An Interview With Hockey Legend Justin Bourne

By Felicia Naoum

Justin Bourne is not one to live only in the shadows of his father, famous four-time Stanley Cup winner, Bob Bourne, but Justin does sympathize with his father, who like Justin, struggled with alcoholism. Justin’s new book, Down and Back: On Alcohol, Family, and a Life in Hockey, shares the good and bad on a journey that takes so much courage to fight every day (for the rest of your life). With his most prized possession by his side, his family, Justin takes it day by day and victory by victory. Being a former professional hockey player now turned Sportsnet host, among other titles, Justin is familiar with success, but I have a feeling overcoming his struggle with alcohol may be one of his proudest accomplishments yet.

FN: Why do you think alcoholism and you crossed paths? 

JB: In my case, I think it was largely genetic. But playing professional hockey led me to a number of environments – particularly college hockey, where partying is prevalent – where I was forced into contact with it regularly. It was there I started to dabble, and with my family history, it wasn’t long before it began to control me.

FN: Do you resent your father, or is he the one you looked to for guidance through your struggle?

JB: No, I don’t resent my father, but he also wasn’t the person I went to for guidance. I recognize that he’s had his fair share of his own struggles, which I outlined in the book, both his battle with the bottle and the concussions that have affected him. If anything, I have sympathy for what he’s been through. It’s never easy, but it really can’t be easy to get sober later in life.

FN: Some may think you had it all as a professional hockey player, so was it hard for you to fathom yourself as an alcoholic?

JB: I guess my slide into alcoholic despair was so gradual that I never had a “Wow, this is awful, I’m an alcoholic” moment. I had always just joked “I’m an alcoholic” out loud and to myself, and it slowly just got more true. By the time I went to rehab, I had known for years.

FN: Do we think people who appear to “have it all” should be immune to addiction?

JB: People from all walks of life are affected by alcoholism and addiction, though I can understand how those not directly affected may struggle to understand why those who “have it all” can lose so much over something you’d think they could just “stop” doing. Nobody is immune though, and there’s no way to just pay for it to go away.

FN: On social media, you’ve shared that you’ve been eager to announce that you are an alcoholic. You embrace the title of alcoholic, but is it a title that defines Justin Bourne?

JB: It certainly makes up part of the definition of who I am, yes. I like to think I’m other things first – a father and husband, a friend, a good neighbour, and employee, all that stuff. But one thing I learned in treatment is that anything I prioritized over my sobriety, I had to be willing to lose. Because without it, I may be left with nothing.

FN: There’s a negative stigma attached to addiction. Did that negative stigma ever impact you in your recovery journey?

JB: That’s hard to know, but I don’t think so. I think most people see it as a badge of honour, that I’ve triumphed over something monstrous to put myself in a position to have the life I aspired to have.

FN: It almost seems like society demonizes the addict but celebrates the recovered addict. Would you agree?

JB: Yes absolutely, it is a great observation and an awful truth. Public sympathy was not as readily available when I was struggling, and a reminder of how important it is to be sympathetic to those in the grips of the worst of it.

FN: What was your rock -bottom?

JB: Waking up in a hotel room because I was no longer welcome at home. The threat of my wife leaving me, throwing up on the side of my work after drinking wine in the a.m. … it wasn’t a pretty end.

FN: According to Justin Bourne, what does it take for an individual struggling with addiction to reach that rock bottom?

JB: The decision that they’ve already hit rock bottom. The reality is, there is no rock bottom. You can always dig deeper, make things worse for yourself and others. The trick is accepting that we all pick our “bottom,” and that low-bottom alcoholics are just as worthy of finding sobriety as anyone.

FN: How do we change the narrative about addiction in terms of getting society to judge less and understand more?

JB: I think this is it – talking about it, sharing our stories, relating what we’ve been through. Alcoholics aren’t lazy or generalizable at all – it affects all walks of life, and people need to see that for it to be normalized as an illness worth fighting back against.

FN: Some may fear that a life in recovery isn’t as fun as being able to have a drink or two with your friends on your birthday. Is it possible to still have that drink and stay recovered?

JB: No, no it is not. Sobriety and recovery is not a sometimes thing.

FN: Can life still be rich and meaningful without alcohol?

JB: More than people could ever believe. The value of being present, of having access to my brain, to strengthening the relationships that I had eroded over time has led to the best years of my life. I’m so grateful to Renascent, who helped me get sober, and my family, for a better life than I had ever envisioned having.

FN: Your book, Down and Back, will be out in February of this year. What makes your book and your journey stand out amongst others who’ve shared similar stories?

JB: The tie-in that relates to those people who aren’t alcoholics themselves, but rather those who have relationships with alcoholics (family, friends, co-workers), and the musing on how they should handle it. It’s hard to love someone who’s stuck in the cycle of addiction, who hurts you constantly, who lies to you. It’s traumatic. So on top of the look at my own struggles, I can relate to those who’ve tried to manage their relationships with an alcoholic.There’s also the hockey aspect – a chunk of the book works through my life on my way up through the hockey ranks and relates those experiences, as well as those of my dad and his Stanley Cup-winning teams.

FN: What are you most grateful for in your new life?

JB: The program, which allows me to have the things I care most about: my family. (I’m grateful for so many things, including my sponsor and his other sponsees, for my employer, my friends, and my support system. But in the end, it comes back to my family, which the program allows me to have.)

Photo of Justin Bourne Courtesy of Sportsnet