Sunday, January 21, 2007

The saddest story in hockey: The abused prospect

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine in June of 2003. I worked on getting this teenager and his family to talk about his abusive father for months. On the website of ESPN’s arch-rival Sports Illustrated their hockey editor called it “an excellent story,” which might have been a shot at SI’s own staff.

From ESPN The Magazine


Patrick O’Sullivan always looks for his father in the stands. He’s done it since he was a 2-year-old skating in Winston-Salem, N.C. He still caught himself doing it this season when, at age 18, he was the leading scorer for the Mississauga IceDogs of the Ontario junior league. And at the NHL draft in Nashville, before he even takes a seat, O’Sullivan will look around the arena, searching for his father.
But this isn’t Jim Craig trying to find his father after the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. On draft day, Patrick O’Sullivan won’t be the only one looking for John O’Sullivan. So will Patrick’s mother, Cathie, and an ready-for-action team from NHL security.
“I hope he won’t be there,” Patrick says, sounding more weary than angry. “I hope he’d know not to come with everyone looking for him, and with me not wanting him there. A perfect day would be getting picked by a team that wants me, and knowing my father is not in the arena.”
Scouts rate Patrick, a 5'11", 193-pound center, as a top-five talent in the draft. There’s no better finisher in the pool. In the time it takes most players to recognize a scoring chance, Patrick’s already wired the puck into the net. He has the rare combination of near-psychic anticipation and surgeon’s nerve. Mike Bossy had it. Brett Hull, too. It’s the kind of gift that starts a father dreaming big dreams for his son. Dreams that can get out of control.
For the past year and a half, the teen hasn’t worried much about his father being around. That’s because, after years of emotional and physical torment, Patrick stood up to him. He filed assault charges that landed John O’Sullivan in jail. By the time he was released, a judge had issued a temporary restraining order against him.
The team selecting Patrick will also want John O’Sullivan to stay out of the picture. To scouts and general managers, a dysfunctional family is as much of an impediment as weak ankles. John O’Sullivan believed he was Patrick’s greatest asset in the boy’s pursuit of a pro hockey career. But according to more than one scouting director, he might be his son’s greatest liability. And one scout puts it this way: “Kids from a troubled family hardly ever pan out.”
So Patrick will sit beside Cathie and his sisters Kelley, 15, and Shannon, 8, on draft day. He will wait to hear his name called—and hope that his father is in another area code.
Hockey fans know Wayne Gretzky’s story starts with his father Walter, a former minor leaguer, flooding a backyard rink for his son in Brantford, Ont., nurturing his talent with homespun wisdom. John O’Sullivan wanted his story to turn out the same.
Like Walter, John had played the game. Raised in Toronto, he figured he’d make it to the NHL if he worked harder than anybody else. He practically lived at the rink and the gym. When guys would knock off for a beer after a game, John would be doing push-ups and sit-ups, knocking back milk and protein powder. But his dedication didn’t translate into stardom.
Although John played a few games for junior clubs in Quebec and Saskatchewan, no NHL team drafted him. He was invited to the Winnipeg Jets’ training camp one year and the Penguins’ the next, but that’s as good as it got in his brief career. John landed in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, but even in the minorest of the minors, he was a scrub, a forward who scored seven goals in his best season.
“He was a loner who fought a bit,” says Panthers general manager Rick Dudley, who coached John with the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds. “He didn't hang out with the other players.”
He did find a girl to hang out with: Cathie Martin, from Winston-Salem. They married in 1982, and three years later John left the game for good when Cathie gave birth to a son. As soon as Patrick learned to walk, John put a toy hockey stick in his hands—and swore he saw a special gift.
It’s not clear when John O’Sullivan’s support for his son’s hockey career crossed the line—when, as Patrick says, “He started to live his dream through me.” It may have been when he moved his family to Toronto so his 5-year-old son could play against better competition. Or when John insisted that Patrick play against boys at least a couple of years older. Or when he quit jobs because they clashed with Patrick’s practice schedule.
To Patrick, John crossed the line when he made his eight-year-old son get out of the car a mile from home and run the rest of the way carrying his gear, as punishment for a sub-par game. Or when John moved the family to Sterling Heights, Mich., to find better coaching for 12-year-old Patrick and his sister Kelley, then 9 and a budding tennis star. Or when Patrick was 13 and John was driving him across the Canadian border five or six times a week, an hour each way, to play against guys as old as 21. That season, Patrick played with a winger who was married and the father to a newborn.
John O’Sullivan saw nothing wrong with that picture. After all, Wayne Gretzky had been a boy among men. But nobody was mistaking John O’Sullivan for Walter Gretzky, although word of his prodigy got around.
