Former Bruin Geoff Courtnall was saved, and now he wants to save others, too
VANCOUVER — The gold mine that Geoff Courtnall sits on is real. The former Bruins winger struck it rich in Peru, as the lead partner/investor in a mine some five hours north of Lima, where production currently remains at a standstill because of a tussle with nearby villagers who want their piece of the motherlode.
“We’ve got a great deposit, which is obviously why they are blocking us,” a fit and relaxed Courtnall, 56, said here recently, sounding not the least bit frustrated over his stalled riches. “They know it is a good deposit and now they want their pound of flesh. So we’re trying to work it out.”
Time, said an assured Courtnall, will resolve it all. A lifetime of staring down the clock, a clock once blurred by alcohol until a call from Cam Neely helped get his life back in focus, has given him that confidence, that faith.
Courtnall’s life of learned patience began in earnest, and pain, as a 16-year-old when his father took his own life. Suffocating in depression, the father of four refused to seek the kind of mental health services that Geoff and his siblings since have helped bring to their hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. Today, patients at risk of suicide can walk into the Archie Courtnall Centre at the Royal Jubilee Hospital and receive mental health care.
Another difficult life lesson came in 2000 when Courtnall’s successful NHL career, including 1,049 games (four-plus years in Boston) and a Stanley Cup ring in 1988 with the Edmonton Oilers, came to an end after a frustrating, protracted battle with post-concussion syndrome.
“I did not want to stop,” said Courtnall, who was then playing for the St. Louis Blues. “So that was hard. I got knocked out again and it was over. The problem is, when you are playing at that level, you just don’t want to miss a game, never mind realize it’s time to quit.”
The last concussion, by Courtnall’s count, was “probably the 20th” he suffered in his more than two decades of playing hockey dating back to his early teens. The worst of the bunch came in the late ’80s when he played for the Washington Capitals, one of a dozen or more he sustained in his 17-plus NHL seasons.
“I was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital in an ambulance,” he recalled. “That was a Sunday, I stayed overnight in the hospital, and I played two days later in Quebec! I just wanted to play.”
Then the most important and hardest lesson of all came on that day in February 2010 when Neely called to say that he was concerned about his longtime pal’s drinking. Perpetually surrounded by an abundance of friends, gregarious and witty and successful in myriad post-career ventures, Courtnall had drifted into alcoholism during his 10 years out of the game.
Neely, his former Bruins roommate and friend for nearly a quarter-century, saw it, sensed it, felt compelled to pick up the phone. Not an easy call to make.
“No, it’s not,” agreed Neely, who, like Courtnall, grew up in British Columbia and one fall attended the same junior tryout camp in Victoria when they were teenagers. “But I just didn’t want to be that person who wishes he spoke . . . you know, after the fact. I just saw a friend of mine that was going down a road that wasn’t healthy. I felt I needed to say something to him, in what I thought, hopefully, was in a constructive way — and not a criticizing way.”
A friend reaches out
The tipping point for Neely was the 2010 Olympic Games, hosted here at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Attending the Games in his role as Bruins president, he had been out on the town with Courtnall, who spent the better part of the Games out on the town, connecting and reveling with the likes of Neely, Wayne Gretzky, his younger brother Russ Courtnall (a veteran of 1,029 NHL games) and anyone else who cared to share in the Five Rings camaraderie.
“I drank hard for two weeks, basically,” said Courtnall, now able to laugh at what he calls, “the end of my drinking career.”
While in Vancouver, Neely first expressed his concerns to Russ, Geoff’s brother. Back in Boston after the Games, he was still troubled.
“It just seemed a little different than going out and having a good time with your buddies,” said Neely. “It just seemed like this is a way of life, as opposed to, ‘OK, I haven’t seen anyone in a while and we’re just out having a night.’ ”
Neely had come to Boston at age 21, traded from the Canucks in the summer of 1986, and it was Courtnall, 24, and defenseman Gord Kluzak, 22 — two fellow western Canadian contemporaries — who picked him up on Day 1 at Logan Airport. It was Courtnall and his then wife who left their door open for Neely, inviting him in every day after Bruins workouts so he could catch his favorite soap opera before making it home to his Brookline apartment.
“Yeah, he never missed the show,” said an amused Courtnall. “I think it was, ‘As the Stomach Turns’, or something.”
There was no kidding around when Neely called that February day in 2010. Without lecturing or demeaning, he made clear that he felt his old friend was headed to a bad place.
“I tried to be constructive,” recalled Neely. “I was not criticizing him, or trying to make him feel bad. But I was trying to wake him up to what he was really doing and how it might affect other people.”
