When Courtney Kessel was named head coach of the Toronto Furies, general manager Sami Jo Small says she received Twitter messages asking her why she hired Phil Kessel’s sister.
So, to clarify, Courtney Kessel is the sister-in-law of the NHL player and former Toronto Maple Leaf, and not sister Amanda, who plays for the U.S. women’s national team.
Courtney Birchard may have married into U.S. hockey royalty when she and Blake Kessel wed last year, but she has her own hockey pedigree.
The defender from Toronto played in three women’s world championships for Canada – twice against Amanda – and won gold in 2012.
Several former Canadian team players are taking on leadership and coaching roles at the highest levels of the women’s game, but Kessel is on a fast track.
She still has playing years in her at 29, but unexpected opportunities aligned this year with coaching ambitions she’d long harboured.
“When I was playing and on the bench, I’d be thinking in my head about coaching techniques,” Kessel told The Canadian Press.
“I think by the end of my career, I knew this was my passion, because I was coaching while I was in full gear and the girls really respected what I had to say.”
Hockey Canada has brought her into its coaching ranks. Kessel was in Calgary this week as an assistant coach for the national under-18 women’s team.
She was a last-minute replacement in January for an assistant who stepped down from the development team staff for the Nations Cup in Germany.
Hockey Canada’s endorsement helped overcome the fears of Small and Canadian Women’s Hockey League executives that Kessel didn’t have enough experience to be head coach of the Furies.
“It added to her résumé,” Small said. “I wanted her as part of the staff.
“I didn’t necessarily know whether having her as the head coach would be an ideal scenario for her first foray into coaching, mostly because of her age.”
Furies captain Natalie Spooner is just a year younger than Kessel.
The two grew up playing together, so Small also needed to be satisfied a coach-player relationship between them would work. Small told them to go for coffee and talk it out.
“Natalie felt she could take direction from Courtney, really liked her vision and her plan for the team and felt like she could be our head coach,” Small said.
Small wanted a support system around Kessel, so Ken Dufton, a veteran coach in the women’s leagues and a former national team coach, is Kessel’s adviser.
Kessel was also able to choose her assistant coaches.
“When I first got offered the job opportunity, do I think I was ready? Yeah. Was I nervous? One hundred per cent,” Kessel said. “Am I still nervous? Yes. I have tons to learn.
“I think the biggest thing I bring to the game is I played in the CWHL. I know what they’re going through. I know what their goals are. I also understand that balance of life and hockey and some of them have careers and some of them are trying out for Olympic teams.
“I will bring the knowledge of having been there, having done that.”
Kessel played five CWHL seasons from 2011 to 2017 for the Brampton (now Markham) Thunder. She was chosen the league’s top rookie in 2012 and appeared in two all-star games.
She was among 28 players invited to try out for Canada’s Olympic team in 2014, but didn’t make the final cut. Kessel has eight goals and 20 assists in 60 career games for Canada.
She was a player-coach last season for a women’s club team in Slovakia where Blake was a defenceman for Kosice HC. The couple met when they played at the University of New Hampshire.
Since the wedding, Kessel says she’s routinely asked “Are you related to [Phil]?”
The six-team CWHL pays coaches a stipend, but not a living wage the way an NCAA or Canadian university coaching job can. Now that she’s hired Kessel, Small hopes she can retain her.
“What I worry about personally as GM of the Toronto Furies is we can only pay minimally and I know she’s going to be a great coach and people are going to start to seek her out,” Small said.
“I feel like we’re getting her at the ground floor.”