MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO — Into his skin it goes. Blue dye, shot through a needle steadied by a young woman. She pauses.
"Does that hurt?"
"No," Patrick O'Sullivan says, shaking his head. His cap is backward, his eyes trained forward.
Does that hurt? A tattoo does not hurt. Fists hurt. Constant degradation by someone who is supposed to love you hurts. Being pulled off the team bus, driven for hours through the Ontario night to a soundtrack of ranting and raving, and then being beaten, yet again, all because of a hockey game. That hurts.
The woman pools more dye — alternately blue and red with a dash of white — inside the USA hockey logo stenciled on his chest. Five rings pierce each of her ears. Three more penetrate her nose, another her cheek, one more the area below her lower lip. Tattoos conceal her arms.
Forty minutes and $140 Canadian (about $100 U.S.) later, the second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild steps into the late-August Toronto sun.
"That lady, she was nice," Patrick says. "Now you wouldn't have thought so just from looking at her, would you?"
This 18-year-old refuses to judge. He'd like the world to follow suit.
"He intimidated the hell out of everybody."
John O'Sullivan lived a vagabond professional hockey career, skating for eight junior and minor league teams — none for more than 10 games — over nine seasons. His resume is more rap sheet than stat sheet — in 10 games with Winston-Salem in 1981-82, he managed five points and gooned his way to 60 penalty minutes.
"He seemed to have an attitude problem," said Cathie Ann Martin, who that spring became Cathie Martin O'Sullivan. "I should have noticed it then."
There were other demons, such as drunken-driving convictions in 1987 and 1989, the second of which landed John in jail for a week.
And there was his son, Patrick, who came into the world as John's hockey career came to a close.
John planted the seed, and while the boy was in kindergarten a passion took root. Patrick watched Edmonton blast Boston for the 1990 Stanley Cup and thought, "I want to play."
John pounced on this enthusiasm and the mission began. Build a player, more skilled than himself but molded in his own image and likeness. By 8, the third-grader's hands were tied. With boxing glove laces.
"We used to fight in the back yard while other kids played Nintendo," said John, 230 pounds at his peak. "I'd have pads, and he'd rattle off combinations."
"In his mind," Patrick said, "he was doing the right thing. But there were times when I was pushed too hard."
By 13, Patrick was playing third-tier Canadian junior hockey for the Alvinston (Ontario) Flyers. Practices required a 1-hour, 15-minute drive each way, games even greater hauls. He routinely battled players 16 to 18 years old. Some were 20. A teammate, in fact, already was a father.
Fans and parents wondered aloud to Cathie: How could you let your boy play with men? Little did they know the ice was the safest place he had to go.
"Once I was 12 or 13," Patrick said, "it was getting worse and worse and worse."
Some coaches, Mike Eaves being one, remembered John's brass-knuckle playing style and attempted to intervene. Eaves headed the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., when at 15 Patrick became its youngest player.
"He would back off for a while," Eaves said. "Then he'd be yelling from the stands. We started hearing some things at home. Then it all kind of hit the fan."
In 2001, the Mississauga IceDogs selected Patrick No. 1 overall in the Ontario Hockey League draft. His coach would be Don Cherry, the bombastic "Hockey Night in Canada" TV commentator who brandishes himself the ultimate proponent of physical play.
Rather than live with a host family, Patrick moved in with John's brother, Barry, who lived in Mississauga. John drove from Ann Arbor to every game, some nine hours away, then home in time for work.
"He couldn't let go," Cathie said. "He intimidated the hell out of everybody. Even Don Cherry was intimidated."
Cherry was more than two decades removed from coaching the Boston Bruins, and by this time, running a junior hockey bench was but a hobby. Mississauga played no defense and went 11-47-6-4.
Forget that Patrick, just 16, rang up 92 points in 68 games and was named the best rookie in all of Canadian major junior hockey. Nothing satisfied John. Cathie said he punched or kicked his son after 95 percent of his games.
"It was pretty much after every game," Patrick confirmed. "He said he was going to take me home, and I was going to get a job or something. At that point, I was like, `This guy's lost his mind.' At 16 that January, I said, `That was enough.' "
"I got carried away being the coach."
Patrick last spoke to his dad the morning of Jan. 5, 2002. The night before, following a game in Ottawa, John pulled his son off the IceDogs' bus. Beginning at 11:30 p.m., John, Cathie and Patrick drove through the night, stopping for an hour so John could rest.
