Column: For the Love of the Game

Jeff "Tiny" Bourne loved hockey – and people loved him
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Old Man Winter is back with a vengeance. That’s okay. I like the snow – and I love the hockey.

You can play pond hockey, drop-in hockey or beer league hockey, but for me, the best hockey is the pick-up game at Michigan’s Yost Arena on Tuesday nights.

The game features some of the best players in the area, most of them former Michigan players, many of whom played pro hockey. But a few wannabes, like me, have gotten regular spots. It’s by invitation only, and I only got invited because I knew the guy who started it. Jeff Bourne – known as “Tiny,” thanks to his 5-6 frame – cared as much about attitude as ability. As he said: If you don’t pass, you’re an ass.

Tiny’s dad was Canadian. So it was only natural that he and his younger brother, Roger, grew up playing hockey in the Bourne’s back yard.

Tiny wasn’t a great player, but he loved the game. Every year, Tiny tried out for the Ann Arbor Pioneer high school team, and every year he got cut. Every year, that is, until his senior year, when his brother Roger – a freshman who was already bigger and better – tried out too.

As expected, Roger made the team. But so did Tiny. When Tiny was driving them home, he told Roger he knew why the coach finally took him:

So he could drive his younger brother to the rink.

But Tiny didn’t feel slighted. He was thrilled to finally make the team, and watch his brother play, even while Tiny rode the bench. Tiny liked to point out that they were one of the most productive pair of brothers in Pioneer history, totaling 201 points. Roger got 200 of those, and Tiny added the one.

Roger went on to play at Michigan. His biggest fan, by far, was his big brother, Tiny. Roger returned the favor by introducing Tiny to Laurie, one of Roger’s classmates. They hit it off immediately. She said, “You’re just like Roger!”

“No,” Tiny said. “Roger is just like me!”

They had two kids. Tiny coached his son’s teams, he coached his daughter’s teams, and he organized our skates on Tuesdays. And that’s where I got to know him best.

On paper, Tiny and I had almost nothing in common, from our passports to our politics. But none of that seemed to matter. Tiny had a way of drawing people to him, and the game he loved – me included.

Six years ago, between Christmas and New Year’s, Roger was skating the puck down the ice, and Tiny, playing defense for the other team, stopped him cold. It was a great play.

It was also Tiny’s last play. He returned to the bench, sat down, and fell forward. He was just 47 – and he was gone.

At Tiny’s funeral, you’d have thought it was a service for a Hall of Famer. The standing room only crowd included Jeff Daniels and Red Berenson, Michigan’s hockey coach; Tiny’s teammates at Pioneer; and the girls on his daughter’s hockey team, sitting together, wearing their blue jerseys.

Tiny might have loved hockey more than the game loved him. But that never stopped him. Every year, he got better, and every year, he drew more people to the game.

What did Tiny get out of it? To answer that question, all you had to do was look around that church.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. December 18, 2009 at 11:04 am | permalink

    Thank you, John, for this lovely remembrance of Jeff. He had a huge heart, and you captured his essence beautifully. Whenever Jeff would call my show (which he did often)he would always make a loving reference to his wife. He loved his family and this community. As families head out to Buhr Park this winter, I hope they take a moment to read the plaque commemorating Jeff Bourne that is posted on the wall there. A poignant reminder to all of us how precious life is.

  2. By Cyd Debol
    December 18, 2009 at 11:08 am | permalink

    Amen. Great article John.

  3. By Liz Nowland-Margolis
    December 18, 2009 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    Thanks John for the great tribute to Jeff. I spent many a cold morning at Yost or Vets scorekeeping games while Jeff was a Ref. He was a truly nice person who loved the game more then anyone.