Neely wasn’t sure how his old friend would receive it. Such interventions, no matter how sincere and heartfelt, are tricky. Like all addiction, alcoholism usually is accompanied by a heaping side serving of denial.
Neely would not have been the first friend with best intention to be rendered the earnest ex-pal of a problem drinker.
“Oh, yeah,” agreed a now grateful Courtnall, thinking back nearly 10 years to Neely’s call. “Even when he said it, I was probably thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, no . . . I’m good . . . I am just having fun . . . nothing wrong with me.’ But you know, when you don’t see your own shadow or reflection, and then you see how other people see you . . . ”
Courtnall quit with that call and has not had a drink since. Cold turkey. Unlike many reformed drinkers, he does not recall the day of his last drink or his start date to sobriety. He only knows he is happy to be done with it. All of it. He is clear-eyed, lean and fit, loves riding his bike and working out twice a week at a fitness center. His mixed drink of choice these days is cranberry juice with soda water.
Did he miss drinking at first?
“Oh, God, yeah!” he said.
To get over it, and in part deal with his divorce at around the same time, Courtnall blended counseling, exercise and religion, often common ingredients for those committed to overcoming addiction. He and his therapist, noted Courtnall, agreed that a 12-step group program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, would not be an ideal fit. He remains well-known throughout B.C., in part because of his charity work for such campaigns as the Archie Courtnall Centre, and he felt his public profile could work against him in group therapy sessions.
Nightly 7 p.m. runs were essential to his recovery. He was back living in his hometown of Victoria, with the ocean at his doorstep and time to fill on the clock. Run. Fill the hour. Race to the next sunrise, the next set of hours to fill. Patience.
“If I knew I was going to run,” he recalled, “then I wouldn’t drink all day. Then I started going to church — the same [Anglican] church I grew up in — every Thursday morning and every Sunday. It was all just a way of consuming myself with things that first year, which is the hardest. After that, it got easy.”
All things, even good things, come with a cost. Some of Courtnall’s pals drifted away, ties severed when he cut himself free from the partying. Those festive occasions had been his bugaboo.
“I could go a week or more and not even think about drinking, no issue,” he said. “My problem was, if I had three or four, I couldn’t stop.”
He has been tempted at times to reach out to some he thinks could use help now, the way Neely did to him, but has struggled with it.
“That’s tricky, I have to be careful,” he said. “The problem is, when you quit, a lot of people wish they could quit. So the guys that have problems have seen what I have done, and see how I live, and they wish they could quit. So I have to be careful with what I say. I try to tell people that it is a very healthy, great way to live and it’s changed my life. But I have lost friends that I used to drink with, hang out with, have fun with, who feel uncomfortable around me now.”
Long road to sobriety
The new and revitalized Geoff Courtnall, nearly 10 years into his renaissance, lives in West Vancouver, a short car ride over the bridge that spits out across Coal Harbour from Vancouver’s bucolic Stanley Park. Other than Lupaka Gold, his Peruvian mining venture, he dabbles in commercial real estate and construction. One of his pet projects, a gravel pit he owns in Victoria, has turned into a virtual gold mine.
“Only two employees,” he said, his entrepreneur’s smile growing wider than a gravel pit. “There’s the guy who scoops it, and the girl who is the bookkeeper and manager. She sits in the scale shack and the customers just keep coming.’’
For the past 15 years or so, the Archie Courtnall Centre has been the centerpiece of Victoria’s mental heath care services. The Courtnall siblings — Geoff, Russ, Bruce and Cheryl — helped start it all by raising some $3 million through fishing and golfing charity events. It opened as an emergency services unit and has since added long-term services for suicidal patients who need treatment for days, weeks or more.
“A lot of different things cause people to break,” said Geoff, depression a component in his battles with post-concussion syndrome and alcoholism. “Sadly, a lot of people let it go way too far, don’t see anyone, think they can beat it alone. It’s just a tough, tough disease.”
Courtnall, father of sons Adam (32) and Justin (30) left Wednesday for Cabos San Lucas to attend Justin’s wedding. A left winger like his dad, Justin played three seasons at Boston University (2009-12) and retired after four seasons in the minors.
Both of Courtnall’s sons are happy, productive and employed. The bottle is behind him and his dizzying episodes related to his concussions for the most part have abated. Life is good. No telling what might have happened if Neely hadn’t picked up the phone.
“Cam was the only one who had the guts to say it to me,” said Courtnall. “Lots of other people probably thought it — I know lots of my friends thought it. A lot of my friends here would say, ‘C’mon, man, you gotta come drink with us, you are so much fun.’ Where Cam was thinking of it as, ‘Holy [expletive], man, if you keep up this pace, things aren’t going to be good.’ ”