By: Hamilton Bulldogs
04/01/2014 7:11 AM -
By Matt Blundell
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 the Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks, 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 the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota North Stars, Dallas Stars, Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings.
Justin – in his first season as a Hamilton Bulldog and his second as a professional – is quick to credit his family as being one of the main reasons for his success.
“Yeah, they’re definitely one of the main reasons I’ve made it to this point,” Justin says. “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,” Justin says. “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 favourite player.”
While having such role models has been extremely influential to Justin’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,” Justin says. “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.”
Justin was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh round, 210th overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. The 6’3”, 210-pound forward played his junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League with the Victoria Salsa, Burnaby Express and Victoria Grizzlies. Not only did he get to grow up watching his dad play, but he also got the chance to play for him as a member of the Victoria Grizzlies. Geoff was hired as the Grizzlies’ Head Coach midway through the 2007-2008 season, spending nearly two years there, leading the Grizzlies to the BCHL regular season title in 2009.
“It was great. I had a really good time there and learned a lot from my dad,” Justin says. “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 that was hard on Justin 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,” Justin says. “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 the Boston University Terriers of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“In their recruiting process, they had just won the National Championship,” Justin says. “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.”
Justin spent three years with the Terriers, seeing an increase in production each year. In his freshman season, he recorded no points and eight penalty minutes in 21 games. During his sophomore season, he notched six points (three goals and three assists) and 23 penalty minutes in 32 games. In his junior year, he served as an assistant captain and recorded seven points (four goals and three assists) and 73 penalty minutes in 39 games. After his junior season, Justin was 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,” Justin says. “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 of the American Hockey League, but played in only five games with the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins in his first professional season. He spent the majority of 2012-2013 with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, tallying nine points and 92 penalty minutes in 44 games. His tenacious, two-way play earned the young Courtnall a one-year, two-way AHL/ECHL contract with the Bulldogs last off-season.
A combination of physicality and skill has seen Justin 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,” Justin says 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 Justin to find a key role with the Bulldogs. While Justin 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, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to the next level,” Justin says.
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