May 06, 2006

Russ Courtnall

Russ Courtnall was an electrifying player, blessed with great skating ability. The little dynamo had great ability of being able to reach full speed after just 2 or 3 strides. What was even more impressive is that Rusty had excellent puck handling skills even at full speed. There's lots of fast players in the league, but only a few can handle the puck at top speed as well as Courtnall could. One of his favorite plays was to come down on a defenseman at top speed, put the puck in the defenseman's skates as he scoots behind him and regains the puck. Rusty embarrassed more than a few defenseman that way, leaving them either flat-footed or flat on the ice!

Courtnall's game revolved around his speed. He didn't have the size or strength to power by most players in the league, but defenses were always on their heels when the intimidating speedball Courtnall was out there. A common play for Courtnall's linemates was to just dump the puck onto Courtnall's side as it was a good bet that Courtnall could get to the puck faster than the opposing defenseman.

Courtnall had a wonderful wrist shot and also excelled on one-time shots. However he didn't use his good shots as often as his coaches and fans would have liked, as he was naturally a playmaker. Originally a center who was converted to right wing, Rusty loved to speed down the wing, drawing the attention of both defenseman with him, and then hit his trailing linemate with a centering pass. Courtnall was a great passer too. He had great on-ice vision and was able to thread the needle more times than not. He was very creative with the rubber disc, as all his linemates over the years appreciated.

Although his size limited his game, he was a tougher player than most gave him credit for. He was an effective forechecker because of his speed, and when he hit a defenseman at his skating speed it must have felt like he was 20 pounds heavier than he actually was. He was never intimidated and much like his brother Geoff, played a courageous game. Playing early on on a line with Wendel Clark certainly helped him play much braver as well.

After reading all that, you'd think I had just described the perfect hockey player. While Courtnall did develop into a good two way forward, he was always criticized at times for his intensity and consistency. He scored 80 points only once in his career, and more than 70 in 3 other seasons. But it seemed like every time he was on the ice he was creating a stir. He was a very busy player when on the ice, always creating a chance because of his speed. That is certainly not a complaint, but by the end of the night you'd walk away thinking man that Courtnall guy had a good game, but then you'd look at his stats and be amazed that he didn't have better scoring totals. Other nights you wouldn't have noticed him at all, although that was generally in his early years.

Russ was originally a 1st round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Selected 7th overall in 1983, rather than returning to his native Victoria to play junior hockey, Russ opted to join the Canadian national team in 1983-84 where he represent Canada at both the World Junior Championships and the Olympics. Late in the year he joined the Leafs, scoring 3 goals and 12 points in 14 games. After such a strong season on the international scene, Leaf fans were expecting big things from their promising star.

However Courtnall's rookie season of 1984-85 wasn't overly good. He struggled to just 12 goals and 22 points in 69 games. He rebounded well in 1985-86, scoring 22 goals and 60 points, and took his game to the next level in 1986-87 with 29 goals and 73 points.

Leaf fans and media were patient with Courtnall's development, but quickly became disenchanted with him when he suffered a setback in 1987-88. He scored 23 goals and 49 points in a year marred by several small but nagging injuries including back spasms, as the Leafs continued to redefine the word "struggle."

Five years after drafting the electrifying center who they had hoped would be their superstar, the Leafs gave up on Courtnall and foolishly traded him to Montreal 9 games into the 1988-89 season in exchange for John Kordic and a 6th round pick. That trades ranks as one of the worst trades of all time. Kordic, a goon with drug problems, never amounted to much outside of Montreal, while Courtnall would thrive in Montreal.

Placed on a line with Guy Carbonneau, Courtnall - like any player wearing the Habs jersey - was expected to be more of a two way forward in Montreal as opposed to the scoring star. He seemed to respond well to less pressure, as he and Carbonneau formed a great defensive duo, particularly on the penalty kill. Courtnall also saw ice time on the top line with Bobby Smith.

After being a member of the 1991 Canada Cup team, which is about as high an honour you can get as a Canadian player, Courtnall had an awful 1991-92 season. He appeared in just 27 games and scored 7 goals and 21 points as he missed 41 games with a serious shoulder injury and another 12 games with a bad hand. The Habs decided to trade Rusty to Minnesota in exchange for veteran sniper Brian Bellows in the summer of 1992.

In Minnesota/Dallas, Courtnall was once again placed on the hot seat as he was expected to be more of a scoring leader as well as a good two way player. Rusty responded well, scoring a career high 36 goals in 1992-93, to go along with 79 points. In 1993-94 he upped his point total to a career high 80 points including a career high 57 assists and played strongly in the playoffs, scoring 9 points in 9 games.

1994-95 was a tough year for Courtnall as injuries limited his effectiveness in just 32 games in the lock-out shortened season in Dallas. Late in the season Courtnall was traded to Vancouver in exchange for 1994 playoff hero Greg Adams, and Dan Kesa and a draft pick. It was a great trade for Courtnall and his family. Born on Vancouver Island, his parents could now see him play regularly. Moreover, for the first time in their careers, brothers Russ and Geoff Courtnall were playing on the same team. Finally the boys' mother could cheer for the same team!

After a short experiment with the brothers on the same line, Russ found a niche on the right wing of what was arguably the Canucks most complete and best line with Trevor Linden and Martin Gelinas. Linden and Gelinas had great years with Courtnall on their side, and Rusty responded with 26 goals and 65 point in 1995-96. The trio really complimented each other and worked well together.

Courtnall got caught up in the numbers game in Vancouver. The right winger was struggling for playing time behind Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny and after a slow 1996-97 season caused by a nagging groin injury, was traded to New York with dressing room problem Esa Tikkanen for Sergei Nemchinov and Brian Noonan.

An unrestricted free agent at the end of the 96-97 season, the Rangers showed no interest in resigning Courtnall and he ended up with the Los Angeles Kings for two years. It was an ideal situation for Courtnall who always wanted to play in LA. His wife (actress Paris Vaughn - daughter of famous jazz singer Sarah Vaughn) is from Los Angeles and who doesn't love the California sunshine! However Rusty's play in LA was nowhere near as hot as the weather. He was often a healthy scratch as it was obvious his best days were behind him.

After missing 24 games with a broken foot, the Kings didn't offer him a contract in the summer of 1999. Though he never made an official retirement press conference, it soon became obvious Russ had run out of opportunities that he wanted to pursue in the NHL. There were rumours that the St. Louis Blues - where brother Geoff was playing - had inquired as well as the Vancouver Canucks, but obviously nothing was worked out.

Russ, who played in his only NHL All Star game in 1994, scored a career total of 297 goals, 447 assists for 744 points in 1029 games. In 129 playoff contests, he added 39 goals and 83 points. While he never was able to capture the Stanley Cup, Russ played in the World Junior and Senior Championships, 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo and captured the Canada Cup in 1991.

He and brother Geoff are the only two brothers to eaplay in 1000 NHL games each.

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