The one player triggering the most debate since last season easily is Patrick O'Sullivan. Until this plays out with his contract or trade, he will remain a hot topic of conversation. I added to that debate personally when I took him to task for not taking some control over this critical part of his NHL career. Even further, I made the statement that he needed to appreciate that what he does today may in fact have an effect on his life and career.
Since the off-season, the only comment I have seen directly from O’Sullivan is an interview given after the World Championships where Patrick said he was delegating his contract issues to his agent. In direct contrast, Lombardi and Jeff Solomon both made comments to the press. Because they were truly the only ones doing the talking, it feels fair to say that many – including myself until recently – took the organization’s comments as if they were the final word on the situation. Shame on me and others for not appreciating that there are always three sides to every story – the side of each party and the truth.
What is a billet family?
The sole quiet voice for O'Sullivan has been on letsgokings.com from his billet family. In Canada, when junior players get drafted and play, they generally live too far from their home to remain with their own family. Billet families provide a familial environment for these players by providing a home and support system while playing on their respective junior teams. O’Sullivan’s billet family, and father in particular, quietly has been a voice in a storm trying to give perspective to Patrick’s side of this contractual stalemate.
The Big Picture:
For those who think this situation is solely about money; that would be wrong. That would be an over-simplification to a deal that is about so much more than just this one player. For starters, let’s look at the bigger picture first. In the recent Breakfast with the GM, I asked Lombardi to comment on the effect of his publicized plan on how he builds an organization – fillers, bridges and builders. Sure, it is easy to speculate on how other teams utilize Lombardi’s blue print. Take a step back and ask how the failure of his unrestricted free agent signings may in part be due to the fact that they knew they were solely placeholders.
Now, take another step back and appreciate the role a sports agent and player needs to take when Lombardi has done everything but take out a billboard announcing who the team’s builder players are – Kopitar, Johnson and Bernier. Then, appreciate that while O’Sullivan has not been deemed a builder, he has been named repeatedly as part of the team’s core. It is not a far leap to see that to the Kings, O’Sullivan’s deal is not just about O’Sullivan. Further, it would be a mistake to equate this stalemate to Cammalleri’s contractual challenges. O’Sullivan is no Cammalleri. In direct contrast, O’Sullivan, regularly speaks to his friends on the team and is secretly dying inside when he knows his place is in Los Angeles. And he is not.
This is my way of making note that per O’Sullivan’s billet family, the players know exactly what is going on, talk to him regularly and appreciate that what is going on with Patrick may just be the tack this organization takes with them. As I said, negotiating this contract is about so much more than #12.
O’Sullivan’s Choices this Off-Season:
His billet family explained to me that O’Sullivan had choices available to him that he rejected to make permanent the Kings’ tattoo on his backside and/or due to the obvious under-valued number suggested by the Kings:
• Signing his qualifying offer; (approximately $660k respectively, but would have put him into arbitration next summer and he wanted to make a larger commitment to this organization)
• Sign an offer sheet; (which was explored but rejected due to the Kings’ cap friendly situation and due to a desire to have an amicable and loyal relationship with this team)
• Sign a very short term deal to prove that he can let his future play on the ice show that his potential would be his reality;
• Rejected a long term deal that so under-valued his worth while simultaneously asking him to give up some of his UFA years and money.
It is fair to say that this is always about the money. It is equally fair to say that sometimes dollars, or the lack thereof, send a simultaneous message in addition to the numbers themselves. I learned through O’Sullivan’s billet family that this is plain killing him not playing. He wants to be here. He wants to be here long term. He would be in Los Angeles but for Lombardi saying through his agent, Mark Guy that he should not come here. He would be a distraction.
Recent Contract Communcations:
What most may not know is that when Solomon told 750+ people that he and Mark Guy had spent the summer agreeing on comparables; Solomon simultaneously told Guy that a contract for consideration would be faxed. Per O’Sullivan’s billet family that fax never came. Instead, Guy received a phone call telling him to keep his client away from camp. Everyone can draw their own conclusions whether that was the factual equivalent of not coming to California at all. At about the time of that call, O’Sullivan’s car was packed and ready to leave Denver. That is the actual reason he is not in Los Angeles. By staying in Denver, he can continue his training regime there. I have no personal knowledge whether he could duplicate that regime if he were in Los Angeles right now.
His billet family acknowledges that, “This is a business.” They simultaneously feel that this may become personal. It is their fear there will be a line drawn in the sand for which no one can retreat. That is the antithesis of what O’Sullivan wants. He has literally in large part been waiting by a phone which to date has barely rang.
In an attempt to try and take control of this stalemate, when the Kings played the Avalanche in Denver, against the advice of his agent, O’Sullivan met with Hextall to clear the air and to simultaneously try to make a contract happen. Other than a window of opportunity to both talk and vent, nothing else came from that meeting.
O’Sullivan’s billet family got together with me to talk in part because they wanted to communicate that the press only provided one side of this situation. For starters they explained, Newport Sports Management, does not negotiate through the press. That may provide clarity why Rich Hammond of the Daily News never had his phone calls returned. Without giving me the actual numbers, they expressed the numbers quoted by Lombardi and Solomon was inexact in its kindest light. In fairness, the numbers they gave me for #12 were dollars I found high and told them so. As much as they love and care for O’Sullivan, when it comes to money, their estimations seem inflated at least for the next couple of years.
O’Sullivan’s billet family wanted me to know about the Patrick they know. By the end of our talk, they felt everyone would appreciate learning about this side of him too. For starters, his relationship with his billet family continues to this very day. He trains and lives with them in the off-season. They housed him during three of his four year tenure with the OHL Mississauga Ice Dogs. Most players rarely spend their entire junior career with the same team. O’Sullivan did.
