's dream of working or playing at the highest level on the men's side. I do feel a sense of pride and honor with my family that they get to also experience this with me, and there's just so much joy around the game. The game has always been a place where we, as a family, have been able to connect and celebrate."

Thanks to her brother Josh, Campbell knows what she wants to do in the future and believes he played a vital role in her success.

As Seen On: thescore.com
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November 26   |   76 answers
NHL's first female coach gets emotional during interview

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