Book review: Breaking Away- The Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage and Triumph

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For those who remember, Patrick O’Sullivan was a polarizing figure in the early 2000s as a highly talented, dynamic scoring forward who had been the first overall selection of Don Cherry’s Mississauga (now Niagara) IceDogs in the 2001 OHL draft, but for whom a black cloud seemed to follow.

O’Sullivan dazzled with his pure offensive ability, emerging as a top scorer as a rookie during the 2001-02 season amidst a renaissance of top future NHLers including Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton and Brent Burns to name a few. But criticisms dogged him along the way- scouts questioned his attitude…the desire…and later, a darker picture emerged about his father, John, and the unhealthy relationship he appeared to have with his son. That story emerged more prominently before the 2003 NHL Entry Draft in a comprehensive ESPN the Magazine piece penned by Gare Joyce, which revealed a long pattern of abuse and the split between the younger O’Sullivan and the man driven to see him reach the NHL no matter the cost.

Now, years after finishing a pro hockey career that leaves us wondering what might have been (334 NHL games, 161 points with Los Angeles, Edmonton, Carolina, Minnesota and Phoenix), O’Sullivan and Joyce have authored a definitive account of his journey and the demons he battled along the way.

Born to a fringe minor league (and by fringe- we’re talking the lowest rung of the professional hockey ladder) forward who was the son of Irish immigrants, when Patrick O’Sullivan began to show early signs as a prodigy in the sport, his father began a single-minded and destructive pursuit in pushing his only son to a greatness he himself had not been capable of.

O’Sullivan tells the disturbing story of physical and emotional tyranny, not just perpetrated by John O’Sullivan but by his mother, who stood powerlessly by and never took any meaningful action to defend her child from his father’s excesses.

As a result, young O’Sullivan became a hockey nomad, moving from team to team. At first his father was involved as a coach, but he would soon wear out his welcome due to his bizarre antics that usually included focusing all of his attention (and ire) on his son while ignoring the rest of the players. One of O’Sullivan’s earliest minor coaches was former NHL player and Boston Bruins forward Dwight Foster, who now admits that if he had more experience as a coach, he would have done more to confront the elder O’Sullivan and seek help for his son.

Thus continues an ongoing pattern in the book, as O’Sullivan went from team to team, with more and more people picking up on the warning signs that all was not well as his father’s erratic behavior increased in its scope and intensity. When not striking him, O’Sullivan alleges that his father would kick him out of the family van after games in the dead of winter and make him run a mile a more before he was allowed back into the vehicle.

This all came to a head one night after an OHL game, when O’Sullivan stood up to his father and received a savage beating on the front lawn of his grandparents’ (on his father’s side) lawn. This prompted the player’s call to police that ultimately resulted in formal assault charges and a jail sentence for John O’Sullivan, though many would argue that the amount of time served was essentially a slap on the wrist.

By the time the 2003 NHL draft occurred, O’Sullivan had formally severed ties with his father, but what should have been one of his happiest days was miserable. The 14th-ranked skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service plummeted to 56th overall and O’Sullivan leaves little doubt it had a great deal to do with teams preferring to distance themselves from the potential baggage O’Sullivan brought to the table.

Although he reached the NHL, and at one time despite having a coach in Marc Crawford or “Crow” as O’Sullivan refers to him in the book, a man that reminded him more of his father than anyone else, showed promise with a 21-goal, 53-point sophomore season in 2007-08. Unfortunately, the team traded him to Edmonton, where a role on the third line saw his performance slip, and he was ultimately out of the NHL and hockey altogether by 2012.

Although his ordeal resulted in no meaningful relationship with either of his parents- O’Sullivan and his mother no longer speak after he alleges she broke off contact when he would no longer funnel money to her- the optimism in the book springs from the bond he has with wife, Sophie, and his two sons.

The book is difficult to get through in parts, particularly for those who have children and will have a tough time understanding the cruelty with which O’Sullivan was treated in what appears to be a misguided and extreme case of living vicariously through his impressive natural talent. The book’s coda is almost heartbreaking in itself, as O’Sullivan relates what how his life experiences have impacted the way he views the world as his own boys grow up and prepare to compete in youth sports programs in their native Florida.

This is an important book at a time when professional sports are becoming more lucrative for the athletes than ever, and more and more parents are faced with the temptations that come with having children that could represent a significant meal ticket, despite the long, long odds to get there. It also outlines a specific group of people who had the power to stop what was happening but were unable to either because of a lack of information or because they simply chose to look the other way. In essence, that is what makes for some of the toughest reading to get through, as the betrayal of a young boy and his loss of innocence is not simply confined to those who directly perpetuated the abuse.

I had an exchange with co-author Gare Joyce on Twitter, thanking him and O’Sullivan for telling an important story that for years, lacked true context. His response, while gracious, got to the true heart of the matter in all of this- going back to Patrick and the myriad injustices he received in what should have been some of the happiest times of his life:

Gare Joyce ‏@GareJoyceNHL 21h21 hours ago Toronto, Ontario
Thank Patrick. Suffering over the keyboard in my role looks awfully small beside what he had to endure and survive.

Whether you are an avid hockey fan or parent raising a youngster involved with hockey or competitive sports in general, read the book, understand the warning signs and be prepared to take action. Patrick O’Sullivan’s courage to come forward and tell his story should not be in vain.

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