The USA Hockey development program in Ann Arbor recruited Patrick, and at 15 he spent a year playing with the best American talent his age. That was Patrick’s most enjoyable season, and not just because of the wins in international age-group tournaments. He finally felt like part of a team, going to the same high school as the rest of the players. For once, he had friends, not just wingers.
“I played with John at training camp in Winnipeg,” says Moe Mantha, who coached Patrick for USA Hockey. “I told him to trust us. I think he did most of the time.”
Still, John pushed his son relentlessly. Nothing was good enough. When Patrick scored, he seemed more relieved than happy. Teammates knew why. Some of them asked referees to give credit for a fuzzy goal or assist to Patrick, to spare him John’s wrath. A few times Mantha asked Patrick if he should go with him to the parking lot after a game to “talk John down.” Patrick declined, fearing it would just provoke his father. Says Mantha, “I told John if he didn’t change, his kid was eventually going to tell him to screw off.”
At 16, Patrick was selected by Mississauga with the No. 1 pick in the Ontario Hockey League draft. To play in the OHL, Patrick would have to forego his NCAA eligibility. He’d hoped to play college hockey with friends in the USA Hockey program. But John had never been able to cut it in the OHL. This was his chance for sweet retribution, and his son’s chance to hit the NHL jackpot. So Patrick became a Mississauga IceDog.
As it happens, the coach and part-owner was Don Cherry, the legendary Hockey Night In Canada commentator. “John was wound real tight all the time,” says Cherry. “I was worried something was up when Patrick came to the rink once with cuts and bruises that weren’t from games.”
Says another team official: “By mid-season Patrick thought it was either going to be his father killing him or him killing his father, whichever came first.” It didn’t come to that. But it came close.
Patrick O'Sullivan didn’t have to look for his father in the stands at the game in Ottawa on Jan. 4, 2002. He was the guy leaning over the glass behind the IceDogs’ bench. The one screaming at Patrick, “You’re f---ing finished. You should have gone to f---ing college. You’re going f---ing home.”
The tension had been building all day. John and Cathie had driven 10 hours from Michigan to Ottawa for the game. They’d dropped Kelley and their other daughter, 8-year-old Shannon, at John’s parents’ in Toronto. The drive gave John time to simmer: Patrick was screwing up. He was soft.
By the time they made it to the arena, John was seething. On the bench, Patrick stared straight ahead. Without turning around, he yelled at his father to “f--- off.”
After the game, Patrick was about to get on the team bus when, according to teammates, John grabbed him and shoved him into his van. John told Patrick he’d played his last game, and then drove from Ottawa to his parents’ house in Toronto, ranting for the entire four-hour trip.
Cathie was terrified, but Patrick was defiant: “I’d had enough. So many times I wanted to quit just to get back at him. But not now. I was going to play. It was my life, after all. I was even laughing at him.”
When the van pulled up to John’s parents’ house before dawn, he went to collect Kelley and Shannon. Patrick got out of the van too, telling his father that he wasn’t coming home. He was making a stand for himself. It had to end now, he said, knowing exactly what was coming.
On the lawn, with his parents and John’s younger brother Barry looking on in horror, O’Sullivan started punching and kicking his 16-year-old son. Fighting was John’s game. He had more than 30 pounds on Patrick. It was the Atlantic Coast league all over again. He left Patrick in a heap on the grass, bruised and cut.
John got in the car and drove off alone before Patrick got up off his knees. Cathie called the police. That afternoon, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
The next day, Cathie and Patrick visited IceDogs GM Trevor Whiffen, and told him what happened. He was sympathetic. Assistant coach Joe Washkurak was not surprised. He’d seen it all too often in his day job as a social worker specializing in domestic crisis cases. “The red flags were out there,” Washkurak says. “Everyone saw his obsessiveness. But in a lot of relationships, the abuse goes on out of sight.”
John was at large for a week. For the first time, Patrick would look in the stands and his father wouldn’t be there.
The IceDogs put in new team rules: Patrick wasn’t to be left alone on road trips or at the arena, before or after a game. John gave police the slip until he was arrested near the IceDogs’ arena. He pled guilty to assault and spent 22 days in a Toronto jail.
Cathie and the girls moved back to Winston-Salem. She talked to a lawyer about divorce. Patrick got a restraining order that barred his father from any close contact with him. John was barred from any hockey arena in Ontario. But he was still spotted at several games.
It’s hard to think of an 17-year-old as being made young again. But the court order did just that for Patrick, who began playing better than ever, and was named the top rookie in all of the Canadian junior leagues. In April 2002 Patrick went to the World Under-18 Championship in Slovakia and was reunited with many of his friends from the USA Hockey development program.
“He seemed much happier,” says Mike Eaves, who coached the American Under-18s. “One day I had the guys jog a couple of laps of a track to loosen up. Patrick is so competitive, he made it into a race and pushed other guys into running harder. And it was fun. You got a sense that he was breaking free.”
