Patrick O'Sullivan is a 30-year-old former NHL player who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life.
Oh, he has a few ideas, such as working with victims of parental abuse, or maybe even becoming some sort of counselor with an NHL team. But as far as a career that will sustain him, his wife and two children in their South Florida home, O'Sullivan is at loose ends, as loose as any under-educated former hockey player ever was when the pros stopped calling.
But that is not a bad thing in this case. O'Sullivan had much bigger issues to deal with when his hockey career, which saw highs such as winning the world junior championship in 2004 for the United States, petered out in the Finnish elite league in 2012. "It took a long time to get myself to the point where I was okay being me, and hockey wasn't part of what defines me," he said.
It took that long because O'Sullivan had to come to grips with years of horrific abuse at the hands of his father. John O'Sullivan was a would-be professional hockey player from Toronto who managed just a few games in the lowest minor leagues, and then channelled his frustration, rage and unrealized ambition into a disjointed plan to turn his son Patrick into an NHL star. The plan featured escalating physical, emotional and verbal assaults – and little else. It did not end until an epic, violent car ride home from an Ontario Hockey League game in Ottawa when Patrick, at the age of 16, stood up to his father and pushed back.
Breaking Away is the book Patrick O'Sullivan wrote with Toronto author Gare Joyce about those 10 terrible years, how they stunted his NHL career and how he worked on recovering from them. The book was published by HarperCollins Canada and was released Tuesday.
It is a compelling but by no means easy read. O'Sullivan does not spare any of the details of what happened to him at the hands of his father. Some of them will sicken any parent. A good day was simply being yelled at. Other days, O'Sullivan writes, he was beaten or forced to walk home from hockey practices or games if his play was found wanting. Sometimes there were long, punishing workouts right after major-junior hockey games.
John O'Sullivan is no longer part of his son's life, but it was not an easy separation. Jail and restraining orders did not stop his attempts to contact his son, although that waned as Patrick's hockey career petered out. Patrick's relationship with his mother, Cathie, also did not survive. He saw her passiveness in the face of the violence as enabling his father, and her later financial demands after he made the NHL exacerbated the situation.
Also coming in for an unsparing examination are some of O'Sullivan's coaches, such as former Los Angeles Kings coach Marc Crawford, and others in his younger days whom he felt turned a blind eye to obvious signs of severe trouble in the O'Sullivan household.
It was a story O'Sullivan felt compelled to write as part of his own search for peace of mind as well as a beacon for the abused and for reluctant witnesses to the abuse. It's also a warning to the abusers.
"With this book coming out, it's kind of the last thing I needed to do to start my life over again," O'Sullivan said. "I was not in a good mental state by the time my career came to an end."
O'Sullivan said he wants to help young victims of parental abuse, but he isn't sure how. He hopes the book will lead to some answers – perhaps something like the foundation his friend Daniel Carcillo established to help ex-hockey players find their way in retirement.
"I'm really looking to get connected with some group, and maybe the book coming out will generate some interest," he said.
In the meantime, he hopes his book will help those who need it, since the problem of overbearing parents in almost any children's endeavour, from school to athletics to the arts, is one that still gets swept under the rug. And he hopes it might help an outsider identify signs of abuse in a child, and to notify the right authorities.
"I don't think a person as far gone as my father will pick up the book and change their life," O'Sullivan said. "Those are people off the deep end. But maybe there are people who can pick up the book and then back off a little bit."