Firebirds gave Campbell plenty of opportunities to learn

Photo: Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Two years ago, Jessica Campbell made history when she became the first woman to work as a full-time assistant coach in the American Hockey League.

Now after two incredibly successful seasons with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, Campbell will break through the same barrier in the National Hockey League.

Next stop, Seattle.

Campbell, 32, was introduced last week as one of the newest additions to the Kraken coaching staff where she will rejoin Dan Bylsma, the former Firebirds head coach who was promoted to Seattle himself on May 28.

Bylsma quickly became a fan of Campbell’s as they worked together in Coachella Valley. As they built the foundation for the affiliate of an NHL expansion team playing in a new AHL market, they grew more familiar with each other and Bylsma leaned considerably on Campbell and assistant coach Stu Bickel to help guide the Firebirds through early growing pains – including two full months on the road to begin their inaugural season.

“What drew me to Jess [is she is] young, energetic,” Bylsma told in 2023. “I wanted coaches that pushed me. I’m trying to help them along, but they’re really helping me along in my journey.”

By the time Campbell came to the Firebirds, she had assembled a resume that included four seasons as a forward (including one as team captain) at Cornell University, three years in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, international experience with Hockey Canada, and coaching stints in Sweden and Germany. She also had built a reputation as an excellent power skating and skills coach.

All of it allowed her to click quickly in Coachella Valley.

“She has the respect from the players because she has knowledge and ability to offer them,” Bylsma said. “And that was evident really before she opened her mouth.”

When Campbell met with the Seattle media after the Kraken announced her hiring, she acknowledged the historic significance, but she preferred to focus on what is ahead.

“I’m humbled, obviously, to be in this position,” Campbell said of being the first female full-time NHL assistant coach. “But that’s never where my focus is. It’s always on the work. It’s on the impact. It’s on the job.”

Campbell’s time in the AHL afforded her plenty of opportunities to learn. The Firebirds were launched in a market that was largely new to the sport. Building the organization’s roster from the ground up, the Kraken provided Coachella Valley with a burgeoning group of prospects along with a core of veterans with strong personalities. They went 94-32-11-7 over two regular seasons, finishing second overall in the AHL with 103 points in both years. They forged two long runs to the Calder Cup Finals, winning back-to-back Western Conference championships.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Campbell said. “There’s been success. There’s been hardship. Dan’s been a huge mentor for me. Dan saw the potential in me and brought me into his staff. He gave me a voice and empowered me to be nothing but myself.”

After reaching the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2023, the Kraken missed the postseason cut this spring. Campbell, who helped Firebirds players to unlock new parts of their game, will be asked to do that in Seattle now as part of Bylsma’s staff that includes fellow assistants Dave Lowry and Bob Woods.

“I’m excited to see how the team is going to be able to become a better version of the Seattle Kraken. There’s a lot of success in store for this organization.”

Campbell acknowledges that there will be a spotlight on her, but she views it as an opportunity rather than something to fear. Women have found roles in management, scouting, development, officiating, and elsewhere in the game. Coaching is just another frontier.

“If my impact is a good one,” Campbell said, “it could potentially open up doors and open eyes for others to maybe think differently.

“Though I am honored to be the first, I don’t want to be the only.”