Patrick O'Sullivan moving on from harrowing childhood

— -- Back in January 2014, I wrote:

Parenting is easy if you have an abundance of four things: 1. Energy 2. Creativity 3. Selflessness 4. Affection

If you give your kids everything you have inside of you, they will eventually give it back. They won't want to let you down. You won't have to punish them or push them to exert.

Fewer words and more action is the recipe.

To review and expand:

  • I should have written "easier" and/or "more effective" in that opening sentence. Parenting is not easy, and for some it doesn't come natural. Parenting always came natural and easy to me.
  • Energy to play catch or go skating whenever they ask. Energy to build a backyard rink and drive hours to an NHL game. The best role model you can be for your kids is to be upbeat and energetic. That's where all true success begins. I bet most great athletes -- Jack Nicklaus, Tom Brady, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams -- had a parent or parents that had a palpable energy about them. It could be a fun, serious, congenial or unique energy, but something there a child could feed off.
  • Creativity is using your brain to stimulate and help guide your child's brain to a fertile place by exposing them to different environments and emphasizing curiosity, interest and wonder. Trying to get them to repeat good habits by changing the environment and keeping their interest and enthusiasm high.
  • Selflessness is, as they say, not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. And the understanding that when it comes to parenting you can actually mess your kid up more than you can help him or her. Introduce them to many things and then take a step back.
  • Affection is to be there. Being there in person and in mind. It's hugging, kissing, "I love you's," traditions, laughter, singing and silliness. My dad never hit me and I have never hit my kids. It's difficult to fly, dream and believe when you're being beaten down.
  • Former NHL player Patrick O'Sullivan's parents had very little of what I call the Big Four of Parenting. In fact, it went way beyond ignorance. They physically and emotionally pummeled their little boy. The word abuse has become too soft of a word. Patrick O'Sullivan was pummeled by his parents. Somehow, he persevered to play in 334 NHL games.

    O'Sullivan's first-person account of his childhood was read by many for the first time last week after it was released by The Players' Tribune. It wasn't "breaking news." O'Sullivan's story surfaced in a 2003 Minneapolis Star-Tribune article after he was drafted by the Minnesota Wild. The book "Breaking Away: A Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph" was released in October, and we ran an excerpt from that book in November.

    However, The Players' Tribune article struck a chord with many as it was tweeted and retweeted on Twitter by a large roster of sports fans. Like other adults not related to O'Sullivan when he was a little boy and through adolescence, the mass sports population somewhat ignored his story until his first-person, no-holds-barred account broke trough. Readers were left with broken hearts reading of the boy with the broken heart. And bloody face.

    Casual and non-hockey fans were reading the revealing and disturbing story for the first time, and it struck an emotional chord. And the prevailing questions were undoubtedly, "How could a father do this to his precious son?" and "How could a mother sit idly by and let it happen?"

    Because the story was read by so many for the first time and the reaction was so moving, I thought I would call O'Sullivan for a follow-up conversation.

    Living in Naples, Florida, with his wife, Sophie, and two sons, O'Sullivan is a self-aware, no-filter, clear-spoken, 30-year-old man. His mind is nimble and smart. He probably would be an excellent TV analyst. He can navigate sentences and paragraphs to make his point vividly and clearly. In my opinion, he was born mentally tough. It's a skill. His parents contributed ZERO to his mental toughness. He would be mentally tough if he was raised by monks.

    Here is our conversation:

    Buccigross: What's it feel like to hit your dad?

    O'Sullivan: That's a good question. For me it felt good. He was the person I hated the most in my life. It was something I had to do to take control of my life. I had started to kind of fight back, but not like this. This was it. It was my only option. I had no regrets immediately, after or since. This happened at his parents' house. He left in the car, I went inside, called the police; he eventually went to jail for three months, and I haven't interacted with him since the fight. I saw him at court when I got the restraining order extended and sometimes he would show up at my games, but I haven't talked to him since the fight.

    Buccigross: Did you get rattled when you saw him in the crowd at one of your games?

    O'Sullivan: Yes. It bothered me because he didn't deserve to see me play. He made sure I could see him. It possibly bothered me the first few times. I couldn't believe he was breaking the law. I would take five or 10 minutes to get my focus back. The restraining order eventually expired, but I never feared for my safety. I didn't even think twice about him getting close enough. He wasn't a dumb person. Everything was calculated. He got away with the abuse for a decade, but now he couldn't get away with it. My dad felt like he should have been an NHL player and for one reason or another got screwed during his journey. So he was going to show everybody how smart he was by how good I was. That was his sole motivation. I don't think my dad [had] any intention of my playing hockey until I showed an interest in it myself. Then the light went off. Especially after I improved as his abuse got worse. He saw a connection. He felt what he was doing was working. And it affected my love of hockey. I loved hockey more than I hated the abuse.

    Buccigross: Did your dad hit your mom or siblings?

    O'Sullivan: My sister a couple of times, not to the degree I got hit. My sister was actually a very good tennis player and played through high school. She and my mom were terrified of my dad as well. But, my mom was invisible to me as a kid. I don't recall anything abusive to her, I just recall lots of yelling. I don't really have a lot of memories of anything because of the abuse. I was in my own world.

    Buccigross: What is up with your parents today?

