John Cullen
John Cullen.jpg
Born August 2, 1964 (1964-08-02) (age 58)
Puslinch, Ontario, Canada
Height 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m)
Weight 187 lb (85 kg; 13 st 5 lb)
Position Centre
Shoots Right
Played for Pittsburgh Penguins
Hartford Whalers
Toronto Maple Leafs
Tampa Bay Lightning
National team Flag of Canada.svg  Canada
NHL Draft 10th overall
1986 Supplemental Draft
Buffalo Sabres
Playing career 1987–1998

John Cullen (born Barry John Cullen on August 2, 1964) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey centre who played in the National Hockey League (NHL) for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hartford Whalers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning.

He was a standout player for Boston University and is the school's all-time leading scorer & after the Buffalo Sabres selected him in the 1986 NHL Supplemental Draft but chose not to offer him a contract, John signed with the Flint Spirits of the International Hockey League (IHL) for the 1987–88 season where he was named the IHL's co-Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player after leading the league in scoring.

John's career was halted in 1997 when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He attempted a brief comeback in 1998 after an 18-month battle with the disease, for which the NHL awarded him the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy before retiring to serve as an assistant coach for a year with the Lightning.

Playing Career

John was a standout at Boston University where he was named the East Coast Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 1983–84 after leading his team in scoring with 56 points, however, the NHL passed him over as he went unclaimed in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.

He was named to the Hockey East All-Star Teams in 1985, 1986 & 1987 and a National Collegiate Athletic Association East Second Team All-American in 1986.

John graduated as BU's all-time scoring leader with 241 points and was named to BU's Hockey East 25th anniversary team in 2009.

Passed over in the Entry Draft, he was finally selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1986 NHL Supplemental Draft. When the Sabres failed to offer him a contract, Cullen signed with the Flint Spirits of the International Hockey League (IHL) for the 1987–88 season.

John led the league with 157 points, scoring 48 goals & won the James Gatschene Memorial Trophy as league most valuable player while sharing the Gary F. Longman Memorial Trophy with Ed Belfour as rookie of the year.

John's outstanding season in Flint caught the attention of the Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He signed a contract with the Penguins for the league minimum, passing up a superior contract offer from Buffalo as he remained upset at how they released him the year before.

He made his NHL debut in the 1988–89 season, appearing in 79 games with the Penguins and scoring 49 points.

John was given a greater role with the Penguins the following year after Mario Lemieux missed 21 games due to a back injury and responded by scoring 32 goals and 92 points to finish third in team scoring.

Additionally, he played for Team Canada at the 1990 World Championship, scoring four points in ten games.

John had his best season in the 1990–91 season; as one of the team's top offensive centres, he scored 94 points in the Penguins' first 65 games and played in his first NHL All-Star Game, but when Lemieux returned after missing an additional 50-games due to injury, his playing time and production declined.

The Penguins' needs led them to complete a blockbuster trade on March 1, 1991 in which John was sent to the Hartford Whalers (along with Zarley Zalapski & Jeff Parker) in exchange for Hartford's all-time leading scorer, Ron Francis (along with Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings).

The Penguins almost turned down the deal as they were concerned about giving up John's playmaking and leadership abilities while his former teammates credited he as being the primary reason they were in a playoff position at the time the trade happened.

After the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup that season, Phil Bourque later said it "broke his heart" that John was not able to share in that championship.

In Hartford, John worked to overcome the team's fans' disappointment at losing Francis. The Hartford fans initially booed him to show their dissatisfaction with the trade.

He scored 16 points in 13 regular season games to finish the season with 110 points combined between the Penguins and Whalers & was the team's best player in their first round loss to the Boston Bruins in the 1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

John initially accepted an invitation to join the Canadian team at the 1991 Canada Cup, but subsequently chose not to participate as his contract had expired, leading to greater insurance concerns.

Still without a contract when the 1991–92 season began, John missed the first four games before signing a four-year deal with Hartford worth a total of $4 million.

He returned to score 77 points in 77 games in his first full season with the Whalers and represented the team at the 1992 All-Star Game.

Midway through the 1992–93 NHL season, the Whalers sent John to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Toronto's second round selection at the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He was excited to play for his father's old team, but injuries reduced his ability to perform.

John's most significant injury was a herniated disc in his neck that doctors initially feared would end his career, but a bulky neck brace allowed him to return and play out his contract in Toronto.

When the Leafs chose not to re-sign John following the 1993–94 season, he returned to the Penguins for one season before Tony Esposito convinced him to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1995.

He enjoyed immediate success with linemates Shawn Burr & Alexander Selivanov as the trio combined to score 130 points and helped lead the Lightning to the first playoff appearance in franchise history.

They were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games while John led the team in playoff scoring with three goals and three assists. The Lightning looked to improve in 1996–97.

