Patrick O'Sullivan: Former King, Abused Child, Survivor
Content warning for child abuse and violence. Read at your own discretion.
When Patrick O'Sullivan was acquired by the Kings back in 2006, I was stoked.
I knew nothing about him, really. I did, however, love Pavol Demitra, the player the Kings sent away for him. If the Kings were going to give up my favorite player, I was going to love what they got in return.
O'Sullivan's sparkling numbers helped. I read that he had a great pedigree prior to the draft, but had dropped for some reason. I did not read about his father.
When Patrick O'Sullivan was traded by the Kings in 2009, I was devastated.
I literally renounced my Kings fandom for a time. I tuned them out for the rest of that season. Justin Williams was always injured! Patrick was gonna be great, he just needed more time! We'll just say that Justin Williams grew on me.
O'Sullivan had a rocky NHL career. In what became a legendary 2003 draft class, he was believed to have all of the skills to be a top five draft pick. Unfortunately, he did not have the father to be a top five draft pick. He wound up being taken late in the second round by the Minnesota Wild.
O'Sullivan arrived with the Kings as part of a youth movement. A year after shredding the AHL with the Houston Aeros, he did the same with the Manchester Monarchs. Though he was sent down after his initial stint with the Kings, he returned to Los Angeles in much better form than he left it. In March of the 2006-2007 season, he picked up 12 points in 15 games. The following season, his first full NHL campaign, he racked up 53 points in 82 games. He was 4th on the team in scoring. His arc appeared to be following that of the Kings: up, up and away.
Then... that was it. That was his last positive season with the Kings. He was merely decent the following season. After a contract dispute left him out of training camp, I always thought he got a raw deal. It always felt like the Kings held that against him. Though his production had cooled off marginally, he was still having an alright season when the Kings dealt him for the then-oft injured Justin Williams. His Corsi was even pretty good!
I always felt like it was just a matter of time before O'Sullivan was tearing up the NHL and making the Kings feel foolish for what they had done, but it never materialized. I don't think it's entirely unfair to say that Edmonton had a negative impact on him - after all, they've done a spectacular job of driving talented guys into obscurity.
His hockey career spiraled from there. He was dealt to the Coyotes and immediately bought out. He was waived by the Hurricanes and claimed by his original franchise, the Minnesota Wild. He was sent back to the AHL. He signed on with the Coyotes again, but found himself in the press box or AHL quite often.
Years back, former Jewels from the Crown showrunner Quisp succinctly tied together my feelings on O'Sullivan, feelings that still rang true as recently as a week ago.
I never got much pleasure from Patrick's struggles with the Oilers, or his buy-out in Phoenix. It's just too sad. Like one of those "struggle against adversity/rising up against all odds" movies, only with the wrong ending.
O'Sullivan ended his hockey career in Finland at the age of 27.
I've always wanted to know more about Patrick O'Sullivan. When he was dealt by the Kings to the Oilers, I wanted to know exactly what he thought. I didn't want a canned answer that was going to keep him out of trouble, I wanted his true feelings. I wanted to know what he thought of Dean Lombardi and Marc Crawford and Terry Murray.
Then, I wanted to know everything else. What exactly happened to him growing up? How did it impact him on a day-to-day basis in the NHL?
On October 20th, Patrick O'Sullivan finally told his full story. He didn't pull any punches. He didn't hold back. He revealed horror after horror. Each chapter reads as a nightmare, except a human being had to live through all of it.
He was forced to eat spam and baked beans until he vomited, then forced to eat the vomit over and over again until he could hold it down. He was embarrassed by his father during his games. During freezing cold winters, his father would leave him outside in the dead of night. He was beaten brutally time and time again. Perhaps most horrifically, his abuse was repeatedly ignored - and perhaps even tacitly condoned - by those around him.
Breaking Away is his story of survival. It's his story of being made an ancillary character to his own life by his father. It's also a story of how we are all capable of being bystanders in someone else's trauma.
