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O'Sullivan skates clear of sombre past Add to ...

No one has told him he's made it, that his one-way ticket to the National Hockey League has been stamped for good. Truth be told, Patrick O'Sullivan could be on a plane heading back to his American Hockey League team at a moment's notice.

But that doesn't seem likely.

The Los Angeles Kings recalled O'Sullivan last week, then traded away centre Craig Conroy. The Kings like what they see from O'Sullivan -- his quickness and shooting touch -- and have put him on a line with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, one of the NHL's top rookies.

So far, O'Sullivan has been comfortable and more than capable. He is fulfilling the promise many saw in him as a boy and a teenager. Best of all, his father, John, is nowhere in sight.

"I haven't spoken to my dad in six years," O'Sullivan said.

Has he seen him?

"I saw him in the crowd at my junior games, but not now."

The ghost of the father will always be there for O'Sullivan, whose life story has been a series of highs and blows: from his dad screaming at him at hockey games to the night his father berated him for hours then physically abused him.

It was the last time John O'Sullivan would hit his son. The following day, Patrick filed assault charges and his father went to jail.

"I don't like to talk about it," Patrick admitted during the Kings' recent stopover in Calgary. "But if I do get asked about it, I feel I need to talk about it. I'm my own person. To be able to do what I do, to be able to play at this level, is something special. At times growing up, I didn't know if I'd be playing hockey [in the NHL] But here I am."

He is thoughtful and polite and turns 22 today. He talks openly yet seems guarded. His dark eyes take in everything, which the Kings insist is a most valuable attribute. They've told O'Sullivan to watch veterans Aaron Miller and Rob Blake to see what it takes to be a pro, the commitment and preparation.

The Kings are convinced O'Sullivan will succeed since making it this far has already tested his character.

"It's important he's influenced by the right people," said Kings assistant coach Mike Johnston. "He's really determined and that's a great trait to have."

O'Sullivan, who has three goals in 15 NHL games, forged his determination while dealing with his father's fanaticism. John O'Sullivan would go to Patrick's games, bang on the glass and shout instructions to ensure the son could do what the father never did -- make it to the NHL.

Sadly, the shouting wasn't the worst of it. Patrick was once told to get out of the family car and run the last kilometre home because he'd played poorly. In an interview with CBC's the fifth estate, O'Sullivan said his dad often got so angry he would hit him.

"I guess he thought by treating me like that it was going to make me a better hockey player," O'Sullivan said. "It would usually come to a physical confrontation, and the older I got, the worse it got."

The last blow came in 2003 when John O'Sullivan physically abused his son, and Patrick went to the police. Not only was John O'Sullivan jailed for a month, he was told not to come within a kilometre of his son and not to attend any of Patrick's hockey games. Soon after, Cathie O'Sullivan, Patrick's American-born mother, filed for divorce.

Initially, Patrick flourished, but his father soon began showing up at his games with the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League. On the day he was selected by the NHL's Minnesota Wild, O'Sullivan was assigned two bodyguards because everyone knew his dad would come to watch and, sure enough, he did.

"I had a lot of attention," O'Sullivan said. "I played junior in Canada, where people follow the game. I played for Don Cherry his first year in Mississauga. I found I had to grow up faster than a lot of people do."

Six months after being drafted, O'Sullivan led Team USA to the gold medal at the world junior championships. He scored twice, including the game winner, to defeat Canada, and when he returned to Mississauga days later, he was promptly booed.

"I thought that was kind of funny," O'Sullivan recalled. "I was captain then and in my third year. It didn't bother me. I had the gold medal."

O'Sullivan kept his composure when Minnesota traded him to L.A. and when the Kings shipped him to their AHL affiliate after dressing him for 12 games earlier this season. O'Sullivan understood he needed more experience and that getting limited ice time with the Kings wasn't going to do it for him. He also knew he wasn't about to quit.

He could have done that long ago.

"Going through that stuff has made me a stronger person," O'Sullivan said. "You can let it ruin you or it can make you better when you come through the other side. I wanted to be better."

And he is, not that the father's means justified the end. Still, there is another hurdle ahead. On Feb. 13, the Kings play the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. John O'Sullivan lives in North Carolina, which means there's a good chance he'll be at the game.

If that bothers Patrick, he isn't letting on. Life is better now. He is here, in the NHL, playing the game and knowing how special it is.

amaki@globeandmail.com

 

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