TORONTO — Patrick O’Sullivan has a strong aversion to baked beans. The smell of freshly-cut grass can send him into an emotional tailspin.
And even when he played in the National Hockey League, and the days of being beaten by his dad were behind him, he still instinctively scanned the crowd for his face in the arena every night.
The 30-year-old O’Sullivan seemed destined for hockey greatness, but it all went horribly wrong at the hands of his father.
In "Breaking Away: A Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage and Triumph," O’Sullivan writes in unflinching detail about a childhood of physical abuse and emotional cruelty. His hope is that people start talking about what happens in some homes after the lights of the arena of turned off.
"I think it’s a story that is far too common — maybe not as extreme as mine — but there’s a lot of people, parents or even coaches that think they’re going to be the difference-maker in their kid making it, whether it sports or music or whatever," O’Sullivan said. "You do a lot more harm than you do good.
"It’s important because the subject involved is kids, and they don’t have a voice of their own, they can’t change their circumstances, someone needs to do that for them.
"There’s a lot of people that don’t even know it goes on, it’s a very private thing, ‘it’s not my business anyways.’ A lot of people don’t want to know because it puts them in a tough spot. They think they saw something, they’re not sure, they don’t want to know anymore. That’s got to change."
O’Sullivan had a ton of promise. He was the OHL and CHL rookie of the year in 2002, and the AHL’s top rookie in 2005. He remains the all-time leader in games, goals, assists and points for the Mississauga/Niagara IceDogs franchise. He played 334 NHL games over eights seasons with Los Angeles, Edmonton, Carolina, Minnesota and Phoenix. He played in three world junior championships, scoring the winning goal to lift the United States over Canada for gold in 2004.
But away from the spotlight he lived a nightmare. In "Breaking Away," written with Gare Joyce and released this week, O’Sullivan describes the years of abuse, and the frustration with those who turned a blind eye.
He recounts, in gag-inducing detail, a dinner of Spam and baked beans his dad John — nicknamed "Crazy John" over the course of his failed hockey career — served him. When O’Sullivan vomited up the meal, his dad forced him to eat it. The horrific cycle repeated several times. O’Sullivan was eight at the time.
There were nights he was locked outside until morning. He was forced to run, weighed down by his sweaty equipment, behind his dad’s van after games. He was woken up in the night to do "pushups until my arms gave out…situps until my stomach cramped."
"When I came off the ice after practice or a game, I never knew exactly what was next, but I knew it was going to be bad," O’Sullivan writes.
"I’d be looking at an hour or two or more of my father’s conditioning program, running the steps in the arena stands like a hamster on a treadmill or chasing after the van for two or three miles. If he didn’t think that was toughening me up, he’d slap me around. Every year he was ramping it up: slap in the face when I was eight; a slap with more force and a kick in the ass when I was nine; a punch when I was 10; a big right hook on my jaw and a kick in the gut or ribs until I was gasping when I was eleven, twelve and thirteen."
O’Sullivan was born in Toronto but grew up largely in the U.S. He was already living the life of a hockey drifter, he said, by age nine, moving towns and teams each season as his dad wore out one welcome after another.
Fearing for his life one night at age 16, O’Sullivan fought back. He eventually got a restraining order, and when he attended the 2003 NHL draft — which saw him freefall from a projected top-five talent way down to 56th overall — he was flanked by two security guards.
O’Sullivan said he’ll carry the emotional scars forever. Sitting in a coffee shop in a posh Toronto hotel, he fidgeted in his seat. He said he has trouble sitting still. There are certain triggers, like the smell of freshly-cut grass. He was regularly beaten after cutting the lawn if his job was not up to his dad’s impossible standards.
"A lot of things around the game of hockey too, certain smells at the arena, stuff like that," he said.
"If you push a kid really hard, and then they decide to stop playing, I think a lot of people think it’s over then, but it’s a life-long thing, and it’s day to day. For me, each day, things happen and now I’m at the point where I can recognize the triggers. Kids that are abused, it doesn’t go away when they become adults.
"It’s the worst thing you can do for a kid. As somebody who has kids myself, I can’t wrap my head around it at all, it’s the thing I struggle most with. It’s the decision, for the adult to think ‘This is the answer, this is what I should do."’
O’Sullivan said he’s proud of his hockey career. He still loves the game, and enjoys watching his friends play.
"Hockey was the one thing that always got me through," he said. "And hockey has always been love-hate for me. It was what I love the most, but it was also the most direct thing that caused me the most pain and suffering and difficulties in my life."
He’s teaching his two sons — Nathan is two and Henry, four — to skate, but would be happy if they never played hockey because it’s a "ruthless business."
After spending the better part of a year writing his book, O’Sullivan, who lives in Naples, Fla., with his wife Sophie and two sons, is turning his attention to his future. He’s not sure what it holds, but speaking about this topic will almost assuredly be part of it.
"I’m just starting to feel like I’m getting my life back from the game of hockey," he said. "Taking control of my own happiness, that’s the biggest thing. Hockey doesn’t define me, and I didn’t realize that for most of my life because it was all I knew. It’s kind of like a new beginning for me and what I want to do next."