In 2020, the NHL Coaches Association introduced their Female Coaches Program to support women hockey coaches by providing both development and networking opportunities, with the goal of job placements in mind. Two of the Sabres’ three guest coaches at development camp this summer were women — hand-selected by Buffalo's development staff, instead of being assigned by the league.
"We wanted to alter the process to the point where we wanted to make sure we're selecting who's coming into our camp, not having that appointed to us, and Matt Smith and Adam Mair that took the lead on it," Sabres head coach Don Granato said at development camp. "They actually went through an interview process, which is, I would imagine, unique."
Rochester native and Colgate women's hockey assistant coach Chelsea Walkland frequented Amerks games growing up, which makes this opportunity a full-circle moment for her.
"I was at home. I just had a baby in April, and so I was kind of like off the grid a little bit. I had the missed call from Adam Mair, and I was like, 'are you kidding me?' Like, oh my god, and I grew up watching him, and he left a voicemail mentioning that he wanted to speak to me about the program," Walkland said. "So I immediately called him back and heard what it was all about, and I knew right away that it was something that I absolutely couldn't miss the opportunity to be a part of."
After an interview process, the Sabres selected Walkland along with Olympic silver medalist Shelly Picard and Dartmouth assistant coach Troy Thibodeau to be guest coaches with the team for the upcoming season, starting with 2023 development camp.
"They targeted the right candidates and people that we felt were most excited about an opportunity to be in Buffalo with the Sabres, not just somebody just wants to be with an NHL team and then slap that on a resume type of thing," Granato said after a week of working with the coaches.
For Picard, a revered veteran of the game, the chance to build bridges and connect with an NHL franchise is not lost on her, as she spent the week absorbing knowledge from everyone around her.
"A lot of talking hockey, a lot of talking about culture and how you're building it. I mean, being here at the Sabres, you just felt it everywhere — like you walk into breakfast and everyone's, 'hi, good morning, how are you?' and like having conversations there," said Picard, who is an incoming assistant coach at Long Island University. "And then you go in and you're doing the X's and O's and talking about practice and the details of video, so just every opportunity is an opportunity to learn and get to know people. At no point did it feel like, oh, we were just here to like, you know, check a box or anything like that."
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams wanted his team to take the same approach as Picard.
"It goes both ways, you know? We wanted to put them in a situation where they can interact with all of us and the coaches and management, you know, hopefully they pick up a few things. But to be honest with you, it was also about us learning from them and having them," Adams said. "They gave presentations and they were, you know, interacting regularly. And I just think from a representation standpoint, having them on the ice and girls in the stands, seeing them and knowing that this this game is has opportunities regardless of if you're male or female. I just think it's a great initiative and something we want to be supportive of."
Picard was pleasantly surprised to not only see Pegula Sports and Entertainment owner Terry Pegula watching her presentation on athlete mindset and mental preparation, but other Sabres staff leaders engaged and providing feedback as well.
"So as a player, I just learned a lot, like working with mental skills. Now on the coaching side of it, trying to figure out my role in helping young athletes sort of navigate their space," the four-time IIHF world champion said. "We talked about how it would be a low-key sort of presentation and we walk in and Terry Pegula is sitting there. Like oh, ok, cool. So he's going to be listening to these!"
With a receptive audience, Walkland took a previous lesson learned with the Sabres organization to develop her presentation that offered a look inside Colgate's hockey program. The Raiders have held the ECAC conference title for three consecutive seasons since 2021 and appeared in the NCAA tournament four times since 2018.
"The reason that I landed on that was actually last fall, I was able to sit in on a Zoom call with the Sabres as part of the NHLCA program. They were debriefing the training camp and so they kind of gave like a look under the hood or a look inside," Walkland said. "So I kind of stole their idea of what they let me into and just kind of threw it back at them. Just shared a little bit about our program at Colgate and how we do things there."