Adult after adult watched as John O'Sullivan made a fool of himself during Patrick's games. Coach after coach had suspicions of John's abuse behind closed doors. Some even heard reports from others that had seen it. Patrick's teachers watched daily as he fell asleep in class. More coaches saw bruises and scuffs and marks and wondered, but did so silently, passively. Patrick's own mother bore witness to abuse and assault, but never got him or his sisters out of harm's way.
For years, Patrick's abuse was as thinly veiled as it could have been, and John O'Sullivan got away with it. Had Patrick not stood up for himself, John would've continued to get away with it.
Patrick's story isn't just his own, though. Though his story is extreme, countless children go through abuse, and we allow it to happen. We hate it, of course. Hate is easy. Action never is.
The culture we have built around sports - whether it be hockey in Canada or football in the U.S or any sport at all - dictates that athletes have to be tough. It dictates that nothing else matters except sport and competition.
At Jewels, we have previously covered the deification of young athletes. This could be the other side of the same coin. We may never know John O'Sullivan's complete motivation. It's possible that was living vicariously through his son because John himself had failed at becoming a hockey player. Patrick notes in his book that he believes his father is mentally ill - not much of a stretch for any of us to say given what we know about John, really. John never had much money, and maybe he felt like Patrick was his ticket to a better life. Patrick also notes that John soaked up the time he spent with hockey's higher ups. He got to rub elbows with Don Cherry. He got to be part of the game that had expelled him because he simply wasn't good enough.
This all speaks to a larger cultural problem. Yes, as individuals, we certainly have to do more to correct the instances of abuse we may come across. If you do anything at a higher level of any sport, you've likely seen the type of overly involved parent that we're talking about. I work in the golf industry and I have seen it there.
What about the big picture, though?
John O'Sullivan would've probably pushed his son too hard to be something no matter what Patrick tried to participate in. After all, Patrick notes that he gave up soccer at the age of seven because John threw his soccer cleats out of the car window after a game. The reason? John felt like Patrick wasn't good enough.
Horrific man or not, the question that I am then left with is this: did the culture around hockey arm John O'Sullivan to be even worse than he already was?
Other parents ignored the red flags they saw because everyone fears getting involved: it's not my problem. Were coaches more inclined to let things slide because they were afraid of losing Patrick? One of Patrick's coaches said that he tried not to think much about what John was yelling at Patrick during games because John was yelling "the right things." John was screaming at his son, cursing at him, but it was okay because he was telling him to do the correct things on the ice. Alright.
Patrick played hockey at such a high level that people just assumed whatever John was putting Patrick through must have been working. Anything is alright as long as you score enough goals.
Patrick never got his redemptive moment on the ice. He never got the shining moment on the huge stage that he probably deserved. Yes, he did win gold at the World Junior Championships, but that's small potatoes compared to what everyone believed he had the talent to do. His NHL career is a cautionary tale for parents in all walks of life. It isn't just limited to sports, of course. The idea of a "stage mother" has been around for ages.
After O'Sullivan left the game, he began putting his life back together. After going through things for so long, he had a chance to sit down and really rehabilitate himself. He had a chance to work on his family. He had time to make up for what he had missed.
Fortunately, Patrick isn't letting his relative lack of NHL success bring him down. In releasing his book, Patrick aims to shed light on the horrors that many kids are put through by their parents. Furthermore, he's in the process of rolling out a program where he takes more steps towards helping those that have been abused:
Excited to be starting a program where I will be speaking to and working with people of all ages. Details will follow. #timetohelpothers— Patrick O'Sullivan (@realPOSULLIVAN) October 25, 2015
Quisp wasn't entirely right about O'Sullivan. Patrick's story is sad, of this there is no doubt. Where Quisp went wrong was when he said that O'Sullivan's story had the wrong ending. Only his hockey career did. Should Patrick channel his life into helping those that need it, his story might just be getting started.