Patrick O'Sullivan Interview, Transcript and Audio
The full transcript and audio from the first part of our Patrick O'Sullivan interview. Focuses on child abuse and mental health.
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I'm with Patrick O'Sullivan today. I'm Nick Chapin from Jewels from the Crown. Patrick just released a book called "Breaking Away." It's his story about how he grew up with an abusive father and then played in the NHL with his own history and how that affected his life.
How is the book doing, Patrick?
Ah thanks for having me on. It's doing really well actually. It's doing better than almost anybody anticipated it would. So, you know, that's really exciting. I know it made the bestsellers list in Canada, and it's top 20 in sports books in the U.S. which is really hard to get into if you're associated with hockey as I'm sure most people probably realize. A lot of good things have come of it already. I'm starting a program where I'm gonna travel around and speak to kids and their parents. A couple of different Domestic Violence organizations have come to me and asked me to be a spokesperson. So it's good, I think I'm gonna be able to really do what I want. Which is hopefully educate some people and try to create more awareness about the situation. It's out there more than people think.
Now most of the focus on your book has been about growing up with your father and how rough that was. Obviously there should be a lot of focus on that with how children are abused and how the culture of hockey worship, especially in Canada, affects how kids grow up. Later in the book, you get to the mental health portion of your life and how you dealt with that and how teams dealt with that. Is that something else you're trying to raise awareness toward?
Yeah, definitely. That's kinda the second part of the book that, as I was doing it, it kinda just developed. My good friend Dan Carcillo's started a charity that I think a lot of people have heard about by now in honor of Steve Montador and his passing. It all has to do with mental health in sports, and for there to be more place by the teams and even our own union. It's a situation where nobody really wants to admit that there's nothing in place. I think teams don't know how to handle it, and I think there needs to be something in place where a guy can feel comfortable enough in asking for help and not be worried about job security or the coach finding out or the GM finding out. For 99% of the guys that play any sport, they're worried about their job and who knows what. It's the same thing with concussions that weren't getting reported for decades because it was something that could be held against you. I know through my own experience playing the game that even given my history, teams - everybody knew that I ever played for. They knew there was something there, as far as my background. I wasn't asked by one team if I needed anything or could maybe use some help. The one time where I actually came to an organization - I was in Edmonton - and asked for help, it was basically like they ignored what I had said. That's just something that needs to change. I don't understand it either. You have these teams and organizations that invest so much money into their players, I don't know why they wouldn't want to get the most out of their investment as possible. In hockey, it's sad, because we've seen a number of guys that have died, and whether it's through addiction or depression or whatever, it's all linked together in mental health. I think society is slowly coming around to realizing how vital that is for anybody's happiness. That includes athletes.
Totally true. Going back to Dan Carcillo for a minute, you guys played 20 games together when you were in juniors - is that the only time you really connected and you guys just stayed friends after that?
Yeah, I had known him before I played with him. We both lived in the same area, and in the off-season as well when we were playing pro, just outside of Toronto. I've known him for 15 years now. He was the best man at my wedding. There's a group of us too - Kyle Quincey I played junior with. A few other guys I've really stayed in touch with. He's got something good in place right now, and it's really what he's trying to do right now is make sure that guys have something in place before they retire. Similar to the job security comment I made, 99% of guys don't know when they're going to stop playing. Sometimes you have no foresight as to when any of that's gonna happen. Most guys aren't prepared. They don't wanna think about the fact that they might be done playing soon. There wasn't much in the way of a program that our own union had, which is really unfortunate. Dan's got something in place and he's getting a lot of people on board with him. He's got some different doctors that are going to be able to help with that whole process. It's really about trying to find out what you're interested in doing after the game. That's something that's basically nonexistent at this point.
So, with you, what are your plans for after the game? You've wrote the book, you're publicizing the book now and you've got this program with trying to deal with mental health and child abuse. What are your plans for after that?
