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Former hockey pro Russell returns to family business

by Tal Pinchevsky

In less than two years since retiring from hockey following an injury-plagued season with Groningen of the Dutch league, Wyatt Russell has found a new and very interesting line of work.

In one of his first major acting roles, Russell appears in the new film by director Judd Apatow, "This is 40," as a hockey player who flirts with one of the film's stars, Leslie Mann, who also happens to be Apatow's wife. For 26-year-old Russell, whose parents are actors Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, the day spent shooting the scene was a unique convergence of his lifelong passion and his Hollywood upbringing.

Wyatt Russell watches Game 3 of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final with his mother Goldie Hawn sitting alongside Nancy and Ronald Reagan. (Photo: Getty Images)

"I went on an audition," said Russell, who retired from hockey in 2010 due to persistent hip issues. "I walked in the room and it was Leslie Mann with Judd Apatow. It was intimidating. He said just talk about hockey. Do you know anything about hockey? He didn't know that's what I did. You could see there was a shift between their work and home life. That's the way I was raised. My parents are actors and never brought work home. I didn't even know what they did until I was about 10 years old. We never talked about it."

With other films in the works, including one that will screen at the Sundance Film Festival, the opportunity to play a hockey player brought back memories of a life spent playing a sport that remains his passion. It started when Russell's mother was shooting a film in Toronto and his father, who played minor-league baseball before becoming one of Hollywood's top leading men, took Wyatt, then 3 years old, to a local rink.

"It actually is my first vivid memory. The feeling of that glide, I loved it," Russell said. "My dad went up to the ticket counter and asked how much to buy skates. I went home and he put me in a league when I was 4. It was the only thing I wanted to do."

Having caught the hockey bug, Russell climbed the hockey ranks in Southern California, even winning the historic Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament. By the time he was junior eligible, his family moved to Vancouver so he could suit up for the Richmond Sockeyes of the Pacific Junior Hockey League, where he led that team to the 2004 provincial Junior B title. After playing for the Brampton Capitals of the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League, he played NCAA hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville then started playing professionally in Europe -- first for a club in Germany, then Groningen.

Once injuries forced Russell to leave the game, the transition into a new career proved difficult. With his family history, acting seemed like a natural fit, but hockey always would be a big part of his life. So Russell was thrilled to appear in "This is 40" alongside NHL players Ian Laperriere, Scott Hartnell, James van Riemsdyk and Matt Carle.

"My parents are actors and never brought work home. I didn't even know what they did until I was about 10 years old. We never talked about it." -- Wyatt Russell on his parents, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn

"We gained a lot of respect seeing what they do behind the camera. It was a great experience," Laperriere, the Flyers' director of player personnel, said. "Maybe acting is his calling. His family is doing it. He did a really great job."

But filming alongside NHL players wasn't just a fun job for Wyatt. It also aided the difficult transition of letting go of one career while jumping headfirst into another.

"The worlds colliding was surreal," Russell said. "[Hockey] was something I wanted to do for a few more years. Part of my process of re-entering reality was just letting go. A year ago I still would preface that I used to be a hockey player but now I'm an actor. Now it's much easier for me to just say I'm an actor."

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