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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Kraken hope Jessica Campbell’s player-development success translates to NHL

Seattle Kraken assistant coach Jessica Campbell runs a drill Tuesday during a rookie development camp in Seattle.  (Nick Wagner/Seattle Times)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Refs? Check. Front office? Indeed. Scouting, skating coaches, video work – those boxes are a long way from blank.

But a woman behind the bench? A female assistant coach with no caveats? That’s an National Hockey League first.

And it happened here in Seattle.

That’s a necessary introduction, because this is history. We’ve seen women break through in the coaching ranks in the NBA and NFL – and we saw an MLB female general manager in Kim Ng.

But in terms of the world’s top hockey league, this is unprecedented. Folks, meet Jessica Campbell.

The Kraken announced Campbell’s hiring as an assistant coach Wednesday, marking the first time a woman has held such a position in the NHL. She comes to Seattle after serving two years as a bench coach with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the Kraken’s feeder team in the AHL.

And this particular Firebird has risen like a phoenix over the past two years, moving to hockey’s top tier within 24 months of her Coachella hiring and within seven years from her retirement as a player. It’s an impressive feat. And a groundbreaking one. But that’s not what she wants to talk about – and perhaps that’s what Kraken fans should admire most.

“Though I am honored to be the first, I don’t want to be the only, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m the only in this organization,” Campbell said. “That’s also a very special feeling to be part of the Seattle Kraken organization and the staff and to stand by all the other remarkable women in this league that are maybe not behind the benches. But there’s a long list of incredible women that are doing phenomenal jobs, here in management, scouting, player development. I’m just excited to do my part now behind the bench.”

What this means for women in the NHL five, 10 or 20 years from now is unknown. This could be a harbinger signaling an influx of female coaches, or it could be a one-off. The truth is usually in the middle, but here’s what Kraken fans want to know: Will Campbell make this team better? That’s really all that matters once the novelty wears off.

The Kraken, as anyone remotely paying attention knows, dropped off last season after a surprising run to the conference semifinals in 2023. The once-potent offense ended up producing the fourth-to-fewest goals in the NHL and missed the playoffs by a whopping 17 points.

Seattle wasn’t good. At all. Which means the front office need to improve the roster … but also make sure the returners get better.

That was one thing Kraken coach Dan Bylsma emphasized during a team news conference Wednesday. He rejects the idea that the NHL isn’t a development league, despite the fact that it harbors the most-developed players in the world. He said everyone on the roster, or in the program, should be striving to improve. And in many ways, that’s where Campbell comes in.

“During our tenure in Coachella Valley, I saw firsthand Jessica’s commitment to player development,” Bylsma said. “Her ability to establish relationships with her players, specifically Tye Kartye, Shane Wright and Ryker Evans, was an important factor in this hire. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with her at the NHL level.”

Kartye, Wright and Evans are certainly noteworthy names, but what about someone such as Matty Beniers, the 2023 Calder Award winner for Rookie of the Year whose sophomore slump last season was so bad it looked like he should be held back a grade? What about the drop-offs we saw from players such as Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz and Jaden Schwartz, among others? To say an assistant coach’s reputation should depend on the resurrection of any of the aforementioned names is as asinine as blaming a hitting coach for a major-leaguer’s batting woes. But … maybe she can help? That’s all that matters.

Campbell admits that she’d never imagined she would be able to coach at this level. Understandable when no woman has done so before. But she caught the attention of Kraken General Manager Ron Francis, who said that competence was the only factor in this decision.

“We didn’t hire her because she’s female,” Francis said. “We hired her because we thought she’s a good coach.”

Jessica hopes to prove so at the highest level. Her focus is “just putting my head down, doing the work, and where it takes me, it takes me.”

That could take her a whole lot further. Kraken fans should be rooting for that – because their team’s success would serve as the primary reason.