Well, I have a few small business things I'm involved with. For me, it wasn't something that I necessarily struggled with. I decided to stop playing hockey because I hated it at that point. I had seen the ins and outs and ups and downs of that business. It's a ruthless industry, and I guess rightfully so. There's a lot of money on the line. That's how life is in general. I needed to take care of myself and get some things in order so I could be happy with my life. I wasn't really worried about the other stuff. I was fairly prepared as far as that went. I'd always been pretty responsible financially and I had gotten involved in a couple different things. I don't know what the next big commitment thing is that I have in front of me. I'm okay with that. I don't need to have one thing that gets me excited every day. I have a lot of different things that I'm focused on. I'm involved a lot with my kids. I think, for me at least, there was a lot more to stopping playing and trying to find the next thing. I think a lot of guys are just trying to figure out how they're gonna make money once they retire. For most guys, they don't wanna stop playing. It's hard to leave the game and there's a lot of difficulty in accepting it's over. The hardest thing about stopping playing professional sports is that you know no matter what you do next - even if you end up making more money than you did as an athlete - you're never gonna come out to 20,000 people cheering. You're never gonna have that adrenaline rush. I guess it's a little bit depressing to think about that. I think that's what a lot of guys struggle with.
Back when you were younger, was there ever a time when non-coaching adults ever pulled you aside or pulled your dad aside to offer you any help at all?
No. There was nobody who thought there was anything serious enough going on to do anything about it. Up until I was 15, 16, I had a couple coaches ask me what was going on. I had a coach in the US National Development Program that had a minor altercation with my father trying to explain to him what was going to happen if he kept doing what he was doing. Funny enough, the coach was right. I went back and I talked to at least 10 different old coaches I had as a kid and other parents of kids that I played with and they, for the most part, were regretful in how they basically didn't do anything. I think back then, it was looked at as kind of a... "it's not happening under my roof, it's none of my business" type of thing and everyone just wanted to stay out of it. That being said, I think more people - if they knew the seriousness of what was going on - probably would've still, even 20 years ago, would've done something as far as getting authorities involved or something like that. My dad was very calculated. Most of the abuse happened in my house. It was rarely in public, if at all. That's the thing with these situations. 99 out of 100 times, the person that's abusing their kids, they know it's wrong. They know that other people think it's wrong. They might not think it's wrong, they think it's what they're gonna do to make their kid better. It's a form of discipline for some people. They know it's not acceptable for the vast majority of people. So they're gonna be calculated, they're gonna do it behind closed doors. That's why it's so important for other parents to be vigilant and if you think there's anything going on at all, you need to notify the police or social services and let them look into it. Because they will! They'll find out if something's going on or not. That's really the responsible thing to do.
That's just the direct interaction you have with those people, but what about on a larger scale at a cultural level? Is there anything we can do to prevent the next version of your father - maybe not the next version of your father because he was so extreme, but those ones that minorly veer over into a situation where a child is being pushed beyond what they wanna do. Where we just kinda don't make these kids out to be athletes and nothing else. Is there anything we can do at a societal level that we can do to affect that?
I think the number one thing is that parents need to realize they're not gonna be the difference maker in their child becoming elite in anything. What that means is, either your kid has it or he doesn't, or she doesn't. It's not something you're going to drive into them. It's not something you're gonna be able to brainwash them into thinking. The kids that make it to the NHL that are playing hockey as kids, they're... the kids who make it, they make it because of the amount of time they spend with the game on their own terms. It's not the extra ice time one day a week that the parent makes the kid go to. It's not the overcoaching or any of that stuff. It's the kid that sacrifices his own free time. The older you get, you have to sacrifice social activities and kids playing video games and all that stuff. Those are the things that the kids give up because they love what they're doing and they don't even realize it. They're just doing what they want. That's practicing at their craft - whatever it is. That's why I made it. I didn't make it because my dad had me on some crazy program trying to turn me into the next Wayne Gretzky. I made it because I loved hockey and that's all I really wanted to do as a kid. I spent every waking minute I had doing something with hockey.
And uh, your training regimen was almost what they went through in the Red Army, which if anyone has seen that movie, it's pretty absurd what they put those guys through. And you were just a kid a doing it! You said yourself, if you just had a normal parent - not even a good parent, but just a normal parent, you would've been two times the player.
