The thing about late bloomers is that not only do they still eventually bloom despite their slow start, they also tend to flourish and sometimes even outshine those who were once ahead of them.
Justin Bourne has proved this point as well as anyone ever has.
While playing minor hockey in West Kelowna as a kid, Bourne struggled to make rep teams from Atom to Bantam hockey - the latter level being the one at which many critics assume that if you haven't been spotted by then, you're not going to be discovered at all.
The setbacks certainly didn't detract him from staying the course, though. Bourne put on some pounds and inches, kept working hard, and by the time anyone knew what was happening, the kid that kept getting cut every year had become a standout junior player in the KIJHL and BCHL, earned himself an NCAA Division I scholarship, attended the New York Islanders' prospects camp, and had played three seasons of professional hockey with five teams in the ECHL and AHL.
All good things must come to an end, though, and Bourne's playing career was no exception. A jaw-shattering slapshot to his face in 2008, combined with post-hockey career and life aspirations, brought his on-ice days to a close.
"At some point, I just sort of had to grow up," Bourne reasoned. "Playing hockey was awesome, and I took it as far as I could. I had some neat opportunities and experiences along the way, but during that time I also met my now-wife, who had her own career aspirations. It was becoming clear that I wasn't going to become an NHL hockey player, and she was finishing university and about to start a new career. I was honest with myself, and made a real life decision - for the good of my family and career, I decided to hang up my skates."
Bourne and his wife (Brianna is Clark Gillies' daughter, whom was Justin's father Bob's New York Islanders teammate from 1974-86) moved to Phoenix, Ariz., in 2009 to begin transitioning into that new life direction. While recovering from his jaw injury and subsequent reconstructive facial surgery, Bourne had started a blog - naturally catering to a hockey audience. Not unlike his hockey career as a youth, Bourne started to get noticed in the writing world - and again, before anyone knew what was going on, his work had started to appear in the USA Today, The Hockey News, Yahoo!, and other major outlets.
The move to Phoenix was also made with the possibility of returning to professional hockey in the back of Bourne's mind. The Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL were an intriguing playing option while residing in the desert, and he could have continued writing on the side. Unfortunately, the team folded shortly after Bourne had arrived on the scene.
The dream was officially snuffed out, and a writer Bourne had become.
"It would have been interesting to have written while playing," Bourne said. "When the Roadrunners folded, I said to myself, 'well, I guess I'm a writer now, officially.' The decision was kind of made for me, and since then I haven't really looked back."
Bourne's writing eventually caught the eye of The Score, one of Canada's major sports media networks based in Toronto. He was hired as the editor for their hockey blog, entitled "Backhand Shelf", and now resides in the home of the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays - aka, the centre of the hockey universe.
His writing has a way of connecting with hockey fans in a fashion that other writers cannot. Bourne has again become a standout - but this time among his peers in the hockey media world, instead of on the ice. Bourne believes his playing experience has a lot to do with his success in this new realm.
"My having played pro hockey gave my words more weight," Bourne suggested. "When hockey fans read an article written by someone who didn't play, it doesn't always hold the clout to them that it would if it were coming from a hockey player instead. The words of former players seem to mean more to people. Readers know what we say isn't guesswork, but that it's coming from experience, and that makes writers like me more readable. The conversational tone I write with is carried over directly from the hockey dressing room. Being able to use slang and talk the way you would to your buddy about hockey without sounding pretentious - that tone is appealing to hockey fans."
In particular, a few topics that Bourne penned posts about which attracted high volumes of publicity were regarding homosexuality and drugs in hockey. The attention they drew even landed him multiple TV appearances on TSN's Off The Record.
"There were a couple of controversial posts I wrote," recalled Bourne. "One on the lack of steroid testing in hockey, and one on painkillers in hockey, but I'm definitely most proud of the article I wrote about homophobia in the game. They're all topics that a writer uniquely would have to have played hockey to be able to write with any credibility. I don't think there's too much out there that's similar to what I wrote. They've been some of the more influential things I've done."
These days, with the NHL lockout still in effect, writing about hockey has proven challenging for some sports networks. Fortunately for Bourne, it seems that Backhand Shelf's unique angle on hockey hasn't seen the attention of their readers wane.
"We haven't seen a decline in traffic at all," Bourne said. "We're in a perfect situation. NHL.com cannot legally use the name, likeness, or image of any locked-out player. Even networks like CBC and TSN are limited in what they can say and do. I'm allowed to swear, be irreverent and speculate. I can write about the AHL, KHL, post about my own experiences - we can write about whatever. We have a lot more wiggle room, and people have kept reading."
Though now a Toronto resident, Bourne still holds fond memories of the days he lived in Kelowna, where he still visits periodically. One accomplishment from that time which he still holds dear is something that hasn't been duplicated by another West Kelowna minor hockey team since he last played for the Westside Grizzlies in 1999-00.
"One of the things I'm still most proud of is being the first and only hockey team from West Kelowna at any level to win the provincial championship," Bourne said of his Midget AA team whose banner still hangs alone in Jim Lind Arena.
With Justin's father, Bob, running the Hockey Greats Fantasy Camp in Kelowna every summer, and his brother, Jeff, emerging on the local sledge hockey scene, there's still plenty of Bourne involved in Kelowna's hockey culture these days.
"We're a hockey family," Bourne said. "As much my mom may not have wanted it to be that way, she was around it her whole life too. We're really proud of my brother being so involved in the sledge hockey community. It's a growing sport, and he's definitely one of the people who's pushing it along."
You can read Justin's work for Backhand Shelf at www.thescore.ca/backhandshelf and follow him on Twitter @jtbourne.
Dave Cunning is a former semi-pro hockey player turned writer, coach and personal trainer. You can read his blog at http:// davecunning.wordpress.com.