How do you describe the indescribable? How do you put into words the value of the priceless? How do you measure a loss that is immeasurable?
For seven seasons, fans of the Missouri Mavericks had the privilege and honor to watch a kid grow into a man, a man grow into a leader, and a leader grow into the heartbeat of an organization.
This isn’t the National Hockey League. Players don’t stick around one team for two or three seasons, let alone play their entire career pulling on the same sweater for the better part of a decade. There are no 10-year contracts. There aren’t millions of dollars thrown at players that will set them, their children, and their children’s children up for life. There isn’t coverage on the major sports networks, fan bases of millions, and endorsement deals.
This is AA hockey.
Players are either looking to make it to the NHL, or they’ve come to terms with the fact that they will never reach the pinnacle of their dreams. The latter now play for the love of the game. They play because this is all they have ever done, and all that they can ever see themselves doing. Hockey isn’t just their life, it’s their everything.
Some players hit, others fight. Some players score, others throw their bodies in front of ballistic missiles fired from a mere few feet away. Some players lead on the ice, others make their voices heard off. Some players show interest in the betterment of their community and organization, others walk the walk and get their hands dirty to ensure that goal is reached. There are a few players in this day in age that can honestly say that they encompass even a few of those aforementioned qualities. There are even fewer that can say they’ve even scratched the surface of most of those.
Andrew Courtney embodied all of those qualities from the moment he stepped off the plane in March of 2011. He was headed to Independence, Missouri, a place that would forever change the trajectory of his life. Little did we all know that a kid from Belleville, Ontario would leave a mark on this organization and community that will never be replicated.
A little over two years ago, I wrote a piece about Courtney, dubbing him “The Ultimate Maverick.” Not only do those words still ring true to this day, it’s hard to believe that he has somehow added to his legacy since then, but he has done exactly that. He has continued to work, to grind, to do whatever he could to remain a vital part of the Mavericks. Not only has he succeeded in doing so, he accomplished that feat by completely changing his game for the betterment of the team. The “C” on his sweater was always a foregone conclusion. It was always just a matter of time before this became “his team.” He has always put the success of those around him and the success of the organization first. He was the captain of the Mavericks long before that single letter was stitched into his sweater.
There are so many things that have been and will be written about his career. The numbers are incredible. Some of his records will fall, others will withstand the test of time.
When I sat down to write this, I wasn’t sure which direction to take. I could put together 1500 words just about the player he was on the ice, and that wouldn’t even be enough. Instead, I’ve sat here and thought about my experiences with Courtney. There have been countless interactions both on the professional and personal level. We’ve sat for hundreds of interviews, smiled for dozens of pictures at local events, and even threw back a few beers together along the way. However, I kept coming back to one moment. It’s embarrassing for me in some regard, but it’s such an important piece of my hockey puzzle that it must be told.
Most people don’t realize that I actually covered the Mavericks in their inaugural season, and half of their second season. By the all-star break of the 2010-11 season, I had gotten burned out. I just didn’t enjoy it anymore. I couldn’t figure out why but I just decided that I would put my dreams of becoming a hockey writer on hold indefinitely. Because of that, I missed the first days of Andrew Courtney. I missed the first hat trick and the orange cowboy hat. I missed the first impression that was the ultimate foreshadowing of what was to come. Maybe it was better that way and I’ll explain why.
I started The Sin Bin prior to the 2012-13 season. Again, having missed the second half of the second season and all of the third, I had no idea who Courtney was. A couple of months into the season, I received a message that Courtney was spotted at the Mavericks practice that day. That meant nothing to me. I didn’t understand the excitement in the messenger’s words. My response was: “Who is that?” In retrospect, those might be the three most ignorant words that have ever spewed from my mouth, and there are a plethora of other options to choose from. I remember texting Patrick Armstrong, who was the VP of Communications for the Mavericks at the time asking who Courtney was. His response: “Just wait. You’ll see.” It was a vague but intriguing response. Now I needed to know more. So, I looked up his numbers and they were pretty good. 59 points in 63 games the previous season. Big frame at 6’3″ and over 200lbs. It sounded as though he could really help the team.
Understatement of the century.
The next day I was off from work, so I figured I’d swing by the arena and get a good look at this guy that was causing such a ruckus amongst the Orange Army. I stood just at the top of the stairs of section 106 and watched. What I saw was a big kid who looked like he was finally at home again. The smile stretched from ear to ear as he joked with his teammates between drills, then his face drew stern and determined when it was time to get to work. He was a hockey player through and through. He wore the love of this game on his sleeve proudly, and the nostalgia of returning to that specific sheet of ice gleamed in his eyes. This was a player that was meant for this organization.
Throughout the course of that season, the burnout that I had endured less than 24 months prior still sat in the back of my mind. I was worried that it would happen again. I started to worry that I had forever lost my love for this beautiful game. That team was full of so many players that we all still love and reminisce about to this day. Colt King, David Simoes, Dave Pszenyczny, Sebastien Thinel, Ryan Jardine, John-Scott Dickson, Riley Emmerson, the names go on and on. With so much talent up and down the ice, it would be easy to overlook other players on that roster, but not Courtney. Every shift, every period, every game was played like it could be his last. Every autograph after a game, whether it was a breeze win or a brutal loss, was signed as if it was the first one he had ever signed, memorable and enthralling. It was really something to see. So many times I sat and watched as he built his legacy, brick by brick. The clutch goals, the booming checks, the salutes to the fans, and the hijinx with his teammates behind closed doors are as vivid now in my mind as they were when they unfolded before me. He fought the fights worth fighting, whether it was with his fists, or with his heart. He left everything he had out on the ice in every opportunity that he had to do so. I fell in love with the game of hockey all over again by watching #27 become the legend that he is today.
When that realization came over me, it made the following years so much more special. Even the tough times were moments to persevere. The triumphs were chances to show unending modesty for a player that had no reason to choose the path of modesty but did because that is who he is to his core. There are not enough words to explain what Andrew Courtney has done for the Missouri Mavericks, the Orange Army, and the City of Independence. I would like to think that there will never be enough words to explain what Andrew Courtney did for me and my family. The truth is that I am willing to find out because, for the rest of my days, I will tell the story of Andrew Courtney to anyone that is willing to listen. He deserves that and so much more, whether he wants to admit that or not. Not only has he instilled life into the bloodline of hockey in this community, he brought this incredible game back into my life with every stride of his skate, every accidental trip over the blue line, every bubble blown from his gum during pregame warmups, every smile uncontrollably spreading across the face of anyone that crossed his path off the ice, and every tap of his heart directed at those who have grown to adore him over the years.
Before I left the season-ending event on Tuesday night at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, my last stop was to spend a few more moments with this man that salvaged this once jaded hockey heart. I asked him: “So are you ready for life after hockey?” His answer as his eyes welled with tears: “No.” Well my friend, we’re not ready either. We’re not ready for our hockey lives without Andrew Courtney. It will never be the same.