SEATTLE — Bringing up Jessica Campbell’s name to anyone who has worked with or watched her work with the Coachella Valley Firebirds over the last year will illustrate why she gained a massive amount of trust in such a short time.
It’s been a little more than a year since Campbell made history when the Firebirds, who are the Seattle Kraken’s AHL affiliate, hired her as an assistant coach, making her the first woman to be behind the bench as a full-time coach in AHL history.
“She’s got a knowledge and an experience and a talent that players can see and understand and they know if they listen, they can get better at what they are doing,” Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma said. “That was evident right from the start and it came through some of the results that we got.”
One conversation with Campbell goes into a number of different subjects. It can range from the importance of building respect with players and empowering those players to reach new levels to managing the outside expectations that come with being a trailblazer in the ever-expanding discussion regarding representation and diversity in hockey.
Campbell navigated those items against the backdrop of the Firebirds’ first season. Their inaugural campaign started with the Firebirds playing their opening 20 games on the road with their arena still under construction. It ended with the Firebirds having the second-most points in the regular season and eventually falling a goal short of winning the AHL championship, the Calder Cup.
For Campbell, the initial step toward helping the Firebirds find success was to establish a foundation centered around respect. That meant letting those players know she was committed to their success and making sure she was doing her job to help them to the best of her ability.
Campbell spoke with players about their goals and the areas where they could improve and let them know she was willing to work with them for as long as they wanted.
“That’s the approach I take — it’s to work with them on an individual level,” Campbell said. “It’s how I want to support them, how they can be helped and then build around that. I was also involved in special teams and running power play. So again, the communication piece and showing them that my mind is creative and I wanted to bring that creativity to them and to the approach of how I could coach them and show them different ways they can think about the game or approach different situations.”
Supporting players to help them on the ice was only one part of Campbell’s approach. She also made a point to routinely check in with players to see how they were doing away from the ice and if they needed to talk about whatever was on their minds.
Firebirds director of business and hockey operations Troy Bodie said Campbell “really took it upon herself” to have meaningful conversations with players.
“It happens all the time where players are going through things and slumps,” Bodie said. “She can talk to them to get them to talk about whatever they are going through. Dan does not ask her to do it. She sniffs it out, goes and finds a player. Whether it is in the locker room or on the ice after practice, she goes and does it and does a great job with it.”
Campbell’s background as a skills coach means she can work with players to improve various aspects of their game, such as skating. Bodie said Campbell took “a lot of pride” in spending significant time with players before and after practices on different areas they wanted to develop.
Bodie estimated that the demand for Campbell by the players was so great that she was likely overworked because she excelled at creating such a high level of respect and trust in just one season.
“Before practices, she’d have half-hour skill sessions that would have 90 percent participation,” said Bodie, who played in more than 500 games between the AHL and NHL. “I was shocked because there’s usually never that much participation for an optional skills practice.”
That work was one of the reasons the Firebirds had success as a team and why numerous players achieved individual accomplishments. Campbell’s primary responsibilities were working with the forwards and running the power-play unit.
Scoring goals either 5-on-5 or with the extra skater advantage was not an issue for the Firebirds in 2022-23. They scored 257 goals, which gave them the third-highest scoring attack in the AHL, while also having 10 players who scored more than 10 goals in the regular season. Their power-play unit finished 14th out of the AHL’s 32 teams with a 20.3% success rate. Bylsma said the Firebirds’ power play ranged between seventh and 14th throughout the season.
The Calder Cup playoffs were no different. The Firebirds had 10 players finish with more than 10 points while leading the AHL with 89 goals — 35 more than the team that finished second in scoring, the Hershey Bears, who beat Coachella Valley for the Calder Cup.
Forward Tye Kartye, who was an undrafted free agent, was named the AHL Rookie of the Year after leading all first-year players with 57 regular-season points (28 goals and 29 assists) and eight points in 18 playoff games. Kartye’s performances led to him being called up to Seattle, where he scored three goals and had five points in 10 playoff games.
