Thursday, November 15, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Ex-Lightning star, cancer survivor John Cullen counts his blessings

Tampa — Remember John Cullen?

If you're a life-long Lightning fan, of course you do. He's something of a legend in these parts. A true inspiration.

If you don't remember his story, he has lived to tell about it.

And that's the part that is inspiring. That he has lived to tell his story. That he is alive today.

"I'm lucky,'' Cullen said.

It all started in March of 1997. Cullen was 32 and the three-time all-star was in his ninth NHL season. It was his second season with the Lightning, where he was among the team leaders in points.

Life was good.

He was married to the love of his life, Valerie, and they had a beautiful baby girl named Kennedy. He was living his dream of playing hockey.

"We had it all,'' Valerie said.

With just a few weeks left in the season, Cullen started to feel run down. At first, he thought it was just the usual bumps and bruises that pile up over the course of a long hockey season. Then he thought it might have been a bad cold. Maybe the flu. But when the symptoms wouldn't go away, he decided to visit the doctor.

He didn't have a cold. He had cancer. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to be exact.
With treatment, his prognosis was good, a 92 percent chance at recovery.

"I always said if you're going to get cancer,'' Cullen said, "that's the one to get.''

But he had no idea what was in store. Radiation and chemotherapy ravaged his body. He lost his hair. He threw up constantly. In a matter of weeks, he dropped nearly 50 pounds down to 145. He looked like he was dying.

Because he was.

Doctors re-evaluated him. The treatment was not working. Cullen's odds of surviving dropped. Doctors said it was a 50-50 shot that he would live, but only after a risky bone-marrow transplant in November of 1992. During the procedure, his heart stopped.

But Cullen recovered and even returned to hockey. I was there the night he scored a goal in his first game back at the Olympiahalle in Innisbrook, Austria in September of 1998, more than 18 months after he was diagnosed and less than a year after his heart stopped on the operating table.

Cullen's goal came in a preseason game, but for him, it was like scoring in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. It remains one of the most emotional things I've ever seen in more than 30 years as a sportswriter.

The comeback from cancer, at least as player, didn't last very long. He played only four regular-season NHL games before he was forced to retire. Cancer had simply drained too much from him.

He retired and became a Lightning assistant coach. But he hated being away from his family, which soon included twins Karlyn and Kortland. So he left hockey and joined his brother's car dealership in Georgia. Now he has his own Chevrolet dealership near Atlanta.

"It's crazy how this world works,'' Cullen said. "It was 20 years ago. I know for the first few years, I was really appreciative. And then as time goes on, I got to knock myself in the head and go, 'Hey, remember back when?' ''

It doesn't take much to remember how awful that time was and how close John came to losing his battle.

"I remember everything,'' Valerie said. "It was bad.''

But now, the Cullens truly do appreciate where they've been and where they are. Kennedy is now 23. The twins are 18.

Life is good again.

John and Valerie were at Amalie Arena on Tuesday night as John dropped the puck on the ceremonial opening faceoff to commemorate the NHL's "Hockey Fights Cancer'' initiative. Cullen is part of the inspiration for hockey's public fight against cancer.

John smiled thinking back to his time with the Lightning, and playing in the team's first-ever playoff series at the then-Thunderdome in St. Petersburg. Valerie smiles thinking about everything else.

"It's almost like cancer gives you an opportunity, whether you want it or not, to look at life in a different way,'' Valerie said. "Having gone through that, it may not have worked out. This could have been a memorial. But we're here and it's giving us the chance to look at life is such a more positive way.''

And best of all?

"It's just the opportunity to have one more day,'' Valerie said.

Comments
NHL taste is a ‘dream come true’ for Lightning’s Erik Cernak

NHL taste is a ‘dream come true’ for Lightning’s Erik Cernak

What does a prospect’s first call up to the NHL look like?
Published: 11/14/18
Bounces work against Lightning in loss to Sabres

Bounces work against Lightning in loss to Sabres

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It looked like a beautiful chance. Steven Stamkos got the puck in the final minute, faked a shot and slid it over to Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov fired off the shot they wanted for him … and the puck hit the post."I made the ...
Published: 11/13/18
Lightning enjoys chance to share Marty St. Louis’ Hall of Fame induction

Lightning enjoys chance to share Marty St. Louis’ Hall of Fame induction

Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman spearhead large Lightning contingent's trip to Hockey Hall of Fame induction
Published: 11/13/18
Lightning pre-game: Get to know the Buffalo Sabres

Lightning pre-game: Get to know the Buffalo Sabres

The Lightning's on the road for the next week, starting with a game tonight against Buffalo at 7:30 p.m.It's the 99th game all-time between the Sabres and Lightning. The Sabres will look to improve on their all-time home record of 25-18-5 agains...
Published: 11/13/18
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak will make NHL debut in Buffalo

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak will make NHL debut in Buffalo

Erik Cernak joins the Lightning while Anton Stralman deals with an upper-body injury
Published: 11/13/18
Lightning’s Mikhail Sergachev ranked among hockey’s best players 21 and under

Lightning’s Mikhail Sergachev ranked among hockey’s best players 21 and under

Mikhail Sergachev, 20, ranks 29th in The Hockey News' Prospects Unlimited Top 100 rankings.
Published: 11/13/18
Marty St. Louis in Hall of Fame induction speech: ‘My heart and will was taller than everyone else’

Marty St. Louis in Hall of Fame induction speech: ‘My heart and will was taller than everyone else’

The words of wisdom Martin St. Louis offered at the end of his speech sounded as if they were advice he received as an undrafted NHL player.An undrafted skater who had anything but an easy path to a long NHL career."For all of the kids out there list...
Published: 11/13/18
Lightning journal: Tampa Bay prepares for road trip that should provide strong test

Lightning journal: Tampa Bay prepares for road trip that should provide strong test

BRANDON — The Lightning won't return to Amalie Arena until Thanksgiving Eve because of a road trip that will provide a good test in the second month of the season.Much of that has to do with who Tampa Bay will play."You've got (Nashville) ahead...
Published: 11/12/18
Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Marty St. Louis ‘was always looking for more’

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Marty St. Louis ‘was always looking for more’

Marty St. Louis is the man who made the Lightning go, the best player in franchise history, who proved so many people wrong on his way to the top of the hockey world.
Published: 11/11/18
How the Ottawa Senators beat the Tampa Bay Lightning

How the Ottawa Senators beat the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning came back from a two-goal deficit, then gave up a two-goal deficit and lost to Ottawa by two goals on Saturday.Final: Senators 6, Lightning 4Ryan Dzingel placed a shot perfectly over Andrei Vasilevskiy's shoulder to put Ottawa on top mi...
Published: 11/10/18