|Sunday, June 22
Updated: June 24, 11:27 AM ET
Can O'Sullivan shake the shadows of his past?
By Lindsay Berra
Special to ESPN.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Patrick O'Sullivan, the consensus went, had the talent to crack the top five of a deep NHL draft. Central Scouting had him ranked 14th, and his agent, Don Meehan, thought he'd go somewhere between 10th and 20th. O'Sullivan was prepared to assume such status, dressed immaculately in a new suit and shirt, with the big World Under-17 Championship ring, which he never wore but had packed especially for this occasion, on his right hand. He had distributed 25 tickets so his mother and sisters, his grandparents, his billet family from Mississauga, Ontario, a few Ice Dogs teammates, his trainer, and a half-dozen buddies could be there with him on the biggest day of his life, the day he would become a first-round selection. They even started a pool, five bucks a pop to guess where he'd be taken, just to make things a little more interesting.
But Patrick O'Sullivan then watched 55 spikey-haired kids in brand new suits of their own stand, hug their parents, and trot jubilantly out of their seats Saturday at the Gaylord Entertainment Center to meet their new owner and general manager, to stand on stage and wave to a cheering crowd. Fifty-five names called before him, when everyone knew there should have been just 10 or 12. And his father -- the man who had abused him, so much so that Patrick had a restraining order against him -- had watched it, too, from a seat across the arena.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
Patrick O'Sullivan's story, published in the June 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine, had moved Wayne Gretzky, historically reverent of the influence his own father had on his life, to tears. John O'Sullivan was the anti-Walter Gretzky, a nightmarish blueprint for what parents of athletes should not do. After years of both private and public abuse, Patrick's relationship with his father officially came to an end when the elder O'Sullivan beat his son to a pulp, in full view of his family on his grandparents' lawn, more than a year ago. At the draft, the O'Sullivan clan was being guarded by arena security officers whose single job was to protect Patrick should John O'Sullivan show up.
It was Kelley O'Sullivan, Patrick's 15-year-old sister, who spotted their father early in the first round, sitting across the rink a few rows from the top of section 107. As the draft picks and the hours passed, John would gesture across the arena, pantomiming indignation to Cathie, his ex-wife and Patrick's mom, as if to say, "What's the matter? What's going on?" Cathie ignored him, but what was happening was obvious.
Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, Washington -- all teams that had expressed interest in Patrick O'Sullivan as a player -- were leery of the emotional damage John O'Sullivan had inflicted on his son. NHL locker rooms and the combat on the ice itself are too intense to accommodate a fragile psyche.
But Patrick O'Sullivan wasn't nervous -- not really nervous -- until the Kings passed him by with their back-to-back picks late in the first round. Then, Patrick's leg wouldn't stop shaking, his hand wouldn't stop tap-tap-tapping on the back of his mother's chair. He stopped cracking jokes, and his friends stopped cracking jokes with him. No one brought up the pre-draft betting pool. He stopped watching the highlight reels played on the Jumbotron of those drafted before him. And when the Blues took defenseman Shawn Belle with the last pick of the first round, Patrick slumped in his chair.
All of a sudden, John O'Sullivan wasn't Patrick's worst nightmare anymore.
Fans in the upper decks yelled "O'Sullivan!" before every pick in the second round. "I guess they thought I should have been picked earlier," Patrick said later on.
Three hours into the draft, no hungry, thirsty or antsy O'Sullivan supporter had moved from his or her seat. All the first-round pomp and circumstance was over. Drafted players, instead of climbing the stairs to the stage to pose for pictures with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, now met the PR directors of their new teams on the draft floor to put on their '03 sweaters. Interviews with the draftees occurred wherever space allowed and were attended only by local beat writers rather than national media. Bettman was out of sight. There were no more smiling teenaged faces on the Jumbotron. The crowd in the stands had begun to grow sparse as fans flooded up the aisles for food and bathroom breaks. And the names read off by team after team belonged to those whose skill level couldn't begin to match Patrick O'Sullivan's.
The beginning rumbles of a cheer formed in the throats of O'Sullivan's buddies when they heard the "M" pronounced in Medicine Hat, thinking it may have been Mississauga, at pick 55. But when Patrick was finally picked next by the Minnesota Wild, 56th overall and dangerously close to the third round, his throng erupted -- save his mother, who just hugged her son, and Patrick himself, who was either too stunned, or too relieved, to celebrate.
"I really didn't know what to think," he said. "Then my name was called and I didn't want to think about anything else."
Patrick was ushered onto the draft floor where he was met by Wild general manager Doug Risebrough. A white-red-and-green jersey was pulled over his head. Finally, he smiled. He was led down the tunnel and atop a riser, where a crowd of reporters with microphones and lights and cameras parked in front of him. Patrick O'Sullivan was getting first-round attention.
"Tough day, huh?" was the first question thrown his way.
"I don't look at it that way," O'Sullivan said. "I got drafted by a great team. I'm trying to stay positive. The stuff that happened in the past is in the past. I'm just looking forward to working out and getting stronger and getting ready to play for the Wild."
Someone asked him about his father. Patrick said John O'Sullivan was just another part of his past, and that he was ready to move on in life.
Gretzky, hoping the same, sought out Patrick and his mother to wish them luck and gave the draftee a fatherly pep talk. O'Sullivan was told by The Great One that this was the best day of his life, that being drafted was a great opportunity that he had to run with.
So maybe Patrick O'Sullivan's long draft day was positive. Maybe he'll listen to the criticism of the scouts who said he had a bad attitude, or that he didn't apply himself, or that he floated around without any regard for defensive responsibility. Maybe he'll work hard in the way that Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire gets all of his players to do, and he'll show up every scout who passed him over in the first round. Maybe he'll spend his career proving that he deserved to be picked higher than Shawn Belle.
But these are all maybes. The unwritten rest is left up to Patrick O'Sullivan himself to craft.
The Magazine's Lindsay Berra can be e-mailed at email@example.com.