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Lightning counting a blessing

For 82 games, they wore a patch honoring their sick teammate, their fallen friend: a green shamrock with the No. 12 _ John Cullen's number _ inside it.

Hardly a day went by when a Lightning player didn't shake his head and mutter something about "Cully."

"Say a prayer for Cully," they would say. Or "What would Cully do?" _ which became the team's battle cry.

Cullen's locker at the Ice Palace remained intact: the No. 12 home jersey hanging between a pair of skates, Cully's skates.

If you stood at Cullen's locker and drilled a hole through the ceiling, then up through another floor you would be standing in the room where just one year ago, Cullen broke into tears and announced that the radiation treatments had not cured his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Around him, teammates _ professional hockey players _ openly wept.

On Monday, they celebrated when it was learned Cullen's cancer was in remission. Tests at the Dana Farber Institute in Boston revealed no cancer, six months after Cullen had a bone marrow transplant.

"I'm pumped," said Lightning forward Paul Ysebaert, Cullen's best friend on the team. "It brought a tear to my eye just realizing prayers come true. He fought a hard battle and now he can start living again. As soon as I see him, I'm telling him that he doesn't get any more strokes (in golf) from me from now on."

Lightning goalie Corey Schwab was sitting at home, listening to sports radio, when he heard the news. The first thing he did was call his fiancee, Debbie. He wanted to tell her. Then again, he was so happy, he just wanted to tell somebody, anybody.

"It's hard to describe it because I'm so happy and relieved for him," Schwab said.

Alex Selivanov, one of Cullen's closest friends, called the Lightning every hour Monday morning until he heard the news.

"It's the best news I've heard all season," Selivanov said. "I can't wait to start skating with him again. I can't wait to play with him. I don't need anyone else. Give me Cully and I play good. I can't wait to play with him. I'm just so happy, so happy."

Two days ago, though, Selivanov was scared.

"Of course," Selivanov said. "He's so young and he was so sick. I was scared. But I shouldn't have been. I know Cully. I should not have been scared."

Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said he has been worried since Cullen was diagnosed in March 1997. But lately, he said, that feeling had gone away. Seeing Cullen the past few weeks eased his worries.

"He looked so strong, so healthy that I became convinced he was all right," Esposito said.

But he looked all right last spring after a series of radiation treatments. And he looked all right after chemotherapy treatments. And he looked all right after the bone marrow transplant in November.

Each time, though, there was a setback. Until Monday. That's what had everyone holding his breath until the official word came down. That and the fact that someone like Cullen was sick to begin with.

"It's funny, as professional athletes, we're so focused on the job we do _ playing hockey _ that we kind of forget about the day-to-day lives of people," Schwab said. "When it hits a teammate of yours, you almost don't know how to handle it because all of our lives, we've been so blessed to lead the lives we lead. And when you're an athlete, you feel like you're almost invincible."

But everyone, Schwab said, felt vulnerable after seeing what Cullen went through. Each day, he said, you could almost feel the dark cloud hanging over the team.

"We didn't always talk out loud about it, but it was always on our mind every single day," Schwab said. "I think we all thought about it all the time. How could you not? We were wearing his number on our jerseys. Every time we looked at his locker, we thought about him. Now, it's just good to know he's coming back. Now, maybe that cloud has been lifted. Finally, we have good news and now it would be just great to see him come back and play.

"Knowing John Cullen and how he played the game and how he attacked (his cancer), there isn't a doubt in my mind that he will play again."