Oh, yeah, I think so. If I just had someone that took me to the rink and took me home, I woulda been - there's no doubt in my mind - I would've been a lot better. I'd still be playing right now for sure. That's the other thing - by the time I was 27, 28 years old, I felt like I had put in 20 years professionally at that point, just because of the intensity of what I was doing since I was 5 or 6 years old. I didn't have anything left in the tank to play another 5 to 10 years in professional hockey. I just didn't have it in me. My body felt older. Mentally, I was just sick of it. It had been 24/7 for me since I was 6 years old. The amount of kids who are pushed beyond where they should be, almost all of them end up quitting the game by the time they're 15, 16 once they see what else is available in life. You don't ever really hear about stories like mine because the kid never ends up making it. The odds are stacked against you to start with, then you have to deal with all the difficult things that kids have to do when they're in my situation, they just never end up playing. You're gonna do a lot more damage than you can possibly think, I think, as a parent, if you're gonna approach trying to make your kid better in a sport or music, or in education it happens too. Like I said to you earlier, if you just do the best you can for your kid and be supportive, if they're gonna make it, they're gonna make it on their own. It's not gonna be the parents that's the difference maker.
That kinda veers into your NHL career, where you've gone through this for 13 years, 14 years by the time you got a chance to make it to the professional leagues, to Houston with the Aeros and the Minnesota Wild and then you got traded to LA. You said that nobody really offered much support to you. Do you feel like, now that you've left the game with the guys you're still close with, that anything has changed or improved in the past couple years since you left the game?
It's hard for me to say. I don't know because I'm not involved. The only thing I know is what the guys that I'm in touch with tell me. I don't think much has changed as far as that goes. The other thing, too, that I understood real early is that... who else is there in my situation out there? We're talking very few people. Like I said, the odds of actually getting there would be...I don't even know how to rationalize what it would be. I think it's a situation where everybody needs to be more educated about the possibility of it. If there is a guy that has different things, and it doesn't need to be something that's like me (abused as a child) or anything else. Teams know everything else about guys, so there's no reason they shouldn't know if they struggle with anything away from the rink. I think now...5-6 years ago, if guys struggled with being addicted to drugs or alcohol or whatever, I mean, that was a kiss of death for their career. Now we see that it's not the kiss of death. Guys are able to get the help they need and then resume their careers. There's not this black mark on them like there used to be as far as how teams look at guys. I think that it took a long time for sports to get to that level. Now, I think the next thing is the whole mental health aspect. I think it'll get there. The more attention that situations like mine get, the more that people have to acknowledge it and you have to accept that that stuff goes on. I think it's everyone's job to be prepared to deal with any potential situation like that, even if the odds of encountering a player like me are astronomically small, you still need to be prepared. If you're willing to pay a player 3-4 million dollars like I was getting paid, then you should probably do everything you can to get the most out of that investment.
There's totally a stigma about it where like...did the players even help each other? Or is it something where you don't really wanna talk to a player because if It gets out at all, it's just a black mark on your career, or it was, it definitely feels like it's better now.
Well, I mean, there's some guys on every team that you don't wanna say anything to because you just don't trust them with the information. I think guys talk amongst themselves for sure. Hockey's such a macho, old school mentality type of sport that there's not a lot of any of that going on, even amongst the players. Again, for the most part, guys are competing with other guys on their teams for jobs year in, year out. That's just not something that really gets brought up. If somebody's struggling with depression or anything like that, it's usually after the fact where the guy comes out and decides to tell his story through the media. Then, okay, other players are very supportive. Then the team decides it wants to contact you. Or then the union does to. That's kinda what happened with me. It's all too little too late. I don't need help now, I got help. I had to do that for myself two years ago when I stopped playing. Now, it's nice to hear from people. It's nice to hear from the NHLPA and them asking me if I wanna be involved with something moving forward. Trying to get a program where guys can not feel like they're on an island when they're going through something off the ice. Again though, it's certainly gonna come sooner than later. There's enough of the stuff that's out there now. Teams have to take note because at this point they don't really have a choice.
Obviously you don't really know for sure, but how many teammates - just kinda speculating with, of course, no names - do you think were dealing with something like PTSD or depression or chronic anxiety or something like that?
