Volume 92, Issue 52

Friday, December 4, 1998

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Cullen shows class and strength

John Cullen has again lost his battle to play hockey, but not the war against adversity.

A 10-year veteran of the National Hockey League, Cullen threw in the towel last week after a statistically mediocre return to the ice. The 34-year-old dressed for only four games this season with the Tampa Bay Lightning going scoreless before his demotion to the Cleveland Lumber Jacks in the International Hockey League. With the Jacks, he collected two goals and seven assists before ending his career.

His retirement is unfortunate, but the fact that he was able to play hockey again at the professional level far out-shadows anything else. Cullen left the sport nearly two years ago after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. For over 13 months he was forced to battle through a bone marrow transplant and radical chemotherapy, draining most the energy which had propelled him around the rink for over a decade.

More than once, Cullen appeared to be losing his fight with the grapefruit sized tumor which doctors had discovered in his chest. Unlike hall-of-famer Mario Lemieux, it was not a matter of whether Cullen would play hockey once again, it was a question of survival.

What Cullen did was beyond the realm of reality. In only 20 months he beat the odds which were stacked against him and skated once again in the NHL.

It is understandable that Cullen no longer has the energy to play. It will take years for his energy to return and at age 34, the hockey veteran doesn't have the time.

Not that it matters. Cullen has already proved himself with blades and a stick. Over 10 seasons, he was a two time all-star with 187 career goals and 363 assists. A member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers in 1990/91, the centre potted 39 goals and 71 assists in one season.

The moral of his personal story is to never surrender. No one ever believed he would return – except for himself and a select few others. He proved to everyone it could be done and conducted himself with style. Cullen did not come limping back to the league begging for another shot, he spoke his desire through his play. The Lightning did not re-sign him at the beginning of the season as a public relations ploy, they signed an individual which may have lost a step, but could still play and bring great attitude to the clubhouse.

Hundreds of individuals have the same story to tell around the world each year of fighting back handicaps or diseases in order to win. What makes Cullen different is that he did it in front of the media, who brought his story to an entire nation. He has become a publicly visible role model and inspiration to others dealing with similar issues.

His next challenge will be as a coach. Recognizing not only the talent but the motivation Cullen brought to the club, the Lightening have already moved their former player into a coaching position. There is little doubt Cullen will fit perfectly into his new role. He has the experience to teach his players and has a positive attitude to pass along. Most of all, he has the motivation and conviction that anything is possible. He has proven he will never give up – a trait which he will easily transpose onto his players.

Few hockey fans would be surprised if he is just as successful off the ice with a tie and jacket as he was with his jersey and ice skates.

To Contact The Sports Department: gazette.sports@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998