One-On-One With Writer And Former Hockey Player Justin Bourne

Justin Bourne spent time in the New York Islanders organization.
Justin Bourne was meant to have a life that revolved around hockey. His father, Bob, won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders in the 1980's and Justin was involved with the very same club following a few years in the NCAA.

Afterwards, he served three seasons in the ECHL and in between, competed in the AHL. Bourne has now turned his focus to writing about hockey as a columnist for USA Today, The Hockey News and Hockey Primetime while also sharing thoughts on his own blog.

If you haven't read the 'Five Reasons Why Justin Bourne Loves Hockey' edition from Puck Daddy, I urge you to do so because it's a rare list that every fan should appreciate. Justin was gracious enough to walk me through his experiences as a player, his writing on multiple websites and more.

Fans sometimes have unique stories about how a hockey player touched their lives and made them fall in love with the game. Your father won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and I was curious how special it was for you to have not only someone to help you love the game, but a terrific role model right in your home?

Dad's role in my love of hockey was actually more during my formative years. With the help of my Mom, they got me skating early, took me to games, into the dressing rooms and just generally around the sport (like the time he made me put baby powder in Luc Robitaille's blow dryer just before he used it - how can you not love the game after that?). 

In my later years, Dad coached hockey in the US (the then IHL/AHL Utah Grizzlies), and it was my Mom taking me to practices everyday and dealing with the life of a traveling hockey punk. In the end, I never had any pressure to play from either side, so I was able to find my love of the game the right way.

In your playing days, did you ever feel any pressure because of your father's accomplishments and how high he set the bar?

Apparently I should have read the second question before answering the first. But seriously, not at all. I think a large part of the reason for that, is I wasn't a stud minor hockey player. I could always score, but I was smaller and slower. I had never really taken "the dream" seriously, because, if I couldn't make the "A" rep team, how would I make the NHL? My second year bantam I got cut to "house" hockey, then got called up to the "B" rep team when some kid moved.

I hadn't considered playing beyond minor hockey at all until I suddenly grew about six inches in a year, then figured out how to use my limbs. Combine the sudden size with the goal-scoring tricks I used while small and slow, and I became a pretty good player pretty quick.

Could you tell me a little bit about your experience in the Islanders system?

Absolutely. It was the "dream I never had' come true. It was the dream I never dared to dream. Really, it was just amazing. Too good to be true. One year I'm in Alaska with my buddies, then all of a sudden I'm on a chartered jet listening to Bill Guerin sing the Lizzy McGuire theme song to Mike Comrie.

And when I got there, I think I was better than most people expected. I had just come off leading a NCAA Division 1 school from the WCHA in scoring, yet when I came to rookie camp and scored, people reacted like had done a cycle of 'roids in the summer or something. But, it got me invited back to main camp, where family friend Bryan Trottier became my mentor. He was amazingly encouraging, and probably part of the reason I had the confidence to earn a contract with Bridgeport/Utah in the Isles system.

They were great to me, and offered me a deal back and another tryout the next year, but that's a tale I don't have time to type. Just know that there are a lot of good people in that organization.

Do you think you'll re-enter the sport someday?

I think writing is my way of re-entering it. If I were still playing, I'd probably be in Europe, but now that I'm engaged - Clark Gillies' daughter - I was looking for something a little more stable, and I think I've found it.

Two part question: What was the best part about being a hockey player and what did you dislike most about it?

The first part is too long to answer. It's the "drug" of hockey that's unparalleled. If you've scored a goal at any level, you know there's nothing sweeter. Nothing better than a clean sheet of ice and a bucket of pucks. The camaraderie of the dressing room.

That said, I won't miss the travel, the mental stresses of dealing with coaches and teammates, and the physical grind of lifting after having an on-ice practice. Some days you feel like you're in prison, because everyday you have to be somewhere. Even if you aren't playing, you're practicing, you're traveling, you never just get to do what you want to do.

What would you say was your most memorable moment as a player?

Sorry, but I have to go "moment(s)" on this: winning the BCHL championship, beating Wisconsin in the playoffs, my triple-overtime playoff winner with Utah and pulling on an Islanders jersey for practice the first day.

What inspired you to make the switch from playing hockey to writing about it?

Well, I got my face busted. I passed the puck to my defenseman from the corner, went to the net to screen, and turned to look for the puck when it hit me in the jaw, and spider-webbed the dang thing.

I spent three months over three surgeries with my jaw wired shut and nothing to do, so I took up blogging after being encouraged by my Uncle, a sportswriter. It just sort of blew up on me after that, especially after The Hockey News took me on.

When you watch the game today, is there a player you see that reminds you maybe a little of yourself in terms of style?

Well, anyone I say will be self-flattering, as he'll be in the NHL and I was skinny and scared, but..... yes.

I kinda think I played like a less physical Corey Perry, or a less talented Steven Stamkos. It's really the awkward build and lankiness of those two that makes me say that, but whatever. 

You're moving up the writing ladder pretty quickly and one of the things I've noticed is that you respond to the comments of your readers. I think this is great because not enough writers do it and it gets the readers more involved. What other sorts of things do you try to incorporate into your work to maintain interest?

I think it's awesome that you noticed that. I don't have time to respond to everyone, but I think it's the way writing is moving. With the internet and smart phones, people don't want to read articles like textbooks, it's all about a community sharing information. My readers seem really unique, I've noticed from reading comments from other sites. My readers seem to respect each other, disagree constructively, and have way more good ideas than I do. Not only would I be a fool to not include them, I get half of my ideas from them.

And of course, I try to incorporate the players point of view, since it's somewhat rare to have played at a high level and still have interests in anything academic. I like to write the same way I'd talk, and to keep it light. I'm writing about hockey, for effs sake, not politics.

While were on the topic of comments, I've read many of your articles and most people have nothing but kind words for your work. Do you think being a former player makes the difference because you've experienced these things and have been there?

See, told you I don't read ahead. I think the readers like to know that I value their input, and responding to them has formed relationships, and a unique community. And as a positive side effect, I feel like those readers feel a bond with me - as I do with them - and they're more likely to encourage other people to read my work. If it has anything to do with the fact that I played, in my opinion, it's probably just because having played enables me to write with insights others don't have.

You write for a number of publications such as The Hockey News and USA Today while also updating your own blog. Does your schedule vary from week-to-week and also, is time ever an issue?

The only reason there's ever a time issue is when people don't think I have a real job, so I can do other things during the day. Like, say, now, where my college roommate is waiting for me to pick him up at the golf course. I try to give myself real work hours, so I can get everything done. When I do that, my schedule is consistent and I don't run into any problems.

Lastly, if you could change one thing about today's game of hockey, what would it be?

As per my most recent THN piece, the guys all have to start wearing visors. Its ridiculous. If I can wear a cage in college and see the puck, they can do it with a visor. And if I'm an owner paying a guy three million a year, he damn well better be wearing safety goggles, or when he misses games to an eye injury, I'm not paying him.

I want to thank Justin very much for taking the time to speak with me and wish him the best of luck in his future work.
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