And in the tournament Patrick did break free. Going into the final game, the U.S. needed a two-goal victory over Russia for the gold. On the ice was Nikolai Zherdev, now the top European prospect in the 2003 NHL draft. But Zherdev was overshadowed by Patrick. In the last minute, he quarterbacked a power play that gave the U.S. a 3-1 victory and the gold. Patrick, the American team’s youngest member, was also its leading scorer.
“It’s simple,” say one NHL scout. “O’Sullivan was the best player on the best team in a tournament against players a full year older than him.”
Cherry wasn’t surprised: “He’s a tough kid,” he says. “By age 16 he had to go through more than most adults ever have to. Scouts may worry about his family. But he managed to score 40 goals last season with all this other stuff going on. That tells you what he’s made of.”
As of now, though, reports from the NHL's scouting service, rate Patrick as No. 14 among this year’s crop of North American draft hopefuls. If that’s accurate, he’ll be a late first-round pick. What’s happened in the year since his triumph overseas that’s dragged down his stock?
To begin with, NHL scouts were disappointed by Patrick’s play at the world Under-20 tournament in Nova Scotia this winter. They had hoped to see the same player who tore up the Under-18 tournament. But Patrick didn’t see much ice time and pressed too hard on the shifts he got.
And then there was the John O’Sullivan factor. The American Under-20 squad was accompanied to the tournament by a U.S. Marshall, in case John, restraining order or not, made an appearance. Which he did. Patrick had no trouble spotting him in the stands. His only trouble was getting away.
“He called my room at the hotel and we saw him around,” Patrick said. “After the medal-round games, he tried to get down to the dressing room.”
There was no violent incident, but NHL scouts knew about the intrigue. It’s an NHL rule of thumb that the scouting of a player isn’t complete until you’ve scouted the parents. To scouts, John O’Sullivan is more than a nuisance.
It takes a while to find John O’Sullivan, who’s been on the move lately. He has no visitation rights to his children—Cathie is seeking a permanent restraining order in the U.S.—but John recently moved to Winston-Salem, a couple of blocks away from Kelley’s school. No listed phone number. No return address on the unopened letters to Patrick and the girls. There’s only one way to reach him: a call to his attorney. “I’ve had to use lawyers a lot lately,” says John.
It’s just a phone conversation. So you have to draw your own picture of someone who sees most everything in his life differently than his family. Does he have a thousand-yard stare on his face, or is he anxiously fidgeting? Is he in denial, or does he really believe?
John professes to still love his ex-wife and kids. He hopes “that everything can be worked out.” He says his family was taken from him by “agents and lawyers [who] have had too much influence over my wife and Patrick.”
He thinks he wasn’t just a good father, but a very good father, better than his own father. He says he only wanted the best for his kids. “Cathie and I were underachievers who might have done more if we had had more support,” he says. “I was totally committed to doing anything for Patrick and my daughters. Kelley is top 10 in the state in tennis. She should get a scholarship.”
There’s no point in telling John that Kelley has not picked up a racquet for months and has no plans to; that she’s studying theater and film.
And while his assault on Patrick landed him in jail, John is unrepentant. “No regrets,” he says. “I wouldn't do anything different.” He also suggests that the brawl wasn’t an assault, or even a fight: “We’re best friends,” he says. “We’d always wrestle and scrap a bit, like friends. I only wish Patrick were more like me as a player, a tougher guy.”
When asked if he planned to attend the draft, and if Patrick would acknowledge him there, John’s voice starts to break. “You’re starting to push my buttons,” he says, then nothing more. Click.
On the last Friday and Saturday in May, Patrick and the other top 99 players eligible for the 2003 NHL draft gather at a Toronto hotel near the IceDogs rink for a scouting combine that’s one part physical evaluation and one part personnel interviews. Almost all the players opt for a conservative look: dark suits, Cole Haan shoes. Patrick wears a baby blue shirt and metallic blue tie—not quite casual but not too slick, just the look of an 18-year-old who’s more comfortable in jeans, biting the bullet at least halfway.
He has 14 interviews on this Friday. The shortest is over in 20 minutes, the longest lasts an hour. It’s hard to tell if the interviews end when the execs hear what they want to hear, or what they don’t want to hear. Patrick hears questions like this: How would you characterize your relationship with your father? What’s the difference between your game now and five years ago? Do you drink? Have you ever been in trouble with the law? Ever been in jail?
Nobody asks him if his father will be at the draft. But here’s what he would have told them: That he knows there’s only a faint hope that his father will one day accept that their relationship is over. That he knows that for as long as he plays, everything he does on the ice will remind his father of other times, what John thinks were better times. That he knows his father will always believe his son should be better, tougher, more like he was. He would have told them that, yes, he’ll scan the stands in Nashville searching for his father. That he always has. Always will.


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