Patrick O’Sullivan skates beyond troubled past

By Glen Jackson

Winning has a way of making people forget about the bad

Winning has
a way of making people forget about the bad.


As Patrick O’Sullivan stood on the blue
line in
Helsinki, Finland on January 5th, 2004, a gold medal strung around his
neck, it’s hard to imagine he was thinking about much else besides the momentous
win his team had just orchestrated. But O’Sullivan, the hero of the game for
the Americans with two third period goals including the game winner, has had
more than his share of the bad through his 19 years. So much so that the
victory in the 2004 World Junior Tournament and another stellar season with the
Mississauga Ice Dogs of the OHL has only begun to erase a difficult past both
on and off the ice.


went public with his family troubles a year ago. Specifically, that his father
John abused him for much of his life both physically and verbally, culminating
with a beating on the front yard of his grandparents’ house a few years ago. This led O’Sullivan to seek and get a restraining
order against his father that keeps the elder O’Sullivan at least one kilometer
away from his son, as well as out of all arenas in
Canada in which he may play.


At the
draft on June 25, the arena assigned additional security to the Winston Salem,
NC native and his family for fear that John O’Sullivan would create a problem
with his attendance. O’Sullivan’s sister spotted their father in the
Gaylord Entertainment Center early in the first round, somewhere
everyone had hoped he wouldn’t come. He was apparently concerned and confused
that his son had not been selected until well into the second round, perhaps
not realizing that he was a healthy share of the reason for that.


Minnesota Wild had looked into all of the variables involved in O’Sullivan’s
troubles before the draft. Interviewing respected people who had dealt with
O’Sullivan, as well as the young center himself, they felt that most of the
troubles were not with him and that his character was sound.


decided that the good far outweighed the bad, especially at 56th, and selected
the former CHL and OHL rookie of the year. Wayne Gretzky, Joe Thornton, and
19-year-old Rick Nash, who is currently tied for goal scoring leader in the
NHL, share this distinction with O’Sullivan.


There was
more that was good about O’Sullivan, too.


He played
for the U.S. National Under-17 team in 2000-01, leading the National Team
Development Program in scoring, and he played for the 2002 U.S. Under-18 team
that won gold at the IIHF championship.


Outside of
the problems with his father, the Wild were concerned about clashes with coach Steve Ludzik in the 2002-03
season with the Ice Dogs. It had led to punishment from the coach which
included being sent home for several weeks. Although he hasn’t completely left
his on ice troubles of last year behind, he’s matured since being drafted and
has avoided coach Greg Gilbert’s dog house for the
most part. One gaffe earlier in the year resulted in he and two other Ice Dogs
players being suspended for two games by the team, but he took ownership of his
actions and made no excuses or complaints about it.


After two
seasons as leading scorer with the Ice Dogs he’s already the franchise all time
scoring leader, while this 2003-04 season’s bounty of points is serving to
cement his name in the record books of the young organization; a season in
which he is eighth in scoring in the league despite missing time for the WJC
and a shoulder injury in January. That puts him among league leaders for points
per game.


He’s been
the OHL player of the week twice so far this season, both in December, and he
was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team in January.


is also at or near the top three in nearly every goal-scoring category. He’s
tied for second in the league in goals, only four behind leader Corey Locke who
has played eleven more games, third in power play goals, tied for second in
short handed goals, tied for fourth in game winning goals, tied for first in
scoring the first goal of a game.


And then
there were the goals at the 2003-04 World Junior Championships in
Finland. He had been having what even he
considered an unproductive tournament up to the finals with just one goal in
total through five games, but in the gold medal game against Canada he did what
all great hockey players do: play big in
big games. He had a nice third period goal, somehow finding just enough space
for the puck on a speedy shot over Fleury’s shoulder
which brought the Americans to within one goal. Then, later
in the third, the now infamous play by Marc-Andre Fleury
who hesitated before coming out to play a loose puck in front of a streaking
O’Sullivan, banking it off Braydon Coburn and into
the Canadian net.


consensus on that goal was that it was something of a fluke, but O’Sullivan’s
speed on the play produced the opportunity. And fluke or not, he came up huge
for the Americans in the biggest game of his career thus far. Doug Risebrough and the rest of the Wild must be very pleased.


When he
returned to
Mississauga, the fans there showed that they
were Canadians before Ice Dog followers and, stung by O’Sullivan’s strong play
in the WJC, booed him in his first game back.


despite the fact that his arrival with the Ice Dogs two seasons ago has helped
lift the team out of their indefinite cellar obscurity. The franchise’s first
playoff appearance was in 2003 (O’Sullivan is tied for the franchise lead in
playoff points with 11 in the five games the team played last season before
bowing out), and already the Ice Dogs have set franchise records in this
2003-04 regular season for wins with 31, eight more than the previous high of
23, and there are still nine games left to play in the regular season.


He’s had no
problem scoring in his time with the Ice Dogs, but this season he has begun to
give more attention to his defensive game, and off the ice he has sounded more
and more like a team leader.


being sent home early from the Wild’s 2003-04 training camp, O’Sullivan had a
positive experience which was capped with a one on one conversation with coach
Jacques Lemaire who commended him for his skills, but
laid the ground work with O’Sullivan to be a defensively responsible player who
also happens to be a gifted scorer. That might temper excitement for fantasy
hockey GMs everywhere, but Lemaire’s approach may lay
the foundation for O’Sullivan to get more minutes when he eventually cracks the
Wild lineup. And that’s never a bad thing.


The Wild
drafted him because they saw a player with strong stick handling and speed with
an excellent shot that might even remind some of Mike Bossy’s
quick release and accurate placement when he reaches the NHL. He’s also able to
parlay his speed and skills into good penalty-killing ability, and if a chance
to pot one while shorthanded presents itself, he can make the opposition pay.
It’s not all rosy, however, as there are still areas that O’Sullivan needs to
work on including his playmaking, something he has not yet excelled at to a
level that would be acceptable for a first line forward in the NHL. He also
suffers from occasional defensive zone lapses that seem to mostly be due to
watching the puck and looking for an interception rather than keeping track of
his man. O’Sullivan tends to seem disinterested in many games, sometimes
floating lazily around the ice until an opportunity to impact the match
presents itself to him. However, the bigger the situation, the better he plays.


Scouting had ranked the 6’, 180 lb. O’Sullivan fourteenth for draft eligible
skaters. As one draftee after another was called, O’Sullivan and his supporters
were increasingly shocked. Just as shocked was the Wild who found O’Sullivan
still available in round 56, and snapped him up without hesitation.


Having all
of the other teams in the league pass him by has perhaps given him the
motivation to prove the rest of the league wrong. He’s skilled, makes good
decisions, creates and capitalizes on chances, and now he has just enough of a
chip on his shoulder to urge him on when he reaches the NHL. It seems quite
possible that O’Sullivan will be a top 60 forward in the league within five
years, perhaps even sooner. All he does is score goals, big goals, and there’s
always a place in the NHL for a player that can do that.

Those boos
O’Sullivan received when he returned from the World Juniors for his first game
back in
Mississauga in January were not something that could rattle the young
star. He’s taken it and many of the bigger bumps along the way in stride, and
the focus of the fans has quickly returned to the fantastic season that
O’Sullivan and the Ice Dogs are having. If he continues to do well and the team
keeps winning, maybe even taking their first playoff series, the fans won’t
find it too difficult to forget completely about the 2003-04 World Juniors.


Winning has
a way of doing that to people.