As I sit here and type this, my jaw is in four pieces. I’m equipped with two plates, 10 screws and a bottom row of teeth that would rival the finest set in any backwoods pub in England. I’m a hockey player, and this is my life.
My dad, Bob Bourne, was a hockey player, and a pretty good one. He won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders back in the dynasty days and has his name in the rafters at Nassau Coliseum. I’m pretty sure it was his name they were raising; it was tough to see from the huge shadow I’m in. At least I have the option of being a professional clown with these huge unfilled shoes of his.
But really, I never tried to fill them. In fact, I was never married to hockey. If hockey were a girl, I’m fairly certain I could go to court and get a restraining order. Hey, I just liked it. Maybe I led it on a bit with the late night games and the odd early morning rendezvous, but it knew what we were. This all just happened so fast.
By 16, I was six feet tall and built like Clay Aiken. After I sat down with my gangly limbs and convinced them to work as a team, we started to make progress. I stopped having disappointments on cut day and even started to become an efficient offensive threat. I captained our midget double-A team to a provincial championship, lead a Junior B conference in scoring, and found myself a part of one of the best organizations in Junior A hockey with the Vernon Vipers. Doors started to open.
After enduring a barrage of oranges, threats of death by gas and repeatedly having my sexuality questioned by my coach, I went on to have success there, too. We won a championship and I earned a full ride college scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage, an NCAA Division I program in a conference with more national titles than any other, the WCHA. The Seawolves haven’t, um, contributed any of those, but we turned out consistent victories against major programs like Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Denver – consistent being a generous adjective.
College was the best time of my life. Nothing I’ve experienced as a professional so far has compared to skating out in front of 10,000 college kids in Minnesota, the band playing and the whole crowd chanting that we suck. College hockey is an experience I’m blessed to have had. It gave me an education and my best sports memories, like sweeping North Dakota, beating Wisconsin in playoffs, and installing a beer tap over our sink. Yes, the last one counts as a sport.
It was at UAA that I started emerging from Dad’s shadow. I led my college team in scoring for a couple seasons and realized there were some professional prospects on the horizon. At the end of my senior season, I joined the ECHL’s Alaska Aces so I could stay in Alaska to finish my degree, while getting a little professional experience. I managed to contribute to a talented team that advanced to the conference final.
My big advantage over every other kid with a helmet was that Dad had left a shoe in the door to Long Island when he left, so it was already a tad open for me. I had numerous American League tryout offers, but the New York Islanders represented a chance at the big time.
I’ll admit I did have a little moment the first time I put that Islanders jersey on. And the pleasant twist was, I really did well there, which I think caught the scouts off guard. Before I knew it, I was back on the Island, this time for main camp. Sitting on a chartered jet with Bill Guerin and eating a steak made me feel like I was at “Bring Your Kid to Work” day. It was surreal.
I wasn’t in the Islanders’ NHL plans, but I caught enough attention to sign a two-way contract with their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and their ECHL affiliate in Utah. I made the ECHL all-star team and spent the majority of the year after Christmas with the Sound Tigers in the AHL, enjoying an ocean view and rooming with Kip Brennan, who I’d like to point out I’m much tougher than (unless he’s back playing on this continent, in which case, um, sorry, sir).
But in this roller coaster career, going up and up for so long can be a scary ride. I just wish I had seen the drop coming.
For the 2008-09 season, I was off to training camp with the Hershey Bears of the AHL. It wasn’t my intention to crack their talented lineup, I just wanted to represent myself well and hope for a chance later. I had signed a deal with the Reading Royals of the ECHL, a team that had the highest number of call-ups per year, plus it had one other major perk: It was within driving distance to Clark Gillies’ house.
This may seem like no big deal to the average fan, but I happen to be dating his daughter, Brianna. Dating a hockey player’s daughter just sort of happened and is further proof of hockey’s unhealthy interest in me. I equate this to hockey calling me late at night and slowly breathing into the phone.
In the first contact drill of the year in Hershey, I got hit funny. My body moved, but my skate had found a comfortable rut in the ice that it decided to stay in. I was heading to Reading a day later with a freshly torn MCL. Reading seemed excited to have me. The doctors cleared me to play two days prior to the first game and I felt ready to play.
“Ready” to a hockey player is a slippery slope. In three years of junior hockey I missed zero games (largely due to said questioning of my sexuality by our coach). I hold the UAA record for most games played, only missing one due to a healthy scratch, the ultimate nad-kick of managerial moves.
And though I was officially “ready” for my first game in Reading, I was awful that first night. But, I had just gotten back on skates after a month off, so I gave myself a pass. However, I wasn’t so fortunate to receive one from the Royals. One game in, they traded my play-for-nickels contract across the continent to Boise, Idaho.
I decided to test the waters in Europe, but it was going to take some time to broker a deal. Idaho agreed to have me even while knowing I might leave if the right offer came along. Well, as I waited for a deal, my MCL took a run at Comeback Tear of the Year and sidelined me for another month. I made a greatest hits album of self pity in my head, combining distance from my girlfriend, car and friends, and played that on loop.
But I worked hard at my rehab and got the green light to go with the team on a road trip to Alaska. You know you still love the game when you’re excited to be included in a trip to Alaska in the dead of winter. It was Dec. 12th, my 26th birthday, and first game back from knee injury. What a birthday present! I was going to play a few shifts in front of a few fans who remembered me from college in my old home rink of Sullivan Arena.
What followed was something I’ll never forget. It was my fifth shift and we were cycling the puck in the offensive zone. The puck got moved back to our defenseman, so I headed to the net. I beat the guy covering me out of the corner and went to screen the goalie. As I got near him, I turned to look towards the point in hopes of tipping the shot. Our defenseman had fired a hard, aerodynamic blast unscreened and untipped, which hit me square on the jawbone. Now that’s a birthday present.
I literally said, “OK” as I was face-down on the ice assessing the damage, like somebody who knew they were about to embark on a journey of hurt. When I tried to bite down and didn’t make contact with my bottom row, I was concerned. When my tongue pointed out to me that, “hey buddy, um, you’ve got some teeth over here and others over there,” I was scared.
I’ve always liked writing and, with some encouragement and a lot of time on the couch, I’ve gotten back to it. It’s been cathartic for me. The last two months of rotating surgeries, infection and braces have really forced me to take another look at my life. I want my stuff, a place, and my girlfriend all the time, not just when we’re at home.
As this year rolls to a close, I doubt I’ll be able to play again. My friends who don’t play have always described me as a bit of a double agent, someone who played the game, but was able to give a little real-world insight to the ridiculous lives of professional athletes.
So now I write. Something gives me the vibe that hockey isn’t breaking up with me. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it’s going to keep texting me when it gets drunk, and somehow, someway, it’s going to win me back. Because the truth is, I secretly still love it back.
Justin Bourne plays for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin’s blogs at jtbourne.com.