Launching Pad

For Bangor, Maine, Native Justin Courtney, Hockey Helped Propel Him To Professional Baseball Career
By: 
Kyle Huson

When Justin Courtney signed a baseball contract with the Los Angeles Angels in late February, a dream to play professional sports was realized. The Bangor, Maine, native knew he had a shot to reach the professional ranks as he got older.

The big question for Courtney, however, was would it be in hockey or baseball?

"I thought I was going to be a hockey player before all of this happened," Courtney said.

"All of this" was a four-year baseball career at the University of Maine, where Courtney garnered many accolades, including being named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.

But to learn how Courtney got to where he is today, you have to go back to the grassroots where he played (and excelled at) multiple sports. When it was soccer season, he played soccer. When the fall ended, the soccer spikes found the shelves and the hockey skates were sharpened. When winter turned to spring, out came the baseball gloves and bats.

"Soccer, then hockey, then baseball and off we went," he recalled. "But I loved, loved hockey. Like I was going to be a hockey player. I was so set on playing hockey."

Courtney recalled how Alfond Arena, the University of Maine's home rink, became like a second home during the Black Bears hey day when they were making regular Frozen Four appearances and winning national championships.

"My parents would call me out of school so I could go up and watch practice," he said. "I still have pictures of me with the team."

It's no surprise, then, that Courtney ended up as a Black Bear.

"One of the [Maine] coaches came to me in high school and said 'Hey you might have something here. Have you thought about playing juniors or the USHL?' I said 'The baseball coach just offered me a full scholarship. I think I'm just going to take that.' And he goes 'OK, that works,'" Courtney said with a smile.

Once he hit the college diamond, he debunked the old baseball adage that "pitchers aren't athletes." Courtney said his teammates looked at him with wide eyes as he completed the longest broad jump on the team, and he credited that to the strength and power he gained while playing hockey. He also said some of the members of the hockey team would invite him out to play pick up hockey when there was free ice.

"They looked at me like, 'you're not terrible.' I told them I grew up playing hockey," he said. "So it's just the skills that you'll have the rest of your life. For me, I could go play tennis or soccer or pick hockey back up and I could not fall on my face."

Courtney has fond memories of hockey, including being able to bond over the game with his two younger brothers. One of the highlights came when he competed at USA Hockey Nationals in Wayne, N.J.

"It was a blast that whole week," he said. "We went to New York City, and we also had a shootout. I got to take a shot in the shootout. I ended up hitting the post just by an inch, but we still won. The trip to Nationals was a huge one for me."

He ended up playing hockey all throughout high school and made it to New England regional camps. He would go to hockey camps each summer and watch NHL players train before hopping on the ice himself. His experience, including scoring a game-winning overtime goal that had his friends in the student section cheering, made it hard to stop playing and focus on baseball after high school.

"I was voted the second-best player in the state, so I was happy with the success I had in hockey," he said. "You know, as weird as it is, the warmups where you get the music going, you're out there with your buddies, those were always fun."

As Courtney prepares for his first spring training with the Angels, he has been working (and living with) legendary pitching guru Tom House. He said that House told him all of the skills and athleticism he learned from other sports has helped him on the mound, especially with balancing his body since he shoots left-handed and throws right-handed.

"It kind of balanced out my body, which in turn helped me throw baseballs faster because there was more balance in my back and my core and my spine," Courtney said.

That balance, he said, may have helped him increase his velocity from 88 mph to the mid-to-upper 90s and caught the attention of the Angels.

Courtney is a major advocate of playing multiple sports growing up and not specializing in one, something that is an integral part of USA Hockey's American Development Model. The footwork skills he learned in soccer translated to his play on the ice. The hand-eye coordination he learned in hockey, along with the strength and power, helped him in baseball.

"My advice would be to play everything for as long as you can, because you never know the skills that you can gain in one sport that can actually show up in a different sport," Courtney said. "If you pigeonhole yourself too early in your hockey life or your baseball life, you could be closing off doors in another world that you wouldn't even have thought of.

"Pretty much in every athlete's life, they'll figure out there's a definite crossroads... So usually that point happens naturally. It did for me. You'll know when you have to choose, but I would try not to make that choice too early."

Courtney's choice to play baseball and sign  with the Angels is hopefully the start of a long, successful baseball career. But when he thinks about the future and life after baseball, he knows one thing for certain.

"When I'm 35 and done with my career in the Big Leagues, I'm going to go play hockey. And I'm going to still be able to have fun," he said. "Down the line, I'm playing hockey and nobody's going to take that away."


Kyle Huson is a digital content coordinator at USA Hockey.

 

Issue: 
2021-05

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