I had the honour and privilege of speaking with former NHL player Patrick O'Sullivan over the phone the other day, about both his powerful memoir "Breaking Away" and "Black & Blue", the article he wrote for The Players' Tribune just days before we spoke. "It's a book that'll make you think," said the veteran of 334 career NHL games.
The book certainly made me think quite a bit. Reading Breaking Away will leave you in tears. It will have you rooting for a young boy to simply make it through his daily life. But overall, it will have you wondering, "Why?"
Here is the Q&A portion of our conversation:
Jacob Stoller: What's it been like the last couple of days, with all the outpouring of support and praise you have got from hockey fans and non-hockey fans, since you released the article for The Players' Tribune?
Patrick O'Sullivan: Well, it's been great, a little bit overwhelming to be honest. I wasn't expecting the amount of people (to respond). I've had thousands of messages and emails and it's hard cause it's almost impossible for me to respond to everybody, but anybody who contacts me directly I've made sure that I've gotten back to them, and that's what I was hoping would happen when I did the book about a month ago (and) when that was released.
I think my story reaches outside of hockey, and I think people realize that in Canada, but in the (United) States I think the recent article has been able to reach a lot of people that may not even be hockey fans. So it's been really good, really positive and anything that helps me get my story and my message to more people is exactly what I want, and I'm thankful that (The Players' Tribune) were interested in doing a story.
And for them I know it's done very well; they had almost a million views in a day and a half, and they said that's the second most they've ever had of any story they've done. It's been good. Lots of people have seen it and I think it's something that somebody needed to share, (somebody) that was in the public eye enough that it could get the attention that that topic deserves.
JS: When did you decide you wanted to share your story in some way or another?
PO: Well I had to stop playing hockey because I hated the game, I hated the business of it and I hated... I don't want to say I hated my life, I was just very unhappy. I had lots of things to be happy about. At that point I had my first son, I was fortunate to make a good living for a long time playing the game for a long time... I knew I had to make changes to become a happy person...
... because ever since I was 4 or 5 years old, all I knew was hockey.
I had to get to the bottom of what my situation was. Once I did that, I started to feel better about everything. I knew at some point in my life I was going to do a book because I thought my story alone could help people. I contacted the guy I wrote the book with, Gare Joyce, and it took us about 10 months to do the book. It was a pretty easy thing to do because I had already talked about everything. There wasn't anything in the book I hadn't already told somebody or gone through the process of dealing with. I was certainly more than ready to do it.
JS: When was the first time you shared your story and background with a teammate, friend or somebody that wasn't part of your family?
PO: Honestly, I never really did. I never sat somebody down and talked about it. Certainly not any teammates, even really any of my friends. People knew about me (and my background) and there was some stories when I was drafted and when I was playing junior. People knew I had a difficult situation with my dad. (People) knew I didn't speak with him anymore. I had no relationship with either of my parents.
I guess I was my own enemy in a way, in terms of getting help. I was seemingly fine on the outside, there was nothing obvious that made them think, "Oh this guy is struggling with something. Should I ask him if he needs help?"
There wasn't much talk about it when I was playing.
JS: You tweeted the other day and you mentioned in your book that you were playing Junior B hockey at the age of 13. You said something about how your linemate had two kids, which is pretty crazy. How did that all come about? How were you allowed to play?
PO: It wasn't really my choice.
My whole life I was playing 2 or 3 years up in minor hockey, and halfway through the season when I was 13, my dad took me off the team I was on. I started skating with a few Jr B teams. Once they found out how old I was they were like, "Get this kid out of here," but that one team let me play and that's how it started.
I was clueless. I lived at home. My dad used to drive me to the games, I never spent time with teammates away from the arena. It really wasn't any different for me. It wasn't like I was living with a billet family. I wasn't really exposed to what 17- or 18-year-old kids did at a young age because I would get to the rink, play and then leave.
I was lucky I didn't get really hurt; I was probably 120 pounds back then and I wasn't a big kid. I was always the average size for my age, maybe smaller. At the time, I didn't think anything of it. I just knew everyone was much older than me. Didn't think it was strange. Now looking back at it, it's crazy.
The decision was not mine, that's for sure. In my book, you'll see if you read it, that it's basically a timeline of my life and I start when I'm real young and I go through year by year or every couple years and certain circumstances, it's easier to understand.
JS: What is/was your relationship like with your mother, if at all?
PO: As you can imagine, my relationship with my mother was nonexistent as a kid, but we still interacted. It wasn't until I was 24 or 25 that I broke things off from my mother, which I talk about in my book. I was giving her money and she kept wanting more and more, and long story short I said, "I'm not just going to blindly give you money anymore." I was going to get engaged and start to plan my own life... she didn't like that (I would stop giving her money). She sent (me and my wife's) wedding invitations back to my wife and I, and that's pretty much it.
JS: You spoke about a very powerful thing in the article, about how you and your NHL buddies such as Daniel Carcillo would be working out off the ice and you'd see these 12-year-olds working out so intensely off the ice and they'd have parents and trainers yelling at them, and it takes away the fun and purity of the game. Could you expand on that?
PO: It's one of the biggest problems out there. You don't have to be physically or verbally abusing your kid to be impacting them in a negative way. The overtraining and the extra ice time and that stuff doesn't make any sense to me because it doesn't help the kid, because your body isn't physically capable of getting anything out of the extra exercise.
It's a giant waste of time and a giant waste of money, and the oversensitized people that think they can turn these people into the next (great NHL player) whether it's Crosby or Toews or whoever you want to pick, and all those guys and anybody who makes it to that level get there because all they want to do growing up is play hockey. They sacrifice their social life, they sacrifice all kinds of different things that kids aren't willing to sacrifice. That's why they make it further.
They get better when they are outside by themselves. They learn things, they figure them out. You get a sense for how the game works and hockey sense, and in any sport, you need intelligence. You can have the hardest shot and be the fastest skater but none of that stuff matters if you can't think. Kids learn by fooling around or watching hockey on TV, or even playing video games. The kids that make it don't even realize how much time they put in because they are having fun. As soon as it starts to become work at such a young age, it doesn't help.
JS: Have you considered working with kids and parents in one way or another?
PO: I'm just about finished developing this program with about 10 of these clinics where I will speak (and also) go on the ice with these kids and do some skill stuff. It's about trying to educate and frankly scare parents (about) what the truth is, and what the dangers are if you push your kid too hard. Lots of people don't understand that if you push your kid very hard, they are going to push back. I think a lot of people don't understand when the kid turns 18, everything isn't forgotten. All the damage has been done.
Someone needs to be hands on. I know there are a lot of programs out there where it's a class, where parents are required or sometimes not even required to show up. It's like school. Say you have a class and you don't really like it but you're required to go. So you go, sit through it and leave. You didn't learn anything cause you're not engaged. I know that there are some programs that try to get parents to not yell in the arena. Say they don't yell at the arena. That does not prevent what they do at home or in the car on the way to the game.
You don't need to be somebody like me that lived through it to help, but when I say something that happened to me when growing up, you have to take it for what it's worth because I lived it. I don't think that that can be replicated.
JS: Let's change gears here for the final question: who was the toughest player you played against, and why?
PO: I'd probably put two guys at the top. (Chris) Pronger and (Zdeno) Chara are really hard to play against. It's not just because they are physical. They are smart. They understand where I want to go, where I want to be on the ice, when I want the puck and where I want the puck. They are always in the way, that's the best way to describe it. Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom were the same way. Opposite of Pronger and Chara, but they always knew exactly what you wanted to do.
You can find Breaking Away in bookstores across Canada and the United States, and online at Amazon.com.