WILMINGTON, Mass. — For most of the undrafted or unsigned players invited to participate in the Bruins development camp, it can be a pretty anonymous existence skating alongside the organization’s most highly-touted prospects.
That’s not the case for Justin Courtnall. He brought to the camp not just the solid resume he had put together in his first three seasons at Boston University, but also a recognizable hockey name and all the baggage that comes with it.
Courtnall’s father, Geoff, played 17 seasons in the NHL, beginning with parts of five seasons with the Bruins, and finished with 799 points and 1,465 penalty minutes in 1,049 career games after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 1983. His uncle, Russ, played 16 seasons in the league. He piled up 744 points in 1,029 games after being taken seventh overall by Toronto in the 1983 draft.
“My uncle was really highly skilled when he was younger, so he was fortunate to just be able to make it,” Justin Courtnall said. “He worked hard, but he was really skilled and that’s how he was given the chance at the beginning of his career. He was really talented, but my dad really had to work hard and learn to become a pro and learn to work harder than everyone else to make it. That’s something he’s taught me along the way. When I was younger he really showed me what hard work was and what it took to become a pro.”
Having his father and uncle around to give him guidance, not to mention some good hockey genes, has certainly helped Justin Courtnall pursue his own dreams on the ice. But the pressures of bearing such a well-known hockey name and trying to live up to the family legacy can have its downsides too.
“When I was younger, coming into junior and stuff like that, it was tough at the beginning,” Courtnall said. “You had guys in your ear saying stuff to you about being a Courtnall and having that kind of a shadow over your head. You kind of have to learn to figure out who you are as a person and make your own identity when you’re faced with that situation.
“But with the negatives come the positives,” Courtnall added. “I probably have an edge over guys just because of that inside knowledge of what it takes and how to act and how to be a good teammate.”
Courtnall didn’t have an edge over everyone at this year’s development camp. Defenseman Matt Benning, the Bruins sixth-round pick this year, also comes from quite a hockey family. His father, Brian, played 10 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman with St. Louis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Edmonton and Florida. Just to add even more pressure on his plate, Benning’s uncle Jim also happens to be the Bruins’ assistant general manager who played nine seasons himself with Toronto and Vancouver. The younger Benning didn’t get much of a chance to carve out his own identity in this camp, as he suffered a groin injury on Sunday.
Goalie Malcolm Subban, the Bruins first-round pick this year, will also be trying to escape the shadow of his older brother, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. Malcolm Subban began as a defenseman as well, but moved to the net when he was 12. That switch helped avoid some of the inevitable comparisons, and Malcolm’s more reserved personality also differentiates him from the always loquacious, and sometimes brash, P.K.
“We’re two different people and play two different positions, so I don’t really feel any pressure at all,” Malcolm Subban said.
And the younger Subban isn’t worried about anyone expecting him to act like his brother.
“I guess they can think that, but to be honest it’s all about what my coaches think and what my teammates think, so that’s what I’m going to focus on,” he said.
P.K. Subban’s antics have drawn the ire of Boston fans frequently in the last couple years, but the large crowd on hand for this week’s development camp hasn’t had any problems warming up to the club’s newest netminding prospect.
As Subban was putting on an acrobatic display stopping shootout attempts after the final scrimmage on Monday, fans at Ristuccia Arena began chanting “Let’s Go Subban!”
“I heard them a bit, but I was pretty focused out there,” Subban said.
After the reception his brother has gotten over the years at the Garden, did he ever expect to hear the family name chanted in such a supportive way?
“No, I guess not, but I’m happy it is now,” Subban said.
Sometimes carving out an identity of your own isn’t too hard, even in a famous hockey family. All it takes is getting on the right side of one of hockey’s oldest rivalries.