EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information regarding former NHLer Steve Montador. Sportsnet deeply regrets the error.
TORONTO — More than three years removed from his last NHL game, and two years since he last played professional hockey, Patrick O’Sullivan is looking to make an impact on the game and those who play it.
In Breaking Away: A Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage and Triumph, O’Sullivan (who wrote the book with Gare Joyce) details the years of physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon him by his father, John O’Sullivan.
John O’Sullivan was determined to see his son realize his own dream of being a successful professional hockey player. His methods for seeing this through involved endless hours of shouting in arenas, increasingly demanding training regimens, beatings, emotional abuse, and more beatings. Breaking Away is often difficult and disturbing to read, but it carries important messages.
“I’m not an expert qualified to tell parents how to raise their kids,” O’Sullivan writes early in his book. “I’m a survivor of exactly how not to raise a kid.”
It’s not just about asking others to recognize the signs of abuse in hockey arenas or in life in general, though, or safeguarding our youth from “involved” parents in sport. It’s also about what comes next, learning to effectively deal with life-altering trauma while attempting to navigate adulthood.
“Mental health is something I’d like to be viewed the same as going to get an ice pack from the trainer,” O’Sullivan says, shifting in his seat in a lounge outside Sportsnet offices in downtown Toronto.
“If I had been self-aware enough to seek some help while I was playing, then I would have been a much better player.”
O’Sullivan was a very good player. Scouts earmarked him as a can’t-miss prospect as he worked his way through the Ontario Hockey League.
O’Sullivan effectively broke free of his abusive father at the age of 16 following a violent physical altercation on his grandparents’ front lawn. He would be named the OHL and Canadian Hockey League’s rookie of the year in 2002. Still, his past followed him into the 2003 NHL Draft, where many teams passed him over due to concerns with his “baggage.”
O’Sullivan fell to the second round, going to the Minnesota Wild with the No. 56 overall pick.
“It’s really rare that somebody will have as much baggage as I had and still have their stuff together enough to play at that elite level,” O’Sullivan says.
And play at an elite level he did. O’Sullivan scored the game-winning goal to lift the United States to a world junior championship in 2004. He earned rookie of the year honours with the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros in 2004-05. He scored 22 goals with the Los Angeles Kings in his second NHL season.
While his talent was unquestionable, years of abuse at the hands of his father left him almost incapable of trusting people. He struggled to meet expectations, his own and those of the organizations he played for. He clashed with his head coach Marc Crawford in Los Angeles. Hockey culture was not conducive to his need for help, and O’Sullivan was hardly ready to ask for it.
“Teams aren’t really prepared for something like that, but I think they need to be because it’s more than a thing you need to address right after you’re drafted or right after you start,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s a career-long thing.”
“There’s literally nothing there for it [mental health]. That’s a culture thing. As long as you’re doing enough on the ice, they don’t second-guess anything you do. That’s pro sports.
“I was on the edge of knowing I needed to get help, but then the next day would be a really good day for me so I would be like ‘Oh, I’m OK.’ ”
O’Sullivan stays in contact with many of his friends who still play. He says the NHL and NHLPA are doing a better job today of dealing with mental health, and in particular players’ transition to life after hockey, but there’s still much work to be done.
“It’s changing slowly, yeah. The only reason is because it’s coming from players… guys like Dan [Carcillo] that are willing to put themselves out there. That’s the way it’s got to be done,” O’Sullivan says.
“What Dan did kind of embarrassed the NHLPA, and there is a program now that they’re trying to institute.”
Carcillo recently launched Chapter 5, a foundation named after Steve Montador’s number aimed at helping hockey players transition to life after the game.
Breaking Away is O’Sullivan’s contribution to important conversations. He hopes it can help a parent recognize when they’re pushing their children too far, whether through sports, school, or performance. He hopes it helps others recognize the signs of abuse and lend a child the help he was never extended as a young boy.
O’Sullivan is 30 years old and finished playing hockey. In fact, he stepped on the ice for the first time since he last played in the Finnish Elite League in 2013 just two weeks ago when he started to teach his eldest son how to skate. Still, he thinks there’s an opportunity for himself to work in the game and foster change.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now, and I’m OK with not knowing,” O’Sullivan says. “I’d like to get back into the game on some level. I live in South Florida, which isn’t ideal for getting back into hockey, but there’s business things I could get involved in.”
For now O’Sullivan is happy to spend his time with his wife and two young boys, golfing or going out on a boat during his free time.
“I was told for almost 30 years what I was going to do, by the minute,” he says. “Whether it was how I was growing up, or as an athlete with a routine. It took me a long time after I stopped playing to be OK with who I am and what defines me. It’s certainly not hockey.
“Whatever I do next will be on my own terms.”