It was at the first practice after last season’s Christmas break – the Victoria Grizzlies were hovering around the final playoff spot in the BCHL’s Island Division and sporting a rather humble 17-16-2-3 record.
Coming back from their brief holiday hiatus, it was abundantly clear there was much work to be done if the Grizzlies were going to salvage a season that had, thus far, fell well short of expectations.
As the players streamed into the bowels of the Bear Mountain Arena, they were told to hold off on getting dressed and just take a seat in the dressing room, and in walked owner Len Barrie, general manager Jackson Penney and the father of Grizzly Justin Courtnall.
Twenty-five years after wrapping up his junior career with the Victoria Cougars, Geoff Courtnall was back in the provincial capital – this time as head coach of the Grizzlies.
Penney had been serving as both GM and head coach and the team was underachieving. So when the wealth of experience and hockey knowledge that is Courtnall became available, it was a mid-season no brainer.
The Duncan, BC native played 16 years in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in 1988
and helping his home province Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 1994. He finished with 799 points
(367G, 432A) in 1,049 games – one of the highest-scoring B.C. natives to ever lace up the skates.
“It’s not every day you get a [coach] that played as many years in the NHL as Geoff did,” Penney said. “And obviously being able to win Stanley Cups and take it to the next level [is huge for us].”
Ever since Courtnall took over in December 2007, Victoria has compiled a regular season record of 56-19-2-5 and will host the 2009 RBC Cup as a legitimate contender.
But then again, what do you expect when your coaching and front office staff – which includes Penney, Courtnall, Victor Gervais, David Brumby and Craig Didmon – has a combined 56 years of professional and international playing experience?
“I think [the vast experience] really helps,” Courtnall said. “It gives you a real good ability to assess talent, especially young talent, and to basically execute all the coaching and putting together the right group to win which we’ve been able to do. And it’s a lot of fun.”
While Courtnall is undoubtedly the best known of the group, Penney is no slouch himself. The Edmonton native, a fourth-round pick of Boston in 1989, led Canada’s National Men’s Team in scoring during the 1992-93 season, helping the team win the Spengler Cup, and played 10 years in Europe.
“I think both those guys know what it’s like to be a player,” said Grizzlies’ captain Brian Nugent. “Jackson did a great job of assembling a great team for us this year and Geoff has done a great job of coaching the guys that Jackson has brought in.”
In large part, that first practice with Courtnall was the first step towards gearing up for this year’s RBC Cup. Not only did the change give Penney more time to manage, but it also jump-started the development of some young players who have become key cogs.
“When Geoff took over as coach he saw capabilities in guys that they didn’t see in themselves,” Nugent said. “For guys that were new to the league or were struggling offensively, Geoff gave them confidence to be great penalty killers or checkers. He just instilled a lot of confidence in guys.”
And this has been evident especially with a burgeoning trio of Victoria stars.
“I think the thing I’ve had the most fun with is developing (Madison) Dias, (Dustin) Mowrey and (Teal) Burns,” Courtnall said. “Two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old that I feel can play with any line in our conference.
“I have a big advantage because I’ve been coached by some of the best and I learned from all my mistakes. It took me until I was 24 or 25 to really understand how to play the game. The most important thing is their [defensive zone] play and basically disciplining them on mistakes and then giving them some more room to learn again.”
While Courtnall says he didn’t truly learn the game until his professional days, his experience in helping the old Victoria Cougars of the WHL win a league championship in 1981 will certainly be a major boon.
And if Victoria ends up kissing the RBC Cup this year, it will be that day in December 2007 that will be remembered.