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Down and Back Review – A Year Later

Down and Back Review

Scott Logush

Editor-in-Chief

Down and Back: On Alcohol, Family, and a Life in Hockey by Justin Bourne, a Sportsnet writer and co-host of the Real Kyper & Bourne show that broadcasts on Sportsnet radio and on TV from 4:00-6:00 pm on weekdays was released on February 14, 2023, exactly one year ago today. I first learned of the book by watching a middle-of-December edition of Real Kyper & Bourne and was interested from the second I saw the cover. I made it my goal to buy and read it during my winter break. On December 26th, the day after Christmas, or Boxing Day to myself and fellow Canadians, I went to a bookstore in my hometown and got a hardcover copy. Over the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t put the book down and knew I had to write about it. 

The book covers all of Justin’s life, from growing up as the son of New York Islanders legend Bob Bourne to playing junior hockey in British Columbia, Canada, and securing a full-ride scholarship in Alaska. We then see Justin’s life progress as he rotates through some ECHL teams and goes to the New York Islanders training camp. As his playing career ends he marries his girlfriend whom he met as a kid, and pursues a career in sports writing taking him from Arizona to Toronto, and even becoming a coach in the American Hockey League for the Toronto Marlies. We see all of this while also getting the perspective of how his battle with alcoholism evolves and ultimately ends with him going to rehab. The journey is an interesting one, full of ups and downs and lessons that are important even if you’ve never played, or even seen, a shift on the ice.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but knowing how things progress does not diminish the read. Bourne is an excellent storyteller, using a writing style that carefully combines the joy of retelling stories from growing up, and some fun commentary on events while tackling the serious topic of alcoholism. You can see the humour when he talks about what happened after he broke his jaw:

[Justin]: Please don’t wire my jaw shut.

Doctor (bursting into outright, unrestrained laughter): Oh, we’re wiring it shut.

[Justin] (already heavily medicated): OK, just make sure I look pretty.

Doctor: More laughter.

A conversation between Justin and the doctor when he broke his jaw after taking a slapshot to the face, ouch…

Bourne retells the lessons he learned throughout his ongoing life in hockey, from playing junior hockey to securing a scholarship to play at the University of Alaska Anchorage, to eventually making it in the New York Islanders system, the same team his dad played for. One of my favourite parts about the book is that Justin uses the book to tell his story. Justin tells his story of growing up in hockey, as a player, coach, and analyst. He describes the lessons he has learned, the peaks and valleys that come with a sport where a moment’s hesitation can change everything, how he battled alcoholism, the impact it had on his family, and how he was able to get sober. This is not about being the son of an NHL Hall of Famer, enjoying the celebrations, parades, and glory that comes with being a consecutive four-time Stanley Cup Champion. Yes, those have their appearances, but Justin uses this book to tell the story of struggles, the strength needed to overcome them, where to find that strength, failures, and victories both on and off the ice. Bob Bourne receives his fair share of mentions in the book, but Justin uses them in a way to paint his relationship with him and brings it up more around substance abuse issues. Another part that stuck out to me is that Justin got his father’s permission to tell his part of the story as well. The significance of this is about the desire for transparency and also wanting to make sure that his father was okay with being mentioned in this book that covers many things a lot of people would never want out there in the open, like both of them being self-described alcoholics.

As the book progresses, the reader learns how Justin’s drinking did not start until he was 21. His relationship with the bottle was at first, and for a while, harmless as he would have a good time with friends but not be out of control and could bring it in when he needed to. A great example of this is New Year’s Eve of 2004, where Justin and his college roommates shared a Jack and Coke in celebration. A nice celebration with close friends, but very much in control. Later on, it became less harmless and got to the point where for road games he always needed a bottle or two for the hotel room and would hide some around his home to keep the shakes away. Some examples of this include needing vodka in a water bottle for the drive as he and his wife moved to Toronto to keep the shakes at bay, some nights when he was out late and told not to come home, answering a phone call from Mike Babcock while hungover and a time when he was banned from the video room with the Toronto Marlies for reeking of booze.

Justin talked about having plenty of good years from 2004 to 2019, with most or even all of them involved drinking with friends. One of his main fears was would these good memories be overshadowed with a dark coat of paint and seen as a negative trigger for his eventual problem, or would they still be seen for the joy that was experienced? The truth is, yes they are still good experiences and good times, the good memories have been won back. The parties with hockey buddies, great times at bars with his wife, and memories with his drinking buddies are still good memories. The ability to colour those memories with a dark shade or keep them light remains in the hands of the person and their own behaviour. Things had to get worse before they got better, but things can get better and a person can choose what rock bottom looks like for them. When a low is hit, the choice is there to keep digging down or to climb up. Justin was, and still is, surrounded by great people who helped him along the way. 

He repeatedly mentions his wife, and childhood friend, Brianna who supported him through rehab and what is now five years removed from his dry date and the start of treatment. From encouraging Justin to pursue a career in sports media which began as freelance writing in Arizona to eventually moving to Toronto for a job with TheScore, going behind the bench with The Toronto Marlies, then returning to the media scene with Sportsnet, and the struggles of going through treatment, Brianna was with Justin every step of the way. Justin’s brother Jeff was always there for him too, especially when it came to sending Justin a text when Bri’s online status turned to single. Late in the reflections part of the book, Justin refers to his dad and loving the good times, the golf, the camping trips, the times Bob would make the three of them a full dozen scrambled eggs at a time that turned into a solid piece, an absolute brick of eggs. Importantly, how he tried every time he was with them. Last but certainly not least, Justin’s mother, who came to Toronto to help Bri while Justin was going through treatment, including sending him off with gingersnaps for the first day. 
Down and Back is an inspiring book. Seeing the comeback as an example of being able to acknowledge when something is a problem and take the steps toward addressing it while being able to remember the good times and good experiences as just that, good times and good experiences. It serves its purpose of telling a story while also showing people that they are in control of their lives, they can make the changes they want to when they want to, and they can choose what rock bottom looks like for them. It’s a great read for everyone and I cannot recommend it enough.

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