    O'Sullivan: My mom filed for divorce once my dad went to jail. I don't talk to her either, but for separate reasons. When I was 25 I got engaged and started thinking about me and my new family I was about to start. I had been giving money to my mother since I signed my first pro contract. I wanted to help her out, as probably anybody would. But once I got engaged and committed to a family, I told her I would help her go to school or something to get set up for a job and support herself, but I wasn't going to just write her checks anymore. She didn't like that and kind of blew up over it. She sent our wedding invitation back and that was kind of the end of it. That was it. I was actually relieved. I was only maintaining a minimal amount of contact because I had to. I know it's hard to live with someone as abusive as my father but, looking back, I think she kind of drank the Kool-Aid, too, and believed what my father was doing. She let it go on for 10 years. I don't know where either of my parents are.

    Buccigross: Are you close with your sisters?

    O'Sullivan: I have two younger sisters. I don't speak with them or my mother since all the money stuff happened. They basically were in agreement with my mother when all of that happened so they chose to side with her, I guess. I wasn't close to them growing up. I was outside of my house growing up no matter the weather unless my dad said otherwise.

    Buccigross: Were your parents affectionate?

    O'Sullivan: No. I think I can remember my dad saying "I love you" once or twice. My mom was early, but it got less and less. When I would leave for a game she wouldn't say "I love you," she would say "[You] better play well or the whole family would suffer." My mother's parents pretty much supported our family. My dad couldn't keep a job. That's why I hold my mom so responsible for so much of the stuff that was going on. She would be on the phone with her parents asking for money but never mention her husband is terrifying the family and abusing their son. It would have been so easy to say something at some point. Once. Ever.

    Buccigross: No other parent or coach ever intervened at what you felt was obvious abuse at the hands of your dad?

    O'Sullivan: Zero times until my first [year] of major junior. This is when I would show up with significant marks on my face from our more legit fights. One coach came up and asked, "What happened to your face?" I replied, "You know what happened." Then a month later I had the big fight that ended everything. For my book, I went back and asked a lot of old coaches and friends and they all regret the situation and they had an idea but didn't want to believe it. A big reason being I was so productive (148 goals in four years). They couldn't believe someone getting abused could be that good. My dad wasn't dumb, either. He would talk to other parents and socialize and make jokes and laugh with parents.

    Buccigross: Do you forgive your parents?

    O'Sullivan: I'll put it this way: I no longer have any emotion attached to me as a kid. I don't forgive anybody for anything, especially my parents, but I'm not angry at this point in my life. It took me two years of doing therapy and getting the emotion from the experience removed through that work. I used to be angry, but now it doesn't even cross my mind. I do have dreams occasionally and certain smells and music can bring a flashback of bad memories. But it goes away quickly. I do have a guy I see in Florida every four of five months for maintenance-type purposes. I never had suicidal tendencies or anything like that. I had a "f--- you" and "I'll show you" attitude my whole life. It really hurt my career near the end, but it's all I knew how to do.

    Buccigross: What is your parental discipline approach to your two children (Henry, age 5, and Nathan, 3)?

    O'Sullivan: We use timeouts and take away things from them they like. I don't think a light spank to get your point across is the end of the world. It's not something I'm interested in ... but I know the difference. Abuse is passed down, for sure, but I have put the money and time into my own health. People who don't have the means or time to get healthy don't get healthy. I asked the Edmonton Oilers for some help with my emotional issues. I got traded a month later. When I brought it up, they didn't say a word. Guys with substance abuse issues get multiple chances and people commend them for getting help, as they should. Guys with depression or off-ice issues are looked at totally differently. Players don't feel like they can say anything because it's a huge red flag. You say you need to see a psychologist and you'll get a call from your agent saying he spoke to the GM and wants to know what your 'problem' is. The NHLPA has a great substance abuse program, but good luck getting in touch with someone to help with emotional issues. That's why I did everything on my own when I retired. They are useless. They just want to feed you to people so they get their kickbacks.

    Buccigross: What has the reaction been to the now widespread understanding of your story?

    O'Sullivan: Before the story really got read last week, bookstores had no real interest in my book. Now they all do. I just think the Players' Tribune piece and social media helped cut through and it wasn't really a hockey story but came from a sports outlet.

    My first year at Mississauga, Don Cherry was the coach. So, while all the s--- with my dad was going on, Cherry was the coach. If you notice in my book he hasn't gotten involved and I didn't involve him. He is on a camera in an interview with the CBC during my draft year saying that he thought my dad was a good guy and he didn't see any of that coming. Don was a big part of my life there at 16, 17 years old. And he's kind of always expressed remorse when I see him. I think it's difficult for him since he supported my dad. He didn't know my details and said he didn't see it coming, but there were other people telling him not to draft me, to find out more about my background. But he saw my dad as a minor leaguer -- like him -- that just wanted his boy, the good Irish boy, to play well. He didn't do his research and I think he regrets that. I don't want to cause any problems for the guy. I put all of those people in one category. It's not looking hard enough at a situation that I felt was obvious. I don't hate them for it. I think it's sad. And I don't want these people coming to me apologizing now. It's too late. Let's just all move on.

    The only thing I struggle with is that I look at my kids and then picture myself as a kid and dealing with [what] I was dealing with ... that still breaks my heart.