“I think players can sense the motive, sense the passion and sense the reasoning why you are a coach who is trying to get to them and why you talk to them,” Bylsma said. “When they see you are in it for them and have their best interest in mind, they are ready to listen. It may not be a loud voice, a rah-rah voice. It may not be a coach’s voice. We hope some of it comes from our players as well. But when a player understands that and senses that, they are all in — and our guys were all in.”
One of the Kraken’s top prospects, forward Shane Wright, spent part of his first professional season with the Firebirds, appearing in eight regular-season games and 24 playoff games. Wright repeatedly stressed how Campbell was “a smart hockey mind” while adding there is a lot to learn from her.
Wright said Campbell told him to “just be yourself” and to play his game. Wright, who was the fourth pick of the 2022 NHL draft, said Campbell told him to stay true to what got him to this point and continue to expand on those abilities.
Wright said the dialogue he and other players had with Campbell led to a collaborative process. He said it felt like there was an understanding that players could give their thoughts to Campbell and vice versa with the idea that everyone benefited from having an open dialogue.
“We feel comfortable going to her if we have a suggestion for her or if she sees something in our game that maybe we can fix or change — building that chemistry or that relationship is always really important,” Wright said.
For as much as Campbell’s job is about developing players, Bylsma explained why the AHL is also an important development stage for coaches.
Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup and had 320 victories as an NHL coach, said his most formative years as a coach came in the AHL. He described his time spent in the AHL as “a marathon of learning” that allowed him to harness skills such as crafting and delivering a message to a team in ways that hopefully resonate with players.
“Unquestionably for a coach, being in the AHL is huge for their development,” Bylsma said. “Hopefully, as a coach for Jess and [Firebirds assistant Stu Bickel] that is part of my job to develop them as well and I hope that was the case this year.”
Campbell’s success on multiple levels in her first year behind an AHL bench is only just part of her story.
There is also the narrative around Campbell’s first season as it relates to being a coaching pioneer because, until her, there had never been a woman on an AHL bench in a full-time capacity.
“Anything you do differently, any way you approach things differently is always going to get recognized,” Campbell said. “The reality is anytime you see someone doing something different, you’re going to recognize that difference. … I always tried to look at the positive of, ‘Yeah, I might be different. But because I’m different, I’m bringing a different perspective and I’m bringing a new lens to the game and to the guys and to our locker room that they either haven’t heard before or it might be different.'”
Campbell said her ultimate hope is that while her being on the bench is different, there will come a time when seeing a woman on the bench of a men’s hockey team becomes normalized. She said as the season went on, she didn’t focus on being the only woman on an AHL bench but saw it more as the Firebirds having an assistant coach who happened to be a woman.
She also acknowledged how being in her position comes with pressure to perform because she knows there are other women with the same goals and aspirations as her.
“There are other people that perhaps from the outside are looking at it differently,” Campbell said. “I feel and I take pride in knowing that if our team succeeds, if I can succeed, then others are going to have the doors held open for them and that’s where we want the game to go.”
How did Campbell grapple with the gravity and significance of what she was doing? And how much support did she receive, whether from young girls or women who want to break into coaching or just anyone in general who championed what she was accomplishing?
“There was a ton of support from the community and there were also a lot of non-supporters — and that’s fine too,” Campbell said. “I think I’ve felt and I’ve heard it all at this point. But I try to just keep my focus on the work and the impact, and silence the thoughts that come from the outside noise. Yes, I think whatever you put your focus on, that’s where all your energy goes and I tried really hard to not let potential barriers or remarks or comments about me being a female coach in the game impact my confidence or ability as a coach.”
Campbell said she had to consciously check in with herself to make sure she was treating her job no differently than anyone else. That’s why she wanted to make it about the work and the impact that work had on the team.
“But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t something I thought about,” Campbell said. “I did feel that extra layer of pressure because I did feel the extra eyes and people look at me differently because I am different and that’s to me not a negative. To me, hopefully, eventually it will be old and just knowing that success usually trumps all negativity.
“To see the team succeed and to know we as a club and organization are moving in a direction of thinking outside the box, I think that is what I am mostly proud of. It’s knowing that the success that we have has spoken to potentially that the changes are for the good and it’s good for the growth of the game and that we have a unique coaching staff and there’s nothing wrong with that.”