It's hard to say. I would guess probably 1 or 2 on every team. Certainly the depression thing is something that's definitely more prevalent than I think people realize. Maybe even people that are struggling with it realize. When you're a professional athlete you don't really have to think a whole lot day to day because there's so much structure and all you're trying to do is try to feel better for the next game. Especially hockey, it's such a grind. It's such a long season. You don't have time to really worry about anything other than trying to get ready for the next game. It's hard to take the time during the season to go and see a therapist or go to a support group or anything like that. When I was in Edmonton, I had a therapist ask me for tickets for the game. When something like that happens, the guy's not gonna come back. The guy's not gonna think that they can trust somebody like that, because they're not interested in what they're talking about. They're more interested in the fact that the guy plays a professional sport. I don't think all situations are like that, but that's what I experienced and it really turns you off from getting the help that you need or trying to do what you think can help yourself because you feel like it's not gonna happen anyway.
Just kinda relating to that, did you ever know anybody that went through the NHL's drug program when you played?
Oh yeah. I know lots of guys. That's what I was saying earlier there. That's no longer something that guys are ashamed of or don't wanna talk about or anything else. It's something that a lot of people struggle with. It doesn't matter what you do for a living or how much money you make. That's accepted as a problem that a lot of people in society have. Now, guys are given second or third chances, and it's good if the guy's able to make some changes and you can get your life back and not lose your job or your profession. It never used to be that way for substance abuse, so hopefully the mental health stuff follows that same path. I think it should get even more attention and guys should get as many chances as they can because it's not something you can control. You can say addiction is a disease - which I believe it to be as well - but you're still making a decision to go out and drink or stay out until 5 in the morning the night before a game. Whereas, if you're struggling with depression or whatever else, that's in your head. You can't physically do anything about that. I hope there's something...there needs to be a feeling among the players that if they have something they wanna talk to somebody about that they can go and do that with as much confidence as when they go into see a trainer and ask for an ice bag or they have an injury they want to get looked at. Those things need to be on the same page if everyone's gonna feel comfortable.
Now, have you heard about the Kings' program - they had all the off-ice problems last year - with Brantt Myhres?
I have, yeah. I had read that they hired him to help with that stuff. Which is great, I mean that's probably something you're gonna see more teams do around the league. It's going on and it's easier to address it that way than to pretend it's not going on and hope for the best, that none of your players get into any serious trouble. I think to be proactive with it is definitely the right way to go. It's the same thing for any of this stuff. Again, I don't understand why, in the year 2015, why that's not already established in any walk of life. Not even because the teams or management or coaching staff necessarily even care about their player, but strictly from a business standpoint. The amount of money they have invested in guys, I don't know why you wouldn't cover all of your bases.
For sure. With the Kings, they had the two incidents with Jarret Stoll and Slava Voynov which I think were instigating factors, but I think the biggest one for Dean Lombardi personally was the Mike Richards incident with prescription drugs. Mike Richards was a guy that had gone from the top of his career and kind of had fallen way down. I don't know Mike Richards, I don't know anything about him. I know some of the speculation about him. He was a guy that suddenly had to stay in the lineup every night. For guys like that, they can't miss a game, so something like painkillers could become a problem. With the drug program and guys going through it, was it mostly for things like alcohol and party drugs, or were prescription drugs - painkillers - just shoved under the table and not focused on as much?
Nah, I mean, it's anything. I don't know that there's...as players, we don't know - we're not told that Player A is now in the program and this is what Player A is in the program for. Anything like that you find out is strictly on a personal level with whoever the guy is that you may or may not know. I would say that, like anybody else doing anything else for a living, it could be a number of things that guys could get carried away with. For hockey, like you said, it's hard to, especially if you're a guy that doesn't wanna tell anybody that you're hurt, because you feel like if you miss a game, even when you're healthy it doesn't mean you're getting back in the lineup. That's something that guys struggle with. You see it in all sports. There's the obvious partying stuff that goes on. It just comes with the lifestyle. The difficulty of the schedules and when guys get to have some fun, sometimes they can get carried away because it doesn't really happen that often. You don't really have a lot of opportunities to do that stuff. It's tough. It's a balancing act. You can find yourself in situations that you really don't wanna be in if you're not careful. That's just one of those things that, again, if you start educating guys - it's too late when you're in your second or third year in the NHL, it's too late by then, you've got too much money. You've been exposed to too much life experience-wise. It starts right when you draft a guy in my opinion.