Coming out of junior hockey, Russ Courtnall was considered one of the top prospects in 1983 and the Toronto Maple Leafs selected him seventh overall in the Entry Draft
In 1982-83, Courtnall scored 36 goals and 61 assists for 97 points in 60 games. After being drafted by the Leafs, Courtnall appeared in just 32 games with the Cougars, scoring 29 goals and 66 points before being called up to the Maple Leafs, who were in dire need of scoring help at the time. As a rookie with Toronto, he scored 12 goals and 22 points in 69 games. Although his goal production was not as high as the Leafs had hoped for, his tremendous speed opened up opportunities, especially for his linemates.
In 1984, Courtnall also suited up for the Canadian Olympic team, which finished out of the medals at the Sarajevo Games. Upon returning, he rejoined the Maple Leafs. In 1985-86, Courtnall broke the 20-goal barrier, notching 22 to go along with 38 assists for 60 points. His offensive numbers improved the following year with 29 goals and 73 points, but he always seemed unable to please head coach John Brophy, who clearly preferred the big, rough-and-tumble type of players to that of Courtnall's speed and finesse.
In trying to force Courtnall to play a tougher brand of hockey, the club actually saw his offensive production decrease in 1987-88. With the Leafs braintrust clearly dissatisfied with their first pick of 1983, it was apparent Courtnall's days in Toronto were numbered. For a long time, head coach John Brophy tried to mold all his players into tough, aggressive fighting types, and players like Courtnall, could not play that way. After just nine games in 1989-89, the Maple Leafs dealt Courtnall to the Montreal Canadiens for John Kordic, who by all accounts was nothing more than a team goon. Although Courtnall's stock had clearly gone down tremendously, most observers felt Montreal got a steal in that trade.
As Courtnall joined the Montreal Canadiens, he was determined to prove to himself--fans and the Maple Leafs--that they were wrong about his value. In 64 games, Courtnall put up just 39 points with the Habs, but his lightning fast skating and breathtaking moves made him a fan favourite. Some said his style of play reminded them of Yvan Cournoyer of a generation before. Being more at ease with his new club, Courtnall saved his best performance for the playoffs, where the Canadiens advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Calgary Flames. In 21 post-season games, Courtnall contributed eight goals and 13 points.
Courtnall enjoyed another two-and-a-half years in Montreal before joining the Minnesota North Stars for the 1992-93 season. In 84 games, he managed a career-high 36 goals and 43 assists for 79 points. He followed that up with an 80-point season in the team's first year of play in Dallas. Late in the 1994-95 season, Courtnall was traded to the Vancouver Canucks where he teamed with his brother, Geoff, for 13 games that year.
In 1997-98, Courtnall signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings, where he played until his retirement following the 1998-99 season. He finished with 297 goals, 447 assists and 744 points in a 15-year NHL career.