Around 6:30 a.m. John pulled into the driveway at his parents' home near Toronto, intending to pick up Patrick's sisters and continue home to Michigan. The sun was up, but a relationship was about to set.
Time to draw the line, Patrick thought. No more. He would not go home.
Irate, John went at Patrick the moment he climbed out of the family van, kicking Patrick in the backside and punching him, Cathie said. When he could not get away, Patrick fought back. John knocked him to the ground multiple times, leaving him badly bruised by the time John's parents, brother and Cathie managed to intervene. Cathie took Patrick inside the house, and John, swearing, drove off.
That day Patrick filed assault charges, putting John behind bars for almost a month.
"I was his buddy, his coach and his father," John said. "When he was , . . . I got carried away being the coach.
"When I came back from Toronto when I got in trouble with him, I realized they were gone and I'd never have them again."
An indefinite restraining order in Canada prohibits John from coming within one kilometer of Patrick or any hockey rink in which he plays. John cannot and does not call him. Cathie finalized divorce proceedings this April.
"You think it will stop, you think it will change, you think you'll die," she said. "It got worse. If we didn't do something, one of us would have been dead, either Patrick, John or me."
"He was self-destructing purposely."
Sue Makwich sidled up to her husband, Mike, on the brown leather love seat in the living room of their West Mississauga home. Sue's son, 12-year-old Jacob, reclined in a chair, wearing a green Minnesota Wild shirt and a bone-colored Wild hat. Upstairs, a Wild logo the size of a hockey net colored his bedroom wall. Patrick relaxed on another couch next to former Mississauga linemate Greg Jacina.
In August 2002, Patrick needed a billet home, the Canadian term for a host family. More than a roof over his head, he needed a new foundation. He received heaven-sent surrogate parents.
"They were an answer to our prayers, so open and accepting," Cathie said. "There are some people handpicked by God. They are some of them."
Despite their care and concern, Patrick struggled when the 2002-03 season began. IceDogs coach Steve Ludzik suspended Patrick in November when he was accused of stealing a hockey stick from a sporting goods store. Patrick, who uses an Easton Synergy stick, a Steve Yzerman model that runs about $250, denies taking what he called a $40 stick.
"Deep down," Cathie admitted, "if he did take it, maybe it was like a cry for help. I don't know. He tells me he didn't take it."
Ludzik saw a boy obsessed with something other than hockey.
"It seemed to me like he was self-destructing purposely, like shoving it down his father's throat by going off on his own routine," he said. "I thought it was a waste of talent and a nice kid."
A few weeks later, Lou Vairo, coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team, worked the bench in Nova Scotia at the World Junior Championships, a showcase of the best under-20 players. O'Sullivan, 17, was again the youngest player on his team. Vairo said O'Sullivan lacked his teammates' hustle and drive, and despite feeling sympathetic, often benched him.
"If I was playing," Vairo said, "I probably would have hit him. He was irritating."
But sometime soon thereafter, and no one can pinpoint a day or time, O'Sullivan began to come around. Ludzik witnessed an epochal change. Demeanor on the bench. Interaction in the locker room. Attention to detail in the defensive zone. General disposition.
"I saw him become more of a team player," Ludzik said. "A guy who did things that are eventually going to help him become a pro player."
"He thought I had a good future ahead of me."
Still, NHL teams doubted his makeup. Central Scouting rated O'Sullivan the 14th-best skater in North America entering this year's June draft. Central Scouting, though, doesn't rate the parents. General managers, who are one bad decision from the unemployment line, do. So Patrick interviewed with all but four teams - "I basically told my life story 26 times" - and figured he'd go middle to late first round.
Draft day in Nashville brought initial disappointments. John showed up and NHL security guards needed to escort Patrick everywhere, including to the bathroom. Then teams began passing on him. Finally, at No. 56, late in the second round, he went to Minnesota.
Patrick made the Wild front office a promise: "I'll make sure this is a big day for your organization."
Wayne Gretzky made sure a disappointing day did not end that way. Now the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, Gretzky had read about Patrick in ESPN the Magazine. He and his wife had cried. Now, he waited in the Holiday Inn lobby with Cathie, who called upstairs to tell Patrick that someone was waiting for him.
"I didn't believe her," Patrick said.
"He just wanted to tell me he wished they had a higher pick. He said where you get drafted doesn't really matter at all, and he thought I had a good future ahead of me. That's the ultimate compliment.
