Former NHLer Patrick O’Sullivan’s story at the Players’ Tribune, about suffering horrific physical and mental abuse at the hands of his father, is one of the rougher sports reads in recent memory, and an invaluable one for anyone who’s ever wondered what they should do if they witness what looks like child abuse. But the very public nature of O’Sullivan’s abuse, taking place as it did at youth hockey games and practices and resulting in involvement from both police and NHL security, meant it was something of an open secret that followed him through his career.
This week, Sullivan said one and only one opposing player ever used it to taunt him: longtime Canucks pest Alex Burrows.
It’s Burrows’s job to get a guy angry. To say and do just about anything this side of legal to throw an opponent off his game. We know, abstractly, that these kinds of things go on, where no one but the agitator and his target can hear, and we know, again abstractly, that some pretty horrible stuff must be being said. But it’s another thing entirely, after reading O’Sullivan’s piece in the Players’ Tribune and learning some painful specifics of how hellish his childhood was, to know that someone was using that against him to try to provoke a penalty.
After the Canucks lost in Philadelphia last night, Burrows was asked about his comments—which, according to O’Sullivan’s timeline, would have been almost a decade ago—and said he wouldn’t do that now, and wishes he hadn’t done it back then.
“I apologize if I offended him back then. Especially when I first came in (to the NHL), I was playing six or seven minutes a night on the fourth line and I wanted to help any way I could. And if I could get one guy off his game and get in someone’s kitchen, I was willing to do it to help our team or maybe get on the power play....
“Back then, I didn’t know the magnitude of it. I read his story on The Players’ Tribune last week and I saw how bad he had it. It’s tough to see for sure. I think I’ve matured a lot. I grew as a player and a person and in today’s society, for sure, it’s something I’ve got to be careful (about). I wouldn’t cross that line now.”
I think it’s very plausible that Burrows didn’t know the extent of O’Sullivan’s abuse—or at least didn’t take the time to think about what it might have entailed—when he broke it out just to get a reaction.
But his talk about now knowing where the line is feels a little emptier, coming just a month after something he said legitimately enraged Devils forward Jordin Tootoo. No one has revealed what Burrows said, though he denied his remarks had anything to do with Tootoo’s race (his father is Inuit) or his history of substance-abuse issues, chronicled in his book.
Tootoo would only refer to it as “some personal remarks regarding my family.” The NHL looked into it and declined to discipline Burrows, who said he has similar things directed at him, and “personally, I don’t really think I crossed the line.” Wherever the line is, it’s only clear that it’s not in the same place for everyone involved.