Justin Bourne describes it as “a tense few days.”
Some months back, Bourne, the Sportsnet hockey analyst, sent a draft of his new memoir to his father, Bob Bourne, the four-time Stanley Cup champion with the 1980s New York Islanders. And if the author awaited his dad’s reaction with anxiousness, it’s because the book, at times, is contentious.
Though Justin was a professional player himself before mounting a successful career in media, his literary debut isn’t about hockey so much as it’s about alcoholism and family, and how the devastating effects of one can lay a beating to the other. Both Bournes, father and son, are self-described alcoholics.
The opening chapter of Justin’s book paints his father in a particularly grim light, detailing Justin’s recollection of a boozy 2013 family visit in Toronto during which Bob, before returning to his home in Kelowna, B.C., takes back the 1981 Stanley Cup ring he’d given to Justin as a high school graduation gift. In Justin’s retelling, his father doesn’t even ask for the golden family heirloom; he simply absconds with it. Justin suspects money troubles, pointing out that a Cup ring of that vintage can score a quick $15,000 on the sports memorabilia market.
And though Bob, to this day, says he remembers the episode differently, he does not argue with the crux of the book’s piercing opening anecdote: From Justin’s perspective, it was a heartbreaking moment of betrayal that drove another wedge into an already troubled relationship.
For that reason and others, Bob said the book was difficult to read. The 68-year-old NHL alumnus had previously given his son his blessing to write a book that delved into their respective battles with the bottle and the damage done. But not long after the manuscript reached Kelowna, that blessing had turned to cursing.
“That first chapter really killed me,” Bob said over the phone from B.C. this week.
Said Justin: “The first text from my dad wasn’t favourable.”
There is, thankfully, a happier ending to “Down and Back: On Alcohol, Family and a Life in Hockey.”
Thanks to Justin Bourne’s skill as a writer and willingness to tell his version of hard truths, both personal and familial, the book doesn’t simply detail the bleakness of an existence built around the dastardly logistics of procuring the next drink, and the destruction of life and liver that ensues. It also charts a path to sobriety that he hopes will help others. While the younger Bourne paints the deepest throes of his dependence on drink as a place of bleak isolation, he said he wrote the book to connect with people who can relate to his story.
“A large part of alcoholism is being around people who love you and care about you, but them not really knowing what you’re going through. So you kind of feel like no one knows you,” said Justin, 40. “You’re just a totally different person on the inside than how people see you … so I really wanted a way to connect more.”
The son who opens his book detailing the resentment he harbours for his father eventually recognizes that he has essentially become his father: a pro hockey player, albeit a minor-leaguer, and a full-blown alcoholic whose addiction threatens to destroy the world as he knows it. Not that it ever comes to that. Justin, a married father of two children, credits the support of his wife Brianna — daughter of another legend of that Islanders dynasty, the late Clark Gillies — for standing by him on the long road to rehab and sobriety.
It’s never a straight shot, of course, and hockey fans will appreciate that the book isn’t all night sweats and shakes. There are plenty of light moments amid the high-stakes heaviness.
Justin’s two-season stint as a video coach with the AHL Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs’ top farm team, allows for anecdotes starring familiar names. He answers the phone hungover one morning to hear the voice of Mike Babcock, then the Leafs’ coach and an old friend of Bourne’s uncle Ken, who is seeking an obscure scouting report. He is read the riot act by former Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello for looking scruffy in Lamoriello’s universe of the mandatory clean shave. (“Can somebody please lend me five f—ing dollars so I can buy this guy a f—ing razor?” barks the GM.)
Less funny is the day he gets banned from the Marlies video room for reeking of booze, just one instance that illustrates how alcoholism kept him from being his best during his time with the team. Though Justin said he appreciates the Toronto-based stability of his current media gig, he said the notion of getting another crack at being a part of a hockey operation is “still an itch that needs to be scratched.”
“I’d be lying if I said I still don’t want to win a Stanley Cup in some capacity,” he said.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Writing the chapter about his father de-gifting that Stanley Cup ring was “really difficult,” Justin said. But it was also vitally important because it articulates a kind of pain that’s never easy to explain.
“I spared a lot of details. I just needed to pick a story — a story to represent how hurt I have been because of my dad’s alcoholism,” Justin said. “And yeah, it certainly had the potential to hurt him, and it probably didn’t feel that good. But I was also at a point where I had felt hurt enough times in my life that were it to have hurt him a little bit, I could have lived with that. Because I felt like — not in a vengeful way — I had earned the right to tell my story, and I had run out of reasons to protect him at that moment, at that point in our relationship.”
Bob Bourne, for the record, said that it was never his intention to take back the ring for good; that he only wanted to borrow it for that summer. He was looking ahead to the charity golf tournament season, the domain of the ex-NHLer, where regular folks meet a Stanley Cup champion and almost invariably ask: Can I see your ring? Once the owner for four Cup rings, Bob had given one to his oldest of two sons, Jeffrey, and two others to his father and father-in-law. The latter two, Bob said, eventually came back into his possession but have since been lost.
“I said to Justin, ‘Do you mind if I borrow this for the summer?’ And Justin said, ‘No dad, go ahead and take it.’ And that’s how I remember it. He remembers it in another way,” Bob said. “But what I didn’t realize was how much the ring meant to him. And I’m sitting here reading the book thinking, ‘What a dummy you are. Like, of course he would want the ring. Of course it meant a lot to him.’”
The 1981 ring, Bob said, has since been stolen. But that’s a long story.
“I could go into that story for hours,” Bob said. “But this is the most important thing I want to say: The book is not about me. It’s about Justin, and how he remembers his life growing up. His memories are different than mine in some circumstances, and that’s just the way life is, but he wrote it from his heart. And that’s important to me. So I’m happy for him. I think he had to get it out of his system. But I’m proud of him.”
Justin said that as much as he wants the book to help others — he currently feels guilty that he hasn’t yet been able to respond to the many readers who’ve reached out, a task he hopes to tackle more fully once he’s through the time-consuming promotional rounds — he also wants the book to help his dad.
“And I think he’s right, I think it will help me,” said Bob, who’s been to rehab three times and meets a group of fellow alcoholics every morning for coffee and kibitzing and support. “There’s no animosity here. He’s a helluva writer. He’s a funny writer. I give him a lot of credit for that, and I give him credit for having the balls to do what he’s doing. It takes a lot of courage to be able to write about your father like that.”
The best thing about the book, both Bournes will tell you, is that it’s brought them closer together. After Bob took exception to Chapter 1, Justin asked him to withhold further comment until he’d finished the whole thing.
“When he did finish it, he immediately wanted a fresh start. He apologized. He wanted to come out to Toronto to reconnect with my kids,” Justin said. “We have been in touch more since he read the book than we had in the previous year or two combined.”
By the end of the book, Bob said, he felt he knew his youngest son in a way he never had.
“When I read these things, I sat back and I thought about them. And I said, ‘Wow, wow, no wonder.’ I’m not a stupid man, but maybe I’ve missed a lot,” Bob said. “There are so many things he says in the book that I didn’t realize were going on in his life at the time.”
The telling of hard truths, no matter how contentious, has led to a softening of tensions between a father and a son.
“Airing out these differences, talking about it, and hopefully being able to have a fresh start, I think that’s only happened because we’ve had some of the tough conversations,” Justin said. “Our sobriety never really lined up in the decade before this, so this is a perfect point — both of us sober, in a good place to find a way forward.”
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