Rise above it

Courtnall brothers deal with depression


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6Geoff Courtnall, the future NHL player, would come home late at night from his dishwashing job at The Keg and find his father sitting on the couch, staring into space.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/07/2011 (4254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

6Geoff Courtnall, the future NHL player, would come home late at night from his dishwashing job at The Keg and find his father sitting on the couch, staring into space.

“I’d be talking to him,” Geoff recalls, “and it was like I was not there.”

In a seemingly short period, Archie Courtnall went from energetic, fun-loving father of four to a shadow of himself, his renowned work ethic no match for the depression that slowly pulled him under. He took his own life on Aug. 6, 1978, at age 45, two weeks shy of his oldest son’s 16th birthday.

“He leaned on me like a close friend that he could say a lot of things to,” Geoff says. “But I was young. I was 14 and 15 years old, and I didn’t know how to help him.”

It’s only now, more than three decades later, that Geoff has come to realize the toll that took on him. He and his brothers, Bruce and Russ, another ex-NHLer, have used their celebrity in Victoria to pull mental illness from the shadows and raise millions of dollars in their father’s name to help others.

In the past two years, Geoff, 48, has come to terms with his own mental health. The end of his 25-year marriage, along with a decision to quit drinking, have forced him to confront issues long buried.

“I’m 18 months sober and realize now that I’ve probably had depression for a long time and basically masked it with alcohol,” he said in a recent interview at the Victoria Golf Club, where he and his brothers will play host this weekend to the third Courtnall Celebrity Classic in support of mental health care.

Looking back, there was never much chance to deal with his father’s death in the years after it happened. There was always too much to do.

With the main breadwinner gone, the family was in full survival mode. His mother went to work, and the children pulled together to do what needed to be done.

“I think my dad prepared me for it though,” Geoff says. “I worked with my dad from when I was 12 years old. My dad used to build a lot of things on the weekends, so I learned everything from him. We renovated our basement. We built fences and patios.”

A talented hockey player himself, Archie doubted that Geoff would make it in the sport, so he stressed education and the importance of learning a trade.

By the time he was 18, Geoff was running several businesses, building patios and fences while operating a hauling enterprise on the side.

A late-bloomer as an athlete, he played junior with Russ for the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Cougars while managing his businesses during the day. He’d start work at 6 a.m., take a break for practice at 10, head back to work, then grab a pre-game meal at McDonald’s before lighting up the scoreboard at night.

In his spare time, he’d work on his teammates’ cars, Russ says, laughing. “He’s not one to be idle.”

It was that work ethic, something Archie instilled in all his children, that allowed Geoff to surpass his father’s early expectations. Out of junior, he landed a professional hockey contract and worked his way into the NHL, staying 17 seasons and winning a Stanley Cup in Edmonton. By the time a series of concussions forced his retirement during the 1999-2000 season, he had played more than 1,000 games at the sport’s highest level.

Russ believes post-concussion syndrome may have been a factor in his brother’s bouts of depression. Geoff figures the illness was there earlier, but hidden by the physical strain of playing professional sports and the partying that went with it.

“I didn’t think I had a problem with alcohol because I thought it was my fun,” he says. “It was definitely a big part of playing pro sports, for sure.”

A beer, or several, after a game became a way of dealing with the pressure of having to score or the disappointment of a poor performance. “It just becomes a habit that, when you finish playing, is tough to deal with.”

Geoff quit booze last year after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where his close friend and former roommate, Cam Neely, expressed concern about him. “When guys start telling you that you’ve got a problem, or they’re worried about you, you’ve got to pay attention to it,” Geoff says.

With the mask gone and his marriage over, Courtnall found himself alone for the first time in years. In that solitude, he came face to face with the painful memories of his father’s illness and suicide and the reality of his own depression.

“I just think that I’ve carried it for so long that I never really realized I had a problem until I spent a lot of time on my own,” he said. Fortunately, times have changed since his father’s lonely battle. Back then, “it was something very difficult to accept and to know where to go, because he didn’t want to admit to people. It was like a sign of weakness.”

Mental illness still carries that stigma today, but thanks in part to Geoff and his brothers, there is less shame in seeking help, and often better treatment when people do.

Russ says he, too, has had bouts with depression. “I get into therapy right away because I recognize it and I don’t ever want to get to where my dad was.”

Geoff has controlled his depression through counselling, exercise and a rejuvenated faith.

“I always had faith when I was young,” he said. “We went to church. I was in church plays and everything until I was seven years old. Then you get into hockey and sports and you stop going to church.”

He returned recently to church, which he sometimes attends twice a week if his business ventures permit.

“That’s basically been my way to stay sober and stay healthy,” says the father of two sons, Adam, 23, and Justin, 22. “It’s just made me feel so much more full as a person and really given me a new way to live.”

Though never easy, his struggles and recovery in the past two years confirmed his passion for the work that he and his brothers are doing to shine a light on mental illness.

“I think the greatest thing that the Courtnall Classic does is bring awareness to people in our city just how deep-rooted the problems are,” he said. “I think it’s an illness that when people get it, they don’t know what to do.”

The Courtnalls have provided hope to many people. A few years ago, when Russ told his own story of dealing with their father’s death, he was struck by the public outpouring that followed.

“It was unbelievable how many people came up to me and started talking about what had happened in their family,” he said.

“I used to go to coffee at Starbucks… and normally I’d just go in and get a coffee and then come home. But it was taking me sometimes two and three hours to get home, because people were coming up and telling me some really, really sad stories and then some really positive ones.

“Maybe what Geoff’s story will do is it’ll help somebody out there who’s maybe going through the same things. I think sometimes when we have issues and problems, we feel like we’re all alone.”

The Courtnalls have shown that you rarely are.


— Postmedia News

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