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

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (91) lines up for the puck drop with H. Lee Moffitt, Tommy Miracle, John Cullen and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) at center ice before dropping the ceremonial first puck on Hockey Fights Cancer night. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Nov. 7, 2018

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.