John was leading the team in scoring, but was suffering flu-like symptoms that he could not shake. As Tampa was fighting for a playoff spot, he played through his condition for weeks.

Cancer and Comeback

After two months of quietly dealing with his symptoms, John's wife finally called the team trainers and asked them to check into his illness. The team took an x-ray and found a large black shadow in his chest.

John underwent a CAT scan which revealed Cullen had a baseball-sized tumor; he was diagnosed as having Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The diagnosis ended his season and he immediately began chemotherapy treatments that quickly reduced his cancer. The tumor was gone by September 1997, but a precautionary test prior to training camp revealed that John still had cancer cells in his body.

He missed the entire 1997–98 NHL season as he continued to battle the disease while his teammates wore a uniform patch with his #12 in support throughout the year.

On one day during his treatments (as his wife was wheeling him down a hospital corridor), John went into cardiac arrest, requiring doctors to use a defibrillator to revive him. He underwent a bone marrow transplant that briefly reduced his immune system to the point that he could have very little human contact.

Another examination in April 1998 revealed that the cancer was finally gone and John immediately began training for a comeback.

For the 1998-99 season, the Lightning signed John to a one-year, $500,000 contract. He played his first game in nearly 18 months on September 18, 1998, in an exhibition game between the Lightning and Sabres at Innsbruck, Austria.

He scored the game-winning goal in a 3–1 victory, after which he said he sat on the bench in disbelief over how he was given a second chance.

He was named to the roster and was greeted with a loud standing ovation by the fans in Tampa Bay when he was introduced prior to their season opening game.

John appeared in four of the Lightning's first eight games, but it was evident that he had lost much of his speed and strength. The Lightning assigned him to the IHL's Cleveland Lumberjacks, but also gave him the option of retiring and taking up a position as an assistant coach.

John chose to accept the demotion, giving himself one month to determine if he could continue playing. He appeared in six games for Cleveland, and in one game against the Chicago Wolves tied an IHL record when he scored seven points in a 7–3 victory.

However, a bout of bronchitis led John to fear that his cancer had returned, but the tests came back negative, but after spending time with his family, he realized that neither he nor his family were interested in returning to Cleveland.

On November 28, 1998, John announced his retirement and accepted the Lightning offer to become an assistant coach.

In recognition of his comeback attempt, the NHL named him the 1999 winner of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for dedication and perseverance while the IHL renamed its Comeback Player of the Year award the John Cullen Award.

Former Lightning head coach Terry Crisp has stated publicly that John was a player that stood out as something special saying, “John Cullen ... beat cancer and came back to play and helped us win."

Career Statistics

Regular season and playoffs

    Regular Season   Playoffs
Season Team League GP G A Pts PIM GP G A Pts PIM
1983–84 Boston University ECAC 40 23 33 56 28
1984–85 Boston University HE 41 27 32 59 46
1985–86 Boston University HE 43 25 49 74 54
1986–87 Boston University HE 36 23 29 52 35
1987–88 Flint Spirits IHL 81 48 109 157 113 16 11 15 26 16
1988–89 Pittsburgh Penguins NHL 79 12 37 49 112 11 3 6 9 28
1989–90 Pittsburgh Penguins NHL 72 32 60 92 138
1990–91 Pittsburgh Penguins NHL 65 31 63 94 83
1990–91 Hartford Whalers NHL 13 8 8 16 18 6 2 7 9 10
1991–92 Hartford Whalers NHL 77 26 51 77 141 7 2 1 3 12
1992–93 Hartford Whalers NHL 19 5 4 9 58
1992–93 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 47 13 28 41 53 12 2 3 5 0
1993–94 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 53 13 17 30 67 3 0 0 0 0
1994–95 Pittsburgh Penguins NHL 46 13 24 37 66 9 0 2 2 8
1995–96 Tampa Bay Lightning NHL 76 16 34 50 65 5 3 3 6 0
1996–97 Tampa Bay Lightning NHL 70 18 37 55 95
1998–99 Tampa Bay Lightning NHL 4 0 0 0 2
1998–99 Cleveland Lumberjacks IHL 6 2 7 9 0
NHL totals 621 187 363 550 898 53 12 22 34 58


Year Team Event Result GP G A Pts PIM
1990 Canada WC 4th 10 1 3 4 0
International totals 10 1 3 4 0


Award Year
ECAC Rookie of the Year 1983–84
All-Hockey East First Team 1984–85
AHCA East Second-Team All-American 1985–86
All-Hockey East Second Team 1986–87
Gary F. Longman Memorial Trophy
James Gatschene Memorial Trophy
Leo P. Lamoureux Memorial Trophy
First Team All-Star
Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy 1998–99

Personal Life

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