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Cullen focusing on ice

John Cullen got his life back Monday. Now starts the plan to get his career back.

Cullen, a Lightning center, cleared the biggest hurdle of his life Monday when he learned his cancer is in remission. But now begins the climb to return to hockey, more than a year after he played his last game.

"It's not going to be easy, I know that," Cullen said upon returning from Boston on Monday. "I'm going to have to work harder than I ever have in my life. But I've come too far. My goal all along as been to play hockey again."

While Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said he penciled Cullen into the lineup for training camp even before learning of Monday's results, and while coach Jacques Demers said Cullen could play for him "any time, anywhere," Cullen faces a long road for several reasons:

+ He turns 34 in August.

+ By September he will have not played a game in 18 months.

+ He had the most radical of cancer treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.

"It's hard enough being away from the game for a year, but to have gone through what his body has gone through makes it that much harder," Esposito said. "The key will be his cardiovascular limits."

The example everyone refers to is Mario Lemieux, who continued to be the game's top player after going through treatments for Hodgkin's disease. Lemieux took just a few weeks off for radiation treatments and even played on the day of his last treatment at the end of the 1993-94 season.

Lemieux was just 29 and received only radiation. Yet he sat out the entire 1994-95 season because of fatigue he blamed on the treatments.

However, Cullen's doctors point out that Cullen remained in tremendous shape. While going through chemotherapy last summer, Cullen actually gained weight and ran faster sprints and lifted heavier weights than he ever had. Currently Cullen is just a few pounds below his playing weight of 182 and has been working out for several weeks.

"My doctors have told me they see no reason why I can't come back," Cullen said. "But they've also told me it's not going to be like before. It's going to be a tough road.

"Up until now, I've been concentrating on being able to live a normal life again. Now, though, I can think about hockey. I plan on being there."

Asked when he planned to start skating again, Cullen smiled, then said, "Is there ice right now?"

Negotiations slow going

The Lightning's summer of contract negotiations barely has begun, yet it's already off to a rocky start.

The agent for free-agent goalie Mark Fitzpatrick is irked by the slow movement on a contract, and the agent for 1996 No. 1 pick Mario Larocque, Normand Dupont, says his client is not close to a deal. If Larocque does not sign by June 1, he will go into the draft and the team will lose his rights.

"We still have work left to do," Dupont said. "I really don't want to say he will go back into the draft because I hope we can work something out. But right now I don't know what will happen."

Esposito admitted there are problems but did not appear concerned Larocque would go back into the draft.

Meanwhile, the snag with Fitzpatrick regards length and terms of a contract. Fitzpatrick wants a two-year deal worth nearly $4-million. The Lightning wants a one-year deal for $1.5-million.

"We all thought two years was an appropriate contract length," Herb Pinder, Fitzpatrick's agent, said. "Then I get down here and he says all they want is one year. So where are we on this? I don't know. I've done all the work, all the traveling. (Esposito) doesn't even return the phone calls."

Esposito said he wants to re-sign Fitzpatrick, but there are other priorities at this time.

"We're going to deal with Mark, but right now we're having scouting meetings, and I've got the draft choices, such as Larocque, to sign," Esposito said.

_ Staff writer Tim Buckley contributed to this report.