Ice Hockey, Sports

All in the family: Courtnall uses roots to drive success

The following article appears in today’s hockey supplement of the Daily Free Press

Chances are, if you grew up in Canada, you learned how to ice skate at a relatively young age.

Chances are, if you have relatives playing professional sports, you have a pretty athletic set of genes.

And, chances are, if those relatives were your father Geoff and uncle Russ Courtnall, and when you were born, they were in the midst of 17- and 16-year NHL careers, respectively, you wouldn’t have much of a choice but to play the sport yourself.

But Boston University men’s hockey forward Justin Courtnall beat chance: He did have a choice.

“I think that you have to love the game to be good at it, and you have to have fun playing it,” Geoff said. “So that’s why I didn’t push [Justin and his brother, Adam] when they were young.”

But, given the choice, Justin responded exactly the way you would expect the son and nephew of NHL players to respond – he picked hockey.

Justin got skates for Christmas at age two, and realized his intense level of sibling competitiveness about a year later. During the warmer months of their early years, he and Adam – 20 months Justin’s elder – ditched the ice skates for a different kind of blade.

“Even in the summer we’d have our roller blades on and get all marked up,” Justin said. “My dad was always there helping us and making sure we were learning. From a really young age we always wanted to play hockey.”

Justin’s obsession was fed by Geoff bringing his sons to the rink on game days on a regular basis, and slowly but surely Justin let other sports – soccer, baseball and golf among them – fall by the wayside in favor of Canada’s favorite.

But the factor that got Justin so close to the game at such a young ago, his father’s career, proved to be a double-edged sword. Due to the travel, Geoff had to leave his family for weeks at a time during the season, leaving a heavier load for his wife Penni, who had to handle the crazy youth hockey schedule on her own.

The mother’s effort certainly didn’t escape her younger son.

“She’s always been behind the scenes a little bit; she was the one taking my brother and I to 6 a.m. practices,” Justin said laughing. “I was fortunate to have my mom, who has been there for me. She’s been a great mom and has helped raise my brother and I when my dad was gone for those long periods of time.”

Just as his mom’s remarkable commitment didn’t escape Justin, his family’s notoriety didn’t escape him either. Starting around early adolescence, players on other teams went after Justin “because of the name on my back,” he said.

“I had some guys rooting against me just because of who I was,” Justin said. “That will always kind of be there, but I notice . . . guys are much more skilled and that’s not really much of a problem [at BU] because you’re just worried about going out there and playing your position and focusing on the game.”

The pseudo-bullying likely wasn’t helped by the fact that for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons Justin was a member of his hometown Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League, under the tutelage of none other than his dad himself, the team’s head coach.

Both father and son agreed that Geoff was harder on Justin than any other player, but with reason – Justin was simply one of the best.

“You feel like when you’re coaching your own son you don’t want to be easy on him, you don’t want people basically pass judgment that he’s getting a free ride,” Geoff said. “And then also from basically raising him you want the best for him, and I was trying to push him to be a better player.”

Justin harbors no hard feelings or bitter resentment, though. In fact, he was grateful that he had the opportunity for his life-long mentor to coach him on the ice, and learned lessons he carries with him today.

“I definitely am glad that he was like that,” Justin said. “He taught me a lot and made me a better player and person. I learned a lot from him in both aspects, especially around the rink. I get a lot of my work ethic from him.”

Now an assistant captain for the 2011-12 season at BU, Justin continues to use those lessons to benefit his play.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior fought for ice time his freshman season, playing in 21 games but scoring no points, a trend that continued through the beginning of his sophomore year.

Then he got his opportunity.

“Fortunately [BU coach Jack] Parker gave me a break and put me in a lot of games and started putting some more confidence in me,” Courtnall said. “It was a lot easier to play once I had a few games under my belt and definitely became more comfortable in the lineup.”

According to Parker, Justin – a self-described “late bloomer” – started improving, showing a ton of effort and physicality whenever he put on skates. Justin’s ability doesn’t always shine through during practice, Parker said, but once he gets on the ice during a game he becomes a critical slice of the BU offense.

Justin tallied three goals and three assists in 32 games last year, with two goals and one assist coming during the Hockey East quarterfinals against Northeastern University, a series BU ultimately lost two games to one. Hitting his stride right as the team’s season ended was a frustrating climax for the then-sophomore on a rather young team, but he’s using it to motivate him this year.

Justin’s evolution as a player has even led Parker to second guess his own role in the Victoria, British Columbia native’s development.

“He’s a piece of the puzzle for a certain line or the piece of the puzzle for the team, and all of those things added up to him performing better and getting more confident,” Parker said. “Maybe we should have given him more games earlier to let him show us that.”

For now, both father and son insist Justin is focusing on his studies. After taking a School of Hospitality Administration introduction class last year, Justin decided to focus his education in SHA, with aspirations of opening his own restaurant – again following in the footsteps of his father, a former restaurant owner.

That said, although his professional prospects aren’t as bright as those of some of his teammates, there is still a bit of hope that Justin will continue the family trend and make the NHL.

The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him in the seventh round and 210th overall in the 2007 NHL draft. Since the two parties didn’t come to agreement on a contract, Tampa Bay has since lost his rights, but Justin still talks to some teams as a free agent.

This past summer, Justin attended a weeklong training camp with the Vancouver Canucks, one of the premier organizations in the NHL and a team fresh off of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

“Canucks camp was great,” Justin said. “I was fortunate enough to learn a lot and have a lot of good experiences while I was there. Going to those camps opens your eyes to a lot of new things – it shows you how hard you need to work.”

Geoff’s career itself – all 17 years, 1,048 games, 367 goals and 1,462 penalty minutes of it – stands as a source of inspiration for Justin. Geoff successfully climbed the ranks of professional hockey as an undrafted free agent, giving the pair even just a sliver of hope that Justin can do the same.

Chances are, Justin won’t make the NHL, just like a vast majority of college hockey players. Chances are, he’ll graduate from SHA and, by applying the determination and hard work that has gotten his hockey career this far, he’ll eventually own his own restaurant.

But, chances are, one can never rule out the possibility for such a driven player, and a Courtnall at that.

“I think that we’d definitely love to see another Courtnall in the NHL someday, and hopefully it’s Justin,” Geoff said. “You just never know.”

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