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Bolt From the Blue: John Cullen

by Lonnie Herman / Tampa Bay Lightning

From all appearances it was just a routine day near the midpoint of what eventually would be an 18-month nightmare.

John Cullen, center for the Tampa Bay Lightning, was being wheeled down the hallway of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, accompanied by his wife, Valerie, en route to another visit to the radiation room. Then his heart stopped.

Valerie heard someone scream “Code Blue!” and as if by magic, doctors and nurses materialized from every direction. They appeared to be coming out of the walls, she thought. In the crush, Valerie was shuffled back about 10 people deep and lost sight of her husband, but she saw the defibrillator paddles raised up and a moment later she knew. The electro shock had done its job.

Another day in the treatment which Cullen called “absolute hell”.

Nothing about Cullen’s challenge was as it should be. Even the discovery of the cancer had been unusual. For two months Cullen just thought he had a very bad chest cold. He was having hard time breathing as he skated up and down the ice but he played every game. The Bolts were in a playoff push.  Cullen wasn’t coming out of the lineup – but when would he ever kick that pesky cold?

On March 27, 1997, Cullen arrived at the St. Pete Times Forum prior to a game with the Hartford Whalers. In the locker room, he ran into the team trainer, Dennis Brogna.

“How are you?” Brogna asked.

“I’m fine,” Cullen relied. “Why are you asking?”

“Well,” the trainer replied. “Your wife called.”

Cullen was dumbstruck.

“That’s kind of taboo in this game,” Cullen explained. “My wife didn’t tell me she was going to call the team.”

But she did call and her message was succinct, “You need to check him out, there’s something wrong with him.”

Valerie knew a few things about John. Her husband was coughing a lot and mentioning how his jaw and teeth were getting sore. She knew something was wrong, but she also knew that her husband wasn’t going to say anything, either. The team was in the stretch run for the playoffs. The line he centered, with Shawn Burr on the left and Alex Selivanov on the right, were playing well. No way a hockey player would go to the trainer and say, ‘I think I have a cold.’

Valerie had set the wheels in motion and the X-ray taken after the game showed a big black shadow on Cullen’s chest. The team doctor ran through the list of possibilities: it could be this, or maybe this, or even that, or it might be a tumor. But even the doctor thought that possibility was remote. No way, not with the shape that Cullen was in and playing hockey at this level.

The next morning there was a scan, and then a biopsy, and then a verdict. Cancer.

“Ok,” Cullen told the doctors. “But I have to get going because we’re taking a bus to play the Florida Panthers tomorrow.”

That wasn’t going to happen, the doctors knew. This is serious, they kept repeating. You have to listen. Eventually, what the doctors were saying began to register.

“I had to call my wife and tell her,’ Cullen remembered. “That was probably one of the worse things I’ve ever had to do.”

So many confusing thoughts. What does it mean? What will it take to beat it? Cancer.  It’s such a scary word when you hear it. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the doctors called it.

“Your life just kind of shuts down,” Cullen said.

For John Cullen, the accomplishments on the ice came so easily, almost effortlessly. Off the ice it was often a different story.

After four seasons at Boston University, where Cullen, an Ontario native, set an all-time scoring record that still stands today, he was selected in the supplemental draft by the Buffalo Sabres. But the Sabres released Cullen and he headed off to Flint (Michigan), in the International Hockey League.

“I’ve had a career where I was always proving people wrong,” Cullen said. “Persistence is a watchword with me.”

After one season in the IHL, where he delivered 48 goals and 109 assists, his persistence paid dividends. For the first time, if not for the last time, and he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in time for the 1988-89 season.

By the time the 32-year-old Cullen landed in Tampa in 1995, he’d been on four different clubs, one of them, the Penguins, twice. And now, he was on the move again; a free-agent bumped off the roster by the un-retirement of Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh. Vagabonding is the norm in the world of hockey, where the day you close on your new home is often the same day you hear whispers that the GM is shopping you.

But here in Tampa, Cullen felt like he was among old friends. Most notably, his main recruiter, Tony Esposito, Assistant General Manager for the Lightning, who had already signed Cullen once before, years earlier, to play for Pittsburgh.

“Tony was instrumental in getting me to come to Tampa,” Cullen said. “He was the one who really did the recruiting. I knew Tony and he knew me. He knew what I was all about, so I’m sure Tony convinced Phil to take me on.”

It’s doubtful that Tony’s brother, Phil Esposito, the general manager, needed much convincing. Cullen was a proven goal scorer and playmaker, with more than 100 goals and some 300 assists with two all-star appearances on his resume.

“When I first got to Tampa, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play in such a beautiful place,” Cullen recalled. “You’re surrounded by water and the weather is fantastic, and then to top it off, you’re playing hockey for a living.”

Lightning coach Terry Crisp paired Cullen on a line with Shawn Burr and Alexander Selivanov, and they clicked almost immediately.

“We had a lot of fun, the three of us,” Cullen said. “Burr was a crazy clown. He and I would come to the bench and ask each other what it was that Selivanov had said out there. Lots of times we couldn’t understand him but all we knew for sure was that he wanted the puck to shoot.”

So, Burr and Cullen gave it to him, and Selivanov responded with 31goals, while his line mates piled up the assists. The line combined for a total of 130 points that season. But as productive as they were, Cullen’s line was only one cog in the gears and, possibly for the first time in their history, the Lightning coalesced into a very good team.

“We had a good mix of young and veteran guys,” Cullen recalled. “Chris Gratton, Jason Wiemer, Rob Zamuner and Roman Hamrlik were the young guys and there was myself, Brian Bellows, Petr Klima. Burr, Selivanov and Paul Ysebaert. We had some guys that had done some damage in their careers and had played well on other teams, but maybe the other teams had lost faith in them. Tampa Bay rejuvenated the careers of a lot of guys.”

That was the season that the Lightning made the playoffs for the first time. They fell to Philadelphia in five games of the first round, but Cullen, who led the team in playoff scoring with three goals and three assists, knew the team had found the escape door from the cellar. It would only get better from there.

And it was getting better. With only a handful of games remaining in the 1996-97 season, the Bolts were once again pushing for the post-season, rolling into high gear, when the mass the size of a grapefruit showed up on Cullen’s chest x-ray.

The protocol called for six rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation treatments. If it can be said of any remedy that drips harsh poison into your body, Cullen thought the first rounds of chemo were a breeze.

“After the first round, I felt like a new man,” Cullen remembered. “My jaw and teeth weren’t painful any longer and my breathing was much better. All after one round of chemotherapy.”

By the time the treatments concluded, Cullen was certain he had beaten the cancer. His doctors thought so, too. One last check, just to be sure, in Boston, with one of the top non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma specialists in the world, Lee Adler, chairman of oncology at Harvard Medical School.

What Dr. Adler found wasn’t good. The grapefruit-sized mass that had grown in Cullen’s chest was gone, true enough, but small cancer cells were still present. They shouldn’t be, but there they were. A tumor the size of a thumbnail.

“When the chemo doesn’t eradicate it, the red flags go up,” Cullen said. “That’s usually a sign that a lymphoma patient won’t make it.”

The news was even harsher because Cullen was feeling so good.

“I was skating, I was ready to come back and play,” Cullen said. “That was an absolutely devastating blow.”

Now the doctors called for the heavy equipment, a bone marrow transplant, the strongest and most devastating form of chemotherapy. Cullen shed 30 pounds while the brutal treatments were underway, but he never lost sight of his inspiration for the battle; his mother who had succumbed to cancer at 46-year- old.

“I watched her battle,” Cullen recalled. “My dad had six kids there, and I remember one night my dad was getting very emotional and asked her, ‘why you?’ and she answered him, ‘why not me?’ I never forgot that and when I was going through my battle I said, ‘Ok, I got it, don’t feel sorry for me, I’ll battle and hopefully I can come out the right side.’ I got my strength from her.”

Once Cullen had recovered his strength enough to travel, he and Valerie flew home to Tampa, where a concourse full of fans had turned out to welcome him home.

“What an amazing thing, the support that the people in Tampa gave me,” Cullen recalled. “That’s why I love Tampa so much. Of all the places I played, there is something special about Tampa.”

There was obviously something special about Cullen, too. When training camp opened in the fall of 1998 there was Cullen, ready to compete for a spot on the roster, and to the amazement of everyone who recognized what he had endured, when camp ended Cullen had made the team. But he wasn’t the same.

“I think the treatments just took too much of the strength out of my body,” Cullen recalled.

After four games, with an option from the team to retire and join the coaching staff on the table, Cullen took the more difficult route and reported to the Lightning’s IHL affiliate, the Cleveland Lumberjacks. Despite appearing in six games with the team and collecting seven points in one of them, Cullen realized his comeback effort was futile.

“It was just, well, being in the hotel by myself away from my family, it was tough,” Cullen recalled. “I got sick down there again. I had a bad flu and I thought, ‘no, this is all coming back again.’”

Cullen packed his gear and flew back to Tampa. Two days later he was introduced as the Lightning’s new assistant coach. The transition from back-of-the-plane card games to front-of-the plane strategy sessions was smooth, but Cullen had something else in the back of his mind.

“I grew up in the car business,” Cullen explained. “My dad had been in the car business for 40 years; both my uncles are car dealers, my brother is a car dealer. I grew up around it and loved it. I always knew that once I was through with hockey I’d be in the car business.”

So Cullen, no longer willing to endure the travel that is so much a part of hockey, moved his family to an Atlanta suburb and went to work for his brother who owns a Chevrolet dealership. After a seven-year apprenticeship, he bought a Dodge store nearby. After two years, Cullen received a letter from the Chrysler Corporation informing him that his was among the dealerships sliced as part of the company’s economic recovery plan.

“Imagine that,” Cullen reflected. “I had employees with families to support and they just shut us down. It seems so unfair. I only had my dealership for two years but my investment was gone. I still have a hard time talking about it.”

Cullen returned to his brother’s business, where he serves as the general manager. He was fortunate to land on his feet, with his perspective in tact.

“You know,” Cullen reflected. “As I think about the things that have happened to me, I realize that I can still go to my home at the end of the day and I have to count my blessings. My three kids are healthy, my wife is healthy and I’m healthy. So, despite what life throws at you, you move on. Even though people are dealt blows and some are tougher to handle than others, you just have to keep plugging. You keep plugging and do the best you can.

“Hockey is a great game. The game never leaves you. I still miss playing and I miss the camaraderie. We all dream growing up about playing a pro sport, and for the ones that make it, you have to count your blessings.”

Cullen might have added but didn’t have to, never, ever stop battling.

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