Jessica Campbell marches toward coaching history

It’s fair to say one of the things Rocanville, Saskatchewan is most famous for is a giant oil can that commemorates a factory that produced more than a million oil cans during the Second World War.

It’s that and the crop circles that appeared in the area near the town, whose population is less than 900.

But, move over oil can and UFOs, that may soon change if Jessica Campbell continues on her rather impressive career arc.

Fresh from a stint as an assistant coach with the German national team at the 2022 World Championship – the first time a woman has coached at the prestigious international men’s event – and a gig with the Nurnberg Ice Tigers of the German elite league, during which she went from skills instruction to a place on the bench, Campbell is now preparing to help coach prospects at the New York Rangers’ development camp in a few weeks.

Beyond that? Campbell, 29 and a product of Cornell’s women’s hockey program, has had a number of inquiries in Europe and in North America from teams looking to add her to their coaching staffs for the 2022-23 season.

Regardless of where Campbell ends up in the short term, those who know her believe that the sky is truly the limit and that becoming the first woman to be part of an NHL coaching staff is well within her grasp.

“If there’s one person who could crack that barrier, it’s Jess, 100 percent,” offered veteran NHL forward Tyson Jost.

Jost is among a large group of NHL, minor pro, collegiate and junior players who have seen Campbell in action firsthand in Kelowna, British Columbia, where Campbell has been running skills sessions with players of all levels for the past few years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Campbell, as noted, grew up in rural Saskatchewan and still has family in the area. She returns, in non-COVID days, in the summers to put on camps for local players.

As a high school player Campbell was recruited by Doug Derraugh, the longtime head coach of the Cornell women’s program.

“She was an unbelievable skater,” Derraugh said. In fact, he believes Campbell remains on the school’s wall of fame for her time in the 40-yard sprint.

If the skating was Campbell’s signature skill, a skill that saw her play internationally for Canada as well as for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for Calgary along with her stellar collegiate career at Cornell, it was her determination not to shrink from challenges that has become part of her coaching DNA.

“I think what makes her special is that she was never afraid to challenge herself and put herself in situations that were going to challenge her,” Derraugh said. “She’s taken that approach throughout her entire life.”

Campbell paid particular attention as a player to the specific skills that would help her improve and become a better player and thus make her team more successful. After injuries slowed her playing career, she began focusing on sharing her view of skills development and implementation with others.

The ability to communicate those ideas on an individual or small-group basis is an important foundation for coaching at the team level, Derraugh said.

“It doesn’t surprise me because she has a belief in what she’s learned and what she teaches, and I think she has a way of getting that across,” Derraugh said.

“And she’s not intimidated, whether you’re an NHL player or a youth player in peewee hockey,” Derraugh added.

When players were scrambling to get themselves back into shape for the 2020 bubble playoffs, Luke Schenn happened on Campbell, who was doing some 3-on-3 skills sessions at a mini-rink complex in Kelowna.

Schenn loved the vibe and the intensity and the energy and soon approached Campbell about running practices for a larger session of NHL players, including Jost, Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook and Mat Barzal, among others.

“She comes out there, she’s got the music going a little bit and just a great energy,” said Schenn, who won back-to-back Cups with Tampa in 2020 and 2021 and is with the Vancouver Canucks now.

Schenn recalled Campbell showing up with all manner of supplies, some of which she’d built herself, to employ in various drills.

“She’s hauling all these things around, and I’m like, she’s so prepared,” Schenn said. “She had a whole list of things she wanted to get done. She commanded the ice and we were listening.”

Jost concurs.

It’s not uncommon for groups like the one in Kelowna to bring in a coach to run their offseason practices to bring some structure to the proceedings. Sometimes, even if it’s a coach who has been at it for a long time, the coach can be a bit awestruck at working with NHL players in the beginning.

Not Campbell.

“Right off the bat, Jess had everyone engaged,” Jost said.

The drills were focused and had obvious implications for game action, and as soon as the first session was done, the group was clamoring for more.

“It was just awesome. It was just incredible,” said Jost, who is a member of the Minnesota Wild.

“It’s a tough job, and she came in and handled it like such a pro,” Jost added. “It was like she’d been doing it for 30 years.”

When we catch up with Campbell, it’s via phone from a USHL camp in Vegas.

Yes, she confirms the one photo everyone wants to take in Rocanville is of the giant oil can.

When she thinks about her evolution from player to coach, it seems now in hindsight to have been virtually seamless.

“As a player, skating was my greatest asset,” Campbell said. “And I always wanted to know more, to dig deeper and have a greater understanding of the technical side of the skating.”

Like a domino, Campbell began gathering information and forming her own ideas on how to enhance the specific skills that are critical to player development, starting with skating and expanding into stickhandling and other elements of the game.

She worked with skating guru David Roy, who helped guide her on the skills-coaching side of the game when her playing days were winding down and ultimately started her own business.

For Campbell, her belief is that the game isn’t just north/south but that by incorporating east/west or lateral components to the game, it enhances puck possession. To do that, of course, you have to have the skills to incorporate those kinds of ideas in you game.

She recalls those Kelowna sessions as she moved onto larger group practices as a pivotal moment for her in bridging the gap between being a skills coach and being able to consider coaching on a team level.

Given the feedback she received, she realized, hey, I can coach these guys who are at the top of the hockey pyramid.

“They were the ones encouraging me to go down the path,” Campbell said.

Of course, that reinforced a strong internal belief that she was bringing something valuable to the hockey table at this level.

“Not only do I believe my service is valuable, but now they’re asking me to come out and run their practices,” Campbell recalled. “I saw a path to where I wanted to get to.”

Last season, former Florida Panthers executive Tom Rowe, who was coaching in Germany, asked Campbell to come and work on player development. That morphed into helping in-game coaching on the bench.

She recalled one game after she had been working with the players on what had been a lackluster power play and the team exploding after employing some of her suggestions on zone entry and creative structure.

“I think the guys had seven or eight goals that night, and the power play got going. It was just this really remarkable experience,” Campbell said.

Shortly after, she landed a gig with the German national team at the World Championship and then the Rangers’ gig through the NHL Coaches’ Association’s mentorship program.

It’s widely accepted that Campbell is among a group of women coaches who are at the forefront of breaking through the NHL’s gender coaching barrier in the coming years.

“I’m thrilled to not only see the success Jess has had in the men’s sport and on the international stage, but also to hear the respect she’s garnered from her players and fellow coaches,” said, Lindsay Artkin, president of the NHLCA.

“She’s earned this opportunity at Development Camp, and it’s great that the Rangers recognize this. I feel we’re close to seeing a woman behind the bench of an NHL club. That’s one of the main objectives of the NHLCA Female Coaches Development Program, of which Jess has been a member since we started the program two years ago. There are no limits to what Jess can achieve, and if she wants to be coaching in the NHL, she will be.”

What the future brings – whether it’s a statue next to the oil can or a sign outside town or an NHL job or something else – Campbell is focused on the here and now.

“I don’t even know if I’ve really unpacked it all,” Campbell admitted. “I’m just so grateful, but I also feel ready and genuinely excited to go in and do my work.

“I believe in what I’m saying. This is not going to be any different. What comes of that, I’m unsure, but I’m just really focused on doing the best that I can for the Rangers in the time that I have.”

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