Russ Courtnall’s road back to hockey was paved by a seven year old.
The longtime NHLer quietly walked away from the game after the 1998-99 season and made the comfortable transition into life as a stay-at-home dad and family man. There was never any plan to follow several other former players and remain closely involved with hockey – at least not until his son Lawton decided a few years ago that he wanted to start playing.
Just like that, Russ Courtnall became Coach Courtnall.
He’s followed his son through minor hockey ever since and is preparing now to add another job to his coaching resume. Courtnall will spend the holidays in Switzerland as an assistant on Sean Simpson’s staff for the Canadian team at the Spengler Cup.
While that’s clearly a step up from his position as the head coach of a peewee team in California, he cautions against seeing it as the next step towards a bigger role down the road.
“Maybe one day I’ll have a decision to make,” Courtnall said this week in an interview. “All these experiences along the way will help me make that decision – whether I’m just another dad who coaches or am I going to use my (playing) experiences and now my coaching experience to turn it into a profession? It’s too early to tell.
“It’s like going to school. Every year you get a little bit more knowledge and then you decide when you’re all done what you’re going to do.”
A conversation with Courtnall leaves you with the impression that there isn’t a wrong choice to be made. Unlike some athletes who struggle with life after their playing days, he sounds completely content in his current roles as husband, father and hockey coach.
One of the keys to his success was the decision to stay in the Los Angeles area after first stepping away from the game.
“It’s really tough for the hockey players in Canada to retire,” said Courtnall. “You talk to any of those guys who retire in Calgary, they’re basketcases because everywhere they go, people constantly bring it up. You don’t get a chance to really let your brain and body heal, and get adjusted.
“I retired in Los Angeles and no one could care less.”
One of the simple pleasures he discovered was joining a group of guys for coffee on a regular basis and talking about current events, politics and the future. Besides the odd story here and there, no one was particularly interested in Courtnall’s past – namely, the 16 seasons he spent playing in the NHL.
When he first chatted with Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson about the opportunity to be involved with a national team, they discussed the possibility of coaching alongside brother Geoff. That didn’t end up happening for the Spengler Cup because Geoff Courtnall has since become the head coach of the British Columbia Hockey League’s Victoria Grizzlies.
Russ Courtnall figures it’s only a matter of time before his older brother finds his way back to the NHL in a coaching capacity.
“It’s so natural for him,” he said. “He took a team that was ninth place last year at Christmas and they went three rounds in the playoffs. He’s a natural.”
His own aspirations aren’t quite so lofty.
Courtnall first started coaching his son while the family lived in Victoria for a couple years and continued when they relocated back to California. He says there are top-level players in The Golden State as good as those in Canada; there just aren’t as many.
His own son got a bit of a late start in the game at age seven but has inherited at least one familiar Courtnall trait – “he’s got good wheels,” according to dad.
“Like most realistic parents, I think if he can get an education out of this sport it would be fantastic,” said Courtnall. “There’s so many good young players out there and it’s so competitive. I try to tell him that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon; you’ve got to keep the effort and you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to be a good teammate and work harder than the guy beside you.
“There’s kids all over the world now wanting to arrive at the top level.”
It’s something he’s also seen firsthand with his teenage daughter Alexandra, who plays competitive soccer and is eyeing an NCAA scholarship. Russ and wife Paris also have a five-year-old daughter.
They’re plenty busy with three kids heavily involved with sports.
When Courtnall reflects on his playing career, he thinks most fondly of the times he represented Canada. He wore the Maple Leaf at every major tournament – the world junior championship, Olympics, Canada Cup and IIHF World Hockey Championship.
He views the chance to coach internationally at the Spengler Cup as a similar type of honour, but there are no plans to abandon his job with the Southern California Titans any time soon.
“My commitment is going to be to my son and the players that I coach along with him,” said Courtnall. “I really enjoy coaching. I never thought of getting into coaching, but my son wanted to play hockey so I got into it.
“I keep moving up with him.”