"He's the perfect athlete, I think. He seems like a really good dad and husband and all that. He's about as good as he could get in everything. That's amazing.
"It's not that I'm going to try harder [to be that kind of person]. I'm just going to be myself. If people want to take the time to get to know me, they'll understand that, too. When you have a story like mine there are a lot of different rumors that come out that aren't true."
"He just seemed happy all the time."
Rave reviews of Patrick's ability abound. Vairo called him one of the five best players his age on the planet.
It's talk of how hard he shoots a puck, though, that brings out his biggest boosters.
"Absolutely a rocket," Eaves said.
"The best I've seen, by far," said Jacina, a Panther prospect. "His release is fast and in stride. I try to practice it, but I can't."
From a good look, Ludzik said, "give Patrick four shots, I don't care who the goalie is, three are going in the net. At worst two. I don't care if it's a junior goalie, college or the NHL."
O'Sullivan's shot showed up in July at World Junior Championship tryouts in Lake Placid, N.Y. Among four teams — two from the United States and one apiece from Finland and Sweden — he led everyone in scoring with nine points in four games. Against Finland in the finale, he figured in all four goals in a 4-4 tie.
Linemate Patrick Eaves noticed something more than sharp stick skills.
"He just seemed happy all the time," said Eaves, a good friend since the development team. "He wasn't worried. It was relief almost."
Within Patrick's circle of friends, no one can relate better to that burden than Jacina. The same month Patrick cut ties to his dad, Jacina became an IceDog. Another godsend, Cathie would say. He, too, has not spoken to his dad for two years, a victim himself of abuse. This summer, he moved into the bedroom next to Patrick's.
`We try to laugh about it because we both know we're suffering," Jacina said. "It's good to know there is someone you can joke with about it. That's comforting."
This makes everything easier on Cathie, who misses her only son. She busies herself in North Carolina with her daughters, Kelley, 16, and Shannon, 9. She also lives with the residue of John's role in their lives.
Cathie cannot personalize her home answering machine greeting. Thankfully, John does not know the number. Nor does he know where Patrick lives. So John mails letters for Patrick to Cathie, but Patrick doesn't know this. Cathie throws out every correspondence.
The last letter, handwritten and two pages long, arrived a few weeks ago with no return address. The topic: advice for Wild training camp. John had seen a picture online of Patrick without a protective visor. He mentioned that in the letter.
"If you read it and you didn't know, you'd think he's a great dad," Cathie said. "But if you know the undercurrent, you'd think, `What are you doing?' "
"I'm totally out of the picture."
Patrick flew into Minneapolis on Wednesday. Friday, he began play in Wild rookie camp in Traverse City, Mich. John, according to Cathie, splits time between Winston-Salem and Detroit. Because Patrick's restraining order is good only in Canada, she believed John would show up in Traverse City.
She has inquired about a restraining order in the United States only to find that no nationwide protective order exists. To apply for one in every NHL city seems extreme.
"He's going to be around," Cathie said. "Unless he does something really stupid or dangerous, Patrick knows to ignore him."
John claims to be a nonfactor.
"He doesn't need my help anymore," he said. "He's got a great agent. I'm totally out of the picture. I hope he does well."
John also maintains he loves his ex-wife dearly. He said he'll never marry again. And, he added, "tell Patrick I love him."
If Patrick has his way, they will never speak again.
If John shows up? "It's not going to bother me either way," Patrick said. "It's not like he's going to do anything to cause me any more problems."
Counseling helped Patrick arrive at this mind-set. Upon returning from Nova Scotia, he saw a psychologist in Mississauga who works with NHL players, not to discuss John but to improve his on-ice focus and performance. He even enrolled in a psychology class at a local college and said he thinks he might one day study sports psychology.
He said his mind is clear. Free of his dad's voice. Free of any nightmares. He still gets, as he called them, "a few idiots who will say something: `How's you're dad doing?' It certainly doesn't affect me on the ice in any way."
The same holds for off the ice, when Patrick regularly thinks of his mother. He's proud of her. Proud of the decisions she has made. The decisions they've made.
"I like to sit back and think and analyze what I'm going to do in a day and what I'm going to do the next few months and what my goals are," Patrick said. "Rarely does anything about my dad come into my head.
"I feel at ease with everything. Sure it took some time. There's stuff you have to deal with. Sometimes you need to get help. I'm way past that now. I feel at ease like I've never really felt before growing up. I'm happy.
"A better player. Better person. Better everything."