The life and times of Patrick O'Sullivan covers a sometimes dizzying gamut of highs and lows, starting almost from the time his father moved the family to Toronto so his 5-year-old son could play against better competition.
As soon as Patrick learned to walk, his father John, a former journeyman hockey player who got as far as the Atlantic Coast Hockey League before washing out, put a toy hockey stick in his hands -- and swore he saw a special gift.
"He started to live the life he couldn't achieve through me," Patrick said softly, then stopped and asked that I not ask any more questions about his dad.
But the more we got into a 15-minute interview, a worrisome look would appear and he'd mention his obsessive parent again and again. He mentioned a couple sources for stories about his troubled past that covered the burdens he had to endure each day, burdens put in place by his father on both O'Sullivan and the hockey people around him.
For young Patrick, it was more like a curse.
"I just don't want to rehash something from my past that I've tried and tried to forget," he reasoned, citing a night when he was just 8 and his father made him get out of the car a mile from home and run the rest of the way carrying his gear. The reason? Punishment for a sub-par game.
John O'Sullivan became famous as one of those hockey dads that was maniacal, loud and abusive in the best of times. This story is tragic, filled with attacks on Patrick and his mother, both verbal and physical, that finally came to an ugly head on Jan. 4, 2002, when during a junior game at Ottawa, with John O'Sullivan in the stands, hurling leather-lunged rants at the Mississauga bench.
After the game, Patrick went to get on the team bus, but John O'Sullivan physically pulled him off, forcing him into the family van. When the family arrived home, Patrick, still a month away from turning 17, took a stand.
"I'd had enough," Patrick said. "This was my life."
In the next few hours late that night, Cathie, Patrick's mom, called the police and a judge issued a restraining order to keep John O'Sullivan away from his family. Divorce proceedings were started. John O'Sullivan eventually pleaded guilty to assault charges and served 30 days in jail.
The changes provided little respite. Patrick was plagued with the demons, the knowledge that his dad would be there at the rink ... somewhere.
"It got to the point where any time I went toward the ice I would look around searching for him," Patrick said, shaking his head.
The abuse not only left physical and emotional scars on this bright prospect, but it cast a shadow over O'Sullivan's future.
Going into the 2003 Entry Draft at Nashville, Patrick was considered a lock to go in the first 10 selections. But the doubts were spreading throughout the hockey community.
"I remember the interview we had with him," Minnesota Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough recalled. "The questions were far from skills and intelligence ... and that was a shame."
O'Sullivan remembered more than 14 different interviews and ...
"They all asked me to characterize my relationship with my father. One asked me if I drink. Another if I had ever been in trouble with the law ... or been to jail," Patrick recalled.
"I could see that things were so overwhelming for him," Risebrough said. "He answered our questions. Didn't hide anything. He was upbeat. It was impressive from a youngster with so much on his mind."
After 15 picks, Patrick began to squirm in his seat. When the first round was over, he heard fans chanting his name. Finally, Risebrough and the Wild picked him late in the second round, with the 56th pick.
"Because of my perceived problems, the whole draft was ruined for me. I couldn't wait to get out of there," O'Sullivan recalled. "The negativity of the whole week had gotten to me."
Patrick recalled that Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky had asked to speak to him. "The Great One" shook his hand. Said O'Sullivan, "He told me he was proud of me. He said, 'You stood up not only for other kids who are abused, but you stood up for yourself.'
"I've never wanted anything more than the chance to prove my love for this game," he said.
O'Sullivan is one of those supremely dedicated youngsters who is coming off a career season -- 22 goals and 31 assists with the Los Angeles Kings -- and trying to prove a point about his willingness to get better.
"His skills just jumped out at you the first time I met him in juniors with the Mississauga IceDogs," said defenseman Kyle Quincey, who was one of Patrick's teammates then and was traded to the Kings. "He's got game-breaking ability."
Said Kings GM Dean Lombardi, "Anyone who has seen this kid play knows he has all the talent, all the tools. But when he was still a teenager playing in the American League during the lockout, I remember seeing him play for Houston and he scored almost 50 goals that year (47 goals in 2005-06). What made that so impressive is that 19- and 20-year-old kids just don't do that in the AHL. He was a beast that year. To me, that was the first sign that he had grown up a lot, that he had changed from a boy to a man."
I asked him for the best advice he'd ever gotten, thinking the comments by Gretzky would be right up there. They were, but Patrick took me back to when he was 15 and living with Eaves and his family in Ann Arbor.
"My dad told me I'd never be good enough," O'Sullivan said. "Mike was like the father figure I really never had. He helped me realize that I had a family at the rink. On the ice, he helped me realize there was more to it than just scoring. He taught me the tough part of life and provided me with stability away from the rink.
"It was strange looking at other kids growing up having fun. Now ... maybe who I am ... has made me better."
As we move to Christmas, there's little doubt that Patrick O'Sullivan will celebrate the good fortunes he's beginning to see, a new contract, a bright future, and perhaps a family of his own ahead of him.
Finding the bright side
On this day, Patrick O'Sullivan preferred talk about the good things in his life -- like at age 15 playing for Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves at the United States Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and living with the Eaves' family during the 2000-01 season.
Or later played in the World Under-18 championships in Slovakia in April 2002 and scoring two goals against the Russians to win the gold medal. Plus there was the World Junior tournament in January 2004 in Helsinki, where he scored two crucial goals to beat Canada and win another gold medal.
That 47-goal season in Houston in 2005-06 helped Patrick win AHL Rookie of the Year honors and get a chance to play in the NHL, even if it wasn't with the Minnesota Wild.
"After all of the bad karma from the draft in 2003, I don't know why, but I was with a few of my buddies in Toronto in 2006 and we decided to tune in to the draft," O'Sullivan recalled. "We just turned the TV on and there was (Commissioner) Gary Bettman saying, 'We've got a trade. The Minnesota Wild trades ...'
"With that, they go to a commercial. Then, my cell phone rings and it's Doug Risebrough telling me I had just been traded to Los Angeles.
"Kyle Quincey and my buddies thought it was hilarious. At first, I didn't know what to think. After a couple of seconds, I was thrilled because I knew I'd get a chance to play in Los Angeles."
"We stayed out late celebrating for Patty," Quincey recalled. "We gave him a rough time, but we couldn't have been happier for him. I know I told him I thought this could finally be the break he had been looking for his whole life."
Said Risebrough, "I didn't want to trade Patrick. I still like his upside. But our team needed a 'now' player in its development and that guy we thought was Pavol Demitra."