Mark Cullen is happy to be alive, let alone to still be able to play the game he loves.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Lefty Gomez, the great New York Yankees pitcher, is credited with the immortal line, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It’s a sage observation that applies not only to sport, but also to life, which can throw a curve when you least expect it.
Mark Cullen can vouch for that.
“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all” goes the lyric from the old Hee Haw television show, and Cullen is living proof that being good and being lucky don’t necessarily go together.
A two-time All-American at Colorado College, he suffered a broken neck during his junior season after a head-first check into the boards caused a compression fracture of his seventh vertebra.
He recovered completely, only to break his ankle near the end of his rookie pro season.
In a playoff game in Grand Rapids, he heard his ankle snap after another player unintentionally got tied up in his skates. The fracture was bad enough to require the insertion of a plate and screws.
For Cullen, it was the same old song and dance. His luck was like – what else – a broken record. Every time he went for a spin, something happened.
“I was the kