ST. LOUIS — Geoff Courtnall was the big brother, the one who quit hockey to work at the mill and on construction jobs to help his mother support his three siblings after their father, Archie, committed suicide. Russ was just a kid, only 13 the summer Archie couldn't live with his demons anymore and made a decision his sons still can't understand, 20 years later.
Geoff was a responsible youth, Russ a rebel. Russ resented Geoff's efforts to be a surrogate father, but Geoff knew Russ was merely acting out the same pain he felt.
"It hurt us all, but it affected me more than anybody, maybe because of my age," Russ said. "I spent countless nights thinking about it and I couldn't figure it out. It took me years and years to put it behind me."
The brothers didn't become close until Russ went away to school for a year and came home to play junior hockey with Geoff for Victoria of the Western Hockey League.
"I was 17 and he took care of me," Russ said. "He had been around older guys in junior and he didn't want them to take advantage of me. He loved me so much, he didn't want to see that."
And so it was fitting that on the best night of Geoff's hockey career--a superb six-point performance in the St. Louis Blues' 8-3 rout of the Kings on Thursday--they were together again.
Geoff, the left wing on the Blues' most productive line, and Russ, the right wing on the Kings' checking line, chatted briefly after the playoff opener. They didn't have to say what was in their hearts: how much they wished Archie could have been there.
"He never got to see us play," Geoff said Friday, as the teams prepared for Game 2 today at the Kiel Center. "He coached all of us, and taught at a hockey school, but that's the biggest thing I'm sorry about. I'm sure if he knew we were going to make it, he'd have tried harder to stick around."
Said Russ, "The hardest thing is, he missed a night like last night. It's terrible. I play with young guys all the time and I see them with their parents and I just wish they would take advantage of the time they have. . . . It would be really sweet if my dad were alive to see it."
Archie Courtnall played hockey but wasn't good enough to make it to the NHL. He worked at a sawmill in Victoria, Canada, but was active in his kids' sports endeavors. His wife, Kathy, was always there too, running the concessions at the ballpark or bringing oranges to soccer practice.
When Archie became frustrated at work, he began to drink, like his father before him. His depression worsened. He began to talk about killing himself and failed once.
"When my dad got close, at the end, he'd say, 'You're going to have to take care of everybody,' and I'd freak out and say, 'Don't talk that way,' " Geoff said. "It was a long time ago, and when people got depressed there wasn't the help that there is now. Seeing him go through it was the most difficult part. . . .
"The first six months were terrible, and then everything started to get normal again. Everybody came together. We all had to start to do jobs, like keeping the house clean, and my mother had to go to work. It was tough. We still had a mortgage on the house. It was a real eye-opener. You hate to see any family go through something like that, but I guess when you go through that, it makes you a stronger person."
Russ vividly recalls driving home from the mill one day with Archie and hearing Archie ask if he wanted to go to Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan, a Catholic boys' school that stresses academics and discipline. When Russ said yes, Archie promised to send him. But Russ figured his chance had died with Archie. The following summer, however, the school's president called Russ and invited him to enroll. Russ never learned how the school got his number but is grateful he got a chance to escape the whispers in his hometown.
"It was good to go there, where I was just another 14-year-old kid playing hockey," he said. "And the same thing my dad instilled in me, Notre Dame did too--school first, hockey second."
To Geoff, Russ' time away "was probably the best thing that ever happened to him."
After a strong junior season with Victoria in 1982-83, Russ was drafted seventh overall by Toronto. Geoff wasn't drafted, but he signed with the Boston Bruins as a free agent. Both have enjoyed long and productive careers, Geoff landing in St. Louis as a free agent in 1995, and Russ signing with the Kings before this season. They played together in the NHL for 11 games with Vancouver in the 1994-95 season and have faced each other once before in the playoffs, when Geoff and the Canucks eliminated Russ and the Dallas Stars in the second round in 1994.
At 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds, Russ is two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Geoff, but both are fast and skilled finishers. Geoff, 35, had a team-high 31 goals for the Blues this season and has scored 360 in 1,018 games. Russ, 32, had only 12 goals for the Kings this season, but four were game-winners. He has 291 goals in 972 games.
Geoff is renowned for annoying opponents and Russ used to have conflicting feelings if a teammate hacked at his brother until Geoff told him blood wasn't thicker than team bonds. Now, Russ can view his brother's game objectively.
"He played great," Russ said of Geoff's six-point spree Thursday. "He's my brother and I support him but we have to stop him."
After the game, Russ spoke to their mother, whom both sons describe as remarkable in her ability to keep the family afloat. Long since remarried, she will be in Los Angeles to watch her sons play when the series shifts there for Games 3 and 4.
"She was very political," Russ said. "She was encouraging me, and she didn't say, 'Oh, Geoff had a great game.' She's proud of both of us."
Even if she can't decide who to root for in this series.
"She hates it," Geoff said, laughing. "She said it would be nice if it was the finals."
No matter the outcome, both have won already.