His cancer in remission, John Cullen is back with the Lightning
John Cullen's body is cancer-free and his personal trainer, John
McCortney, says he's in the best shape of his life, but whenever
Cullen coughs, he can't help having an uneasy feeling. "I start
thinking, Oh, man, here we go again," he says. "The fear never
Fear became part of his life in the spring of 1997. Cullen, a
5'10", 180-pound center, was leading the Lightning with 55 points
and playing like an All-Star, but he had flulike symptoms he
couldn't shake. Long shifts left him wheezing. His chest burned.
His jaw ached. He ignored the signs for weeks before getting a
chest X-ray. When Tampa Bay's physicians saw the results, they
blanched and ordered a CAT scan. It revealed a baseball-sized
tumor in Cullen's chest that, upon further testing, was found to
be malignant. He had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Though he immediately had to begin chemotherapy and would miss
the rest of the season, Cullen remained buoyant. "He lost his
hair and he had pain from the chemo, but he worked right through
it," says McCortney. "He ran, lifted, everything. He got
By early September '97 the tumor had been eradicated. But then
Cullen flew to a Boston hospital for a precautionary gallium
test, which determines whether cancer cells live in the body. The
test came back positive. At a press conference in Tampa a few
days later, it became clear that Cullen hadn't fully understood
the implications of the results. When a reporter asked Cullen's
doctor about his chances for survival, the doctor said, "About
50-50." Cullen yelped and broke into tears.
While Tampa Bay players paid homage to Cullen last season by
wearing his number 12 on their uniforms, Cullen fought for his
life. First came more chemotherapy as well as radiation, the side
effects of which once caused his heart to fail. Last October,
John's wife, Valerie, and a nurse were wheeling him to a
radiation session when he suddenly went limp. The nurse checked
his pulse. Nothing. "Code blue! Code blue!" she screamed. Doctors
rushed into the hallway and revived him with a defibrillator.
Not long after, John endured a bone marrow transplant. During the
days as his marrow was harvested, cleansed and reintroduced,
Valerie had to wear a surgical mask when she sat by his side. He
returned to Tampa last winter, but he was fragile. On short walks
he couldn't keep pace with Valerie as she pushed their
two-year-old daughter, Kennedy, in a stroller. Soon, however, he
began exercising, and in April he went to Boston for another test
and learned that the cancer was gone.
These days Cullen, 34, can do sets of sprints that last an hour.
His legs are muscular, his body robust. In a Lightning scrimmage
last week he skated hard and displayed the soft hands and
offensive craftiness that have helped him score 550 NHL points.
"Looks like the same old John Cullen to me," said left wing Paul
"On the ice I'm focused," Cullen said. "I don't think about the
other stuff. I tell you, though, when I go to Boston for
checkups, each one makes me as nervous as the last."
Restricted Free Agents
THE STARS ARE OUT AGAIN
That some 100 restricted free agents remained unsigned as
training camps began last week was an ominous sign for the NHL.
Last year's list of restricted free agents included stars like
Ducks winger Paul Kariya and Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov,
whose contract impasses and prolonged absences greatly diminished
the regular season. This year the missing talent could be even
Islanders wing Zigmund Palffy and Bruins center Jason Allison,
both of whom were among the league's top 10 scorers in 1997-98,
were far from deals at week's end. So were the Oilers' best
player, center Doug Weight, high-scoring Devils defenseman Scott
Niedermayer and premier backliner Sandis Ozolinsh of the
Avalanche. The Kings' Norris Trophy winner, Rob Blake, seemed
close to a deal, but he remained unsigned. Add Penguins sniper
Petr Nedved, who sat out last season after failing to sign, and
the NHL's roster of stars looks as gap-filled as a goon's grin.
Don't expect the stalemates to end soon. Teams have the right to
match any offer to their restricted free agents, so unless
another suitor comes calling, there's little incentive for the
restricted free agent's club to rush into a deal. Meanwhile, the
players, who saw Kariya ($14 million for two years) and Fedorov
($38 million for six) hit the jackpot after missing considerable
regular-season time, aren't about to cave in.
Playing for Dad
FTOREK'S AND SUTTER'S BURDEN
As if having to outskate your peers and dazzle your coaches
wasn't enough pressure on a rookie in training camp, some guys
also must impress their dads. Eighteen-year-old center Shaun
Sutter is the fourth-round draftee of the Flames--and the son of
Calgary coach Brian. Across the continent, 23-year-old Sam
Ftorek, a right wing who was a free-agent invitee to the Devils'
camp, is trying to win over his father, New Jersey coach Robbie.
While Shaun encountered Flames who, figuring Brian was keeping a
close eye on his son, battled extra hard against him, Sam had a
different challenge. "Sometimes I start to call him Dad," he
said, "and I have to stop and say Robbie or Fitzy. I'm always
aware he's there."
Even off the ice Sam can't escape his father's presence: Robbie
is staying across the hall from him at the team hotel.
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN WINKLER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS WINNING TOUCH Lymphoma didn't rob Cullen of the soft hands that made him a star. [John Cullen in game]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT LEVY/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Colin Campbell]
THE HEAT'S ON...
NHL vice president of hockey operations
The amiable Campbell may find that coaching the Rangers, who
fired him last February after 3 1/2 seasons, is easy compared to
being the league's chief disciplinarian. Twenty-seven teams will
be watching cynically to see if he can control the inmates--and
mete out punishment fairly.