After cancer scare, ex-Lightning star John Cullen feels blessed

After retiring, John Cullen becomes a Lightning assistant.
After retiring, John Cullen becomes a Lightning assistant.
Published Jan. 19, 2013

In a way, former Lightning center John Cullen said, fighting through the cancer that ended his career — and almost his life — gave him two of his greatest gifts: twin daughters Karlyn and Kortland, now 12.

"They tell you before you go through chemotherapy and radiation that you will become sterile so you'd better save this up if you want more children," Cullen said. "I had to go to one of those (sperm) banks, and I donated to myself."

Cullen's story is one of the most emotional in Lightning history. Diagnosed in March 1997 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Cullen needed six rounds of chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, during which his heart briefly stopped.

Even so, Cullen won a spot on the Lightning's 1998-99 roster, an effort for which he was awarded the NHL's Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to the sport.

But it was quickly clear Cullen was not the same player who had two 30-goal seasons for the Penguins and 34 goals and 105 points in 150 games with Tampa Bay. After four games with the Lightning and six for Cleveland of the now-defunct International Hockey League, Cullen became Tampa Bay's assistant coach, a job he held through 2000.

"As for changing my life, it probably did," Cullen said of his ordeal. "I catch myself. If I get upset, I realize my situation could have been a lot worse. It definitely helped me through my experiences."

A tough one came in June 2009, when he lost his Dodge dealership as part of the economic crisis. Cullen, 48, who had moved to Atlanta with his family — which also includes wife Valerie and daughter Kennedy, 17 — operated one of 789 dealerships closed by Chrysler.

He now works at a Chevrolet dealership in Jonesboro, Ga., owned by his brother, Terry, for whom Cullen had worked for five years.

Not bad when you consider the alternative.

"I just feel it's luck and being blessed," Cullen said of surviving cancer. "How many years later and I'm talking to you? It's an unbelievable feeling."