Golden girl turns to coaching
by Andrew Podnieks|18 MAY 2022
Jessica Campbell captained Canada to U18 Women’s World Championship gold in 2010 but is making history in 2022 with the German national team as the first female assistant coach at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship of the men’s senior category.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
It was the end of Germany’s practise this afternoon, and Moritz Seider was standing at the blue line talking to assistant coach Jessica Campbell. She was trying to show him how to make a move, a sharp stop-and-cut to the outside before firing a quick shot. Seider would make the cut and lose the puck, cut and lose, cut and lose. After several tries, he succeeded, and Campbell tapped her stick lightly on the ice a few times as applause. 

“We were working on some tools, some directional skills,” Campbell explained a few minutes later. “Like every player, he’s wanting to get better. Any opportunity you get to work with someone like that is special, so I’m studying their games and looking at their tendencies. I’ve been able to watch him all season and here with the team, looking for ways he can separate himself, adding a little bit more deception to his game. He can do it. It’s just a matter of showing him the concept and then applying it, which he definitely did.”

Seider was drafted 6th overall by Detroit in 2018, and this past season, his first in the NHL, was nothing short of sensational. He is one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy, but he was only too happy working with Campbell on this little detail. 

It was a hockey moment, but it was a little piece of history as well. Campbell is the first female coach in the long history of the men’s senior IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. She was hired by Germany’s head coach Toni Soderholm, but she has garnered plenty of attention for her gender more than her capabilities.

“I’m here working on special teams and development with some of the players,” she explained. “My background is in skating and skill development, but I’m also supporting the staff and adding value and knowledge and a different perspective, a different vision of the game. I don’t know if that stems from coming out of the female game, but my approach is about adding value to individual players for the purpose of the collective team goal.

“I think Toni says I add different, similar concepts to accomplish the same goals, different concepts I use more in my skill development to get the players to understand how they can have more success. I don’t see my role as any different from the other assistant coaches, but I think I maybe have a unique perspective because of how I’ve studied the game and understand the game and approaches to development.”

Campbell’s words take a minute to digest. She is small and female. She is not a man, not in her fifties, and not from the old school, boys’ school NHL. She looks nothing like a coach you’d expect on a national team here – but her words have coach writ large in the clear blue sky.

This season she started working as a skills coach with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers when she was suddenly ask to join as assistant coach behind the bench becoming the first woman to do so in the DEL.

“I was definitely taken aback and grateful for the opportunity,” she continued by way of explaining how she got here. “Toni and I had a lot of really great conversations early on, just talking hockey, about my experience in Nuremberg and what I did there with Tom Rowe in the short time I was there. Toni and I realized very quickly we had very aligned visions and approaches to the way the game should be played. So I don’t think I was surprised that he was speaking to me – I’m confident in what I believe – but I was definitely appreciative that he sought me out and wanted to see what I could bring to the team.”

Shifting back for a moment to Campbell in international women’s hockey, this journey began back in 2010, in Chicago, at the U18 Women’s Worlds where Campbell captained Canada’s team. She led the team to the gold-medal game, and then scored the golden goal that gave Canada a 6-5 overtime win over the United States. For her play, she was named tournament MVP. She played only one more time for her country, at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, and she also played for a few seasons in the CWHL with the Calgary Inferno, winning the Clarkson Cup in 2016 on a stacked team that included Hayley Wickenheiser, Meaghan Mikkelson, Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner, Blayre Turnbull, and Brigitte Lacquette.

“That’s the kind of moment I’ll treasure for the rest of my life,” she smiled about her WW18 gold. “But it’s funny because that moment, in overtime, what I remember now is who was there with me, and what that moment meant was all about the team. It’s not so much about what you did as a player but what you created. But I definitely still treasure that moment now as a coach.”
Jessica Campbell holds the winning trophy after captaining Canada to gold at the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship.
photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Campbell’s transition from player to coach was quick and seamless, and maybe even just plain inevitable. “It was a pretty quick transition for me,” she explained. “I left as a player and went right into coaching. I always knew as a player that skating was my strength, and I loved teaching it to young kids while I was a player. I’d run camps and give back to my community, even at the grassroots level. It was something I loved to do. I’m not sure I ever imagined I’d be a full-time coach when I was playing. But after playing, I jumped right into it.”

Being the Type A personality that she is, Campbell didn’t see gender when she started to get involved in the men’s game, only challenge and opportunity and appreciation for being able to stay in the game.

“My goal as a coach has always been to coach at the highest level,” she continued. “It wasn’t really about the women’s game or the men’s game. In player development, you’re working with players of all ages, all levels, but I knew I wanted to work with pro athletes. But the transition going to the men’s game excited me, not because of the challenges but I felt I had a unique voice and unique perspective. The way I see things might be different, and that has allowed me to separate myself and establish a little bit more of a niche on the men’s side. I’m excited by that.”

Just as there is no denying that she is a woman and making a bit of history, Campbell is equally aware of what she can bring to the table. No one at this level will hire simply because of her gender. “My communication skills are something I take pride in. I’m very thoughtful in how I deliver ideas. And as a coach, it’s my job to dissect what’s happening and then deliver that message to the players.”

Campbell can be as professional as she wants, but there is no denying the personal satisfaction of the team’s first game in Helsinki – against Canada. “It was definitely a special moment, and I work with some of the Canadian players in the off-season and do development with them, so for them to see me on the other side was special because we’ve been trying to accomplish the same things at the pro level. Everyone has been super supportive, and we’ve caught up and talked about my journey of how I got here. They’ve been very supportive.”

When asked a true coach’s question about how the German team needed to improve after a 2-1 start, Campbell responded in her coach’s dialect: “We have to commit to our game plan and be strong in all three zones, especially defensively because that will lead to great offence. Managing the puck, making decisions with the puck, and then being strong on special teams. That will be a difference-maker down the stretch. We have to focus on our play and what we do well.”

In the end, the “female” noise will eventually die down and Campbell can blend in as a coach. Period. Until then, she understands there is interest in the history-making part of her presence as much as her showing Seider how to stop-and-cut outside.

“My focus is just doing my job to the best of my ability,” she summarizes. “I don’t see so much about the trail-blazing because that’s not my focus. I can do a good job and that blazes trails, that’s amazing, but I take a lot of pride in this opportunity. At the end of the day, we’re all talking hockey. I don’t see barriers; I see goals.”