O’Sullivan’s Junior Years:
After being drafted by the Ice Dogs in 2001, he played his entire junior career there. At the beginning of his time with the Ice Dogs, the team was a cellar dweller and hardly credible. The team played so poorly that then part-owner, Don Cherry, stepped in to coach O’Sullivan’s first year with the Ice Dogs. Ludzik the following year as coach and Keenan disciple, Greg Gilbert, coached #12 for his final two years. During that time, O’Sullivan started more offensive oriented and became a two way player per his billet family. Prior to this meeting, I incorrectly solely credited Hextall and the Kings with #12’s improvements defensively.
O’Sullivan’s Draft Experience:
His billet family also shared that the only difference between O’Sullivan’s father’s abuse issues and some other minor hockey players is that his story became publicized in an article in ESPN - The Magazine, which coincidentally aired close to the NHL draft. Patrick was initially pegged to go in the first round, even a potential Top 10 selection. With his private life on public display, he not only wasn’t drafted in the first round, he nearly became drafted in the third round. Heck, he nearly became a King then. Read more:
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.
O’Sullivan’s 2003 Draft Experience
As O’Sullivan continued to fall until he was drafted 55th overall by the Wild, his agent then and now, Mark Guy, told Patrick to play and do what he can control. His career would be dictated by that – not his draft ranking. Considering he went onto be named AHL Rookie of the Year with the Houston Aeros and was an All Star both years he was in the AHL, it seems he took that advice to heart.
This would be at least the second time O’Sullivan took control of his life. After the umpteenth confrontation from his father who refused to allow him to go on the team bus after one game, he went with his parents, siblings and that ride turned out to be a turning point for him personally and professionally. He had this answer when someone in preparation for the Fifth Estate program, on the effect of having an abusive father:
I think, you know, going through that was, you know, kind of – it made me a man I think a lot faster than some kids. You know, I had to grow up faster than a lot of people, you know, for numerous reasons. But I took control of my life and my family at 16 and you know, I’m thankful every day that I was able to have the strength to do that.
O’Sullivan On Taking Control of His Life
Fast forward to the present. O’Sullivan continues to be who he is, a private, reserved young man who prefers his actions to illustrate his measure – not his words or his wallet. He has a history of doing just that. His numbers and his team’s success in Mississauga improved each year – including defensively. Under Greg Gilbert, his billet father shared that O’Sullivan was a key guy on the penalty kill and as a two-way player. In the interest of full disclosure, that was not always the case.
“Mississauga Ice Dogs (OHL) head coach Steve Ludzik has sent star 17-year-old center Patrick O'Sullivan home for failing to live up to his defensive responsibilities. . . . . When O'Sullivan was with the National Program his defensive play, while far from perfect, was infinitely better than it has been in Mississauga. He knows how to play both ways, but, as Ludzik's actions point out, he doesn't make a habit of it.”
O’Sullivan’s Defensive Side
While on leave, all O’Sullivan did was help the U.S. win its first gold medal ever in the World Juniors including the game winning goal when the team was down 3-1 going into the third. After returning, Greg Gilbert became his coach and after this leave imposed by Ludzik, I found no article contradicting Patrick’s billet family who lauded his defensive play overall while in the OHL. Rather, I found the exact opposite including this on his rookie year in the AHL:
"I saw Patrick Sunday when Mississauga got knocked out. Pat's big thing is he has really matured as a player," Thompson said. "He has improved his all-around game, his positional play and his defense. He's an excellent face-off guy. Patrick is now stronger physically and that's made his acceleration pretty good now. He handles things well enough to be named captain of his team. He was disappointed about getting knocked out of the playoffs, but that happens in hockey when the other team's goalie is hot. Patrick had a pretty good year down there."
The Wild on O’Sullivan
It was a fair statement when I stated that O’Sullivan should be an active participant of his contract negotiation to assert more control over his life. It was equally fair to say that how this contract played out, the dollars involved; the process might affect his NHL career. It was unfair for me to not address the fact that while Lombardi had the most leverage; he has his own accountability in all of this. He knows that this is the only time he can assert this much control over O’Sullivan because he is not arbitration eligible this year.
What I failed to address or appreciate until I met with O’Sullivan’s billet family is the fact that it was entirely possible that Lombardi’s comments to the press were at best one sides take on things and not a complete one at that. It is so easy when only one party is talking to believe that what one hears is the whole and accurate rendition of things. Instead, per his billet family, I now appreciate that O’Sullivan made choices to show through his inaction that he anticipated a long career with the Kings where money was hardly the sole criteria for a new deal – regardless of its length. He is willing, ready and able to sign long or short term contract for fair dollars and commit to be a King indefinitely. He sits silently and banished having watched his junior friends who have made it to the NHL and have already signed their second contracts. Meanwhile, he is a part of a team that has made public statements how they value him and private actions which arguably may contradict those same public acknowledgements.
I failed to appreciate in my earlier blogs on this subject and player that there were valid reasons – other than greed – to explain this stalemate and the fact he was not even in the state. I hope, truly hope, that while Lombardi has leverage over O’Sullivan now, his choices here may directly dictate the length of his Kings’ tenure and his credibility with O’Sullivan’s teammates, more specifically Kopitar and Johnson, who have their own new deals to negotiate – or not. Lombardi now needs to pay the price literally of making public knowledge who he wants to build the Kings around. The question now is he willing to pay fair value to those very same builders and the team’s young core. Only time will tell and Lombardi’s job may very well depend on it.
The Kings’ Response:
I asked the Kings to respond to the statements made here by O’Sullivan’s billet family. Mike Altieri released this comment:
“We won't have any official comments on this or anything regarding our ongoing negotiations with Patrick and his representatives.”