by Matt Blundell || AHL On The Beat Archive
Very few young hockey players have the luxury of having one National Hockey League player as a mentor. Two is almost unheard of.
Meet Justin Courtnall.
Justin is the son of long-time National Hockey League forward Geoff Courtnall and the nephew of Geoff’s younger brother, Russ, also of NHL fame. Geoff played 17 seasons in the NHL, notching 799 points in 1,049 regular-season games with Boston, Edmonton, Washington, St. Louis and Vancouver and winning the Stanley Cup in 1988 with the Oilers. Russ played 16 years in the NHL, tallying 744 points in 1,029 regular-season games with Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota/Dallas, Vancouver, the New York Rangers and Los Angeles.
Justin, now in his first season with the Hamilton Bulldogs and his second as a professional, is quick to credit his family for his success.
“Yeah, they’re definitely one of the main reasons I’ve made it to this point,” he said. “Growing up I always had someone to look up to and always had childhood heroes within my family.”
The question is which role model does Justin try to replicate his own game after most?
“I think my dad,” said the 24-year-old Courtnall. “I wanted to be exactly like my dad. Growing up, I basically tried to emulate him and become a player that could be in the same category as him. I really watched him. He was obviously my favorite player.”
While having such role models has been extremely influential to Courtnall’s development, the lifestyle of having a father in the NHL isn’t always the easiest one for a family to deal with.
“Growing up with a father who played hockey during the season, you didn’t see him a lot with him being busy and on the road, but it was a lot of fun,” Courtnall said. “He took us to the rink all the time and we grew up around the hockey world. It was definitely a special upbringing and made me who I am today.”
Courtnall was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward played his junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League, and played for his dad in Victoria after Geoff was hired as head coach midway through the 2007-08 season. The team won the BCHL regular-season title in 2009.
“It was great. I had a really good time there and learned a lot from my dad,” Courtnall said. “Obviously at times he was harder on me than the other guys, but I kind of expected it and embraced it. I knew he was trying to make me better and I never really got down about it or anything.”
It wasn’t only the head coach who was hard on Courtnall at times. Many players around the league often targeted him simply because of the name on the back of his jersey.
“It was tough at times, but I learned to play with it and deal with it,” said Courtnall. “It definitely gives you a thick skin and teaches you how to play with guys coming after you all the time. At times it was almost fun because it was easy to get into the game because someone was always trying to hit you and you had to be on your toes.”
After his four seasons in the BCHL, Justin decided to pursue an opportunity with Boston University.
“In their recruiting process, they had just won the national championship,” Courtnall said. “That was definitely a big draw for me because I obviously wanted to win. Being such a well-known program, I knew I had a really solid chance of being turned into a pro there.”
Courtnall spent three years with the Terriers, seeing an increase in production each year. In his junior season, he served as an assistant captain and recorded seven points (four goals and three assists) and 73 penalty minutes in 39 games.
Courtnall was then faced with the difficult decision of whether to return for his senior season or pursue a pro career.
“I felt that I accomplished everything that could be accomplished in the role that was given to me on the team,” said Courtnall. “If I wanted to try and make it to the NHL, my best option was to move on.”
In 2012, Justin signed with the Providence Bruins, but played in only five AHL games. He spent the majority of 2012-13 with South Carolina of the ECHL, tallying nine points and 92 penalty minutes in 44 games. His tenacious, two-way play earned him a one-year contract with the Bulldogs this past off-season.
A combination of physicality and skill has seen Courtnall become a valuable AHL player this season. While he likes to engage physically, he doesn’t consider himself a heavyweight.
“I wouldn’t call myself a heavyweight fighter,” Courtnall said with a grin. “But I’ll stick up for my teammates at any time. I just try to be a team player and if the guys need a little bit of a lift I don’t mind bringing that into my game.”
His team-first attitude and whatever-it-takes approach has allowed Courtnall to find a key role with the Bulldogs. While he continues to chase the NHL dream, there’s no denying that his rich hockey bloodlines and instrumental mentorship with his father have been critical to his success.
“Without him coaching me,” Courtnall said, “I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to the next level.”