Friday, September 3, 2010

John Cullen

John Cullen's courageous come-back attempt ended November 27, 1998. John announced his retirement as a player and accepted an offer to become an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

John missed the entire 1997-98 campaign due to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

John was diagnosed with cancer in March 1997 after a grapefruit-sized tumor was discovered in his chest. He underwent lengthy chemotherapy and was deemed cancer-free by doctors 13 months later.

Six months into the treatment, John learned the chemotherapy had not completely eradicated the cancer, forcing a bone marrow transplant and radical chemotherapy in Boston.

The Fort Erie, Ontario native played college hockey at Boston University where he was a perennial all star. Because of his lack of size, he wasn't drafted in the NHL Entry Draft, but Buffalo did make him the 10th selection of the 1986 supplemental draft.

John never played with Buffalo. After finishing his college, he turned pro with the IHL's Flint Spirits. In his first professional season, John scored 48 goals, 109 assists and 157 points in 81 games!! He added 26 more points in 16 playoff games. Needless to say, John cleaned up at the post season awards dinner. He was named a First Team All Star, league MVP, top scorer and top rookie (shared with Ed Belfour). Not a bad first impression!

During the 10 pre-season games in 1988 John impressed the Pittsburgh Penguins enough to offer him a contract. The Pens already had Mario Lemieux but were looking for a second line pivot-man. They found him in John.

"I had been dreaming about playing in the NHL probably since I was about 10 years old. Both my father Barry and uncle Brian had played in the NHL and I wanted to make it there as well," John said.

In his first ever NHL game John was paired with Phil Bourque and Kevin Stevens on the third line.

"I remember getting my first ever NHL point in my debut. I got an assist on a goal that Coffey scored. Because he was such an amazing player and had done so much for the game, I'll never forget that first point. It was late in the third period and I was carrying the puck in the Washington zone. Then I passed it over to Coffey. He just took a slapshot and it went into the net, beating Clint Malarchuk, who was playing goal for the Capitals. I didn't keep the puck though. I never was big on things like that," John said.

John's first NHL season was 1988-89. He scored 12 goals and assisted on 37 others. The following season he exploded with 32 goals and 60 assists for 92 points.

John took his game to the next level in 1990-91. In his first 65 games with Pittsburgh he scored 31 goals and 63 assists. But then the hockey world was shocked by one of the biggest trades in NHL history. John was sent to Hartford with Zarley Zalapski for long time Whalers Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings. That trade had deep implications on both franchises. With the leadership and defensive abilities of Francis and Samuelsson, Pittsburgh turned into Stanley Cup dynasty, winning two consecutive Stanley Cups. Meanwhile, John struggled with less talented linemates in Hartford. Francis and Samuelsson were the heart and soul of the Whalers and many say the franchise was never the same since that trade. Hartford eventually relocated to become the Carolina Hurricanes.

After only 96 games in Hartford, John was sent to Toronto for future considerations. With the Leafs, John was wearing the same number (19) as his father had donned in the original six days.

"It was exciting to play in Toronto," said John, who grew up in Guelph,Ontario, located an hour's drive northwest of Toronto. "I idolized the Maple Leafs when I was growing up. And I it was neat that my dad played for the Leafs and that we wore the same number."

By this time the fiesty center's confidence had been totally shot, due to serious neck and back problems. After a decent start in Toronto, John had a disastrous 1993-94 campaign and found himself without an NHL team by season's end.

The Pittsburgh Penguins came calling once again, signing him as a free agent for the second time in his career. He responded well with 37 points in a third line role during the lockout-shortened 48 game schedule. Still, he was but a mere shadow of the player who was emerging when he first left the Steel City.

John moved on to Tampa Bay for the following two years. He was an important cog in the Lightning's anemic offense for two seasons before it was discovered he had cancer.

In 621 NHL games over parts of 10 seasons for Pittsburgh, Hartford, Toronto and Tampa Bay, John has 187 goals and 363 assists. He enjoyed his finest season in 1990-91, when he established career highs with 39 goals and 71 assists for the Penguins and Whalers. John participated in two NHL all star games .

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