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Season over, a victory lifts Lightning's spirits

Monday was the first day of the rest of his life.

John Cullen, the professional hockey player for the Tampa Bay Lightning who was diagnosed with cancer one year ago, learned that his cancer is in remission. The news comes a year after doctors discovered he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and six months after a bone-marrow transplant nearly killed him.

"Today was a good day," Cullen, 33, said. "It's been a long, tough year, but now I got a clean bill of health. It was hard, but I stayed positive the whole way. I knew I could beat this thing. When the doctors said "cancer' I was scared. But ever since then, I fought hard to beat it."

Cullen will be tested again in six months and again in a year, but doctors gave him the go-ahead to return to hockey next season.

"I plan on being there for training camp," Cullen said. "Throughout this whole thing, my goal was to return to hockey. I know I'll have to work harder than I ever have in my life. But I fought to beat this, and I'll fight to play hockey again."

Those were welcome words to Lightning coach Jacques Demers.

"John Cullen can play for me anytime, anywhere," he said. "He is an inspiration to me and my wife, Debbie, (who will undergo surgery for breast cancer Wednesday) and for everyone who has ever met him. To go through what he did and to stay positive and fight like he did shows unbelievable resolve and character. And anyone with that kind of character has a spot on my team."

Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said Cullen will be invited to training camp in September. If he doesn't make the team or cannot play, he will be offered another job in the organization.

"But he told me, "Phil, I plan on playing so let's not even worry about that other stuff,' " Esposito said. "And knowing John, I believe he will play again."

The Lightning center's fight to play hockey turned into a fight for his life last March when he began suffering flu-like symptoms and a shortness of breath while playing. That's when doctors discovered a baseball-sized mass in his chest. A series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments last summer reduced the mass and robbed Cullen of his hair and nearly 30 pounds but did not destroy the cancer. At the time, Cullen said doctors told him his chance of survival had gone from "about 92 percent" to when he was diagnosed to "about 50-50."

In October, Cullen underwent a bone-marrow transplant at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Just days after his own marrow was removed and harvested, Cullen's heart stopped for nearly a minute because the sac surrounding his heart had become inflamed. The fact that he was in a hospital when his heart stopped was perhaps the only thing that saved his life.

"That was the scariest day of the whole thing," Cullen said.

Monday, though, was perhaps the most anxious day.

Cullen said he slept well Sunday night in Boston, where he was tested. His wife, Valerie, did not.

"The last couple of days have been so hard because all we did was wait," she said.

Monday's testing began around 8 a.m., and the Cullens learned the good news around 10.

"Actually, 9:50," Valerie said with a laugh. "I remember exactly. While he was laying there on that table it was nerve-racking. Then when we got the news, I was elated, overwhelmed, relieved. For 13 months, it's all we thought about. Now we can get on with the rest of our lives."

News that Cullen's cancer was in remission started to spread through the Tampa Bay area during the late afternoon. When the Cullens arrived at Tampa International Airport at 8:25 Monday night, more than 75 people had gathered to welcome them, including Cullen's teammate, Corey Schwab; a Tampa man who held a sign that read, "John Cullen-1, The Big C-0"; and Karin Robinson, a nurse from Sarasota who developed a Web site called "We Care John" that includes updates on Cullen's condition, letters from across the world and responses from the Cullens.

"The people who have prayed for me and sent me letters, I just can't thank them enough," Cullen said. "To get this kind of response from people I don't even know is unbelievable. And for all these people to show up the airport? They must be crazy."

With that, Cullen left the airport with Valerie for his St. Petersburg home. Waiting was their 2-year-old daughter, Kennedy, Cullen's parents and other relatives. For the first time in 13 months, the Cullens were going home to celebrate a visit to the doctors.

"Today," Valerie said, "is the first day of the rest of our lives."

John Cullen's battle with cancer

MARCH 28, 1997 _ Lightning center John Cullen is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when a baseball-sized mass is discovered in his chest.

APRIL 5, 1997 _ A bone marrow test on Cullen comes back negative, meaning the cancer has not spread beyond Cullen's chest.

APRIL 8, 1997 _ Cullen meets with doctors at the Mayo Clinic. It is determined that chemotherapy and radiation will be used to fight the cancer.

APRIL 10, 1997 _ Cullen speaks publicly for the first time, saying, "I'm treating this like a six-month injury."

APRIL 20, 1997 _ Cullen begins three months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the first in a series of six treatments.

JULY 28, 1997 _ Cullen has the final chemotherapy treatment.

SEPT. 4, 1997 _ Surrounded by family and teammates, Cullen breaks down in an emotional news conference held to announce that the cancer is not in remission and that he will undergo further treatments. Doctors say he has a 50-50 chance of survival.

OCT. 1, 1997 _ The Lightning opens the 1997-98 NHL season with Cullen in attendance. The team unveils a patch: a shamrock with Cullen's No. 12 inside it to honor their sick teammate.

OCT. 23, 1997 _ Cullen undergoes the most serious step in his treatment _ a preventive bone marrow transplant at the Dana-Farber Institute in Boston.

OCT. 27, 1997 _ Cullen's heart stops for nearly a minute because of pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.

DEC. 22, 1997 _ Cullen is hospitalized for viral meningitis. His weight has slipped from a normal 182 to about 155.

APRIL 8, 1998 _ Cullen attends his first Lightning game since the bone marrow transplant. At 170 pounds, he announces his intention to return to hockey.

APRIL 27, 1998 _ Cullen learns his cancer is in remission.

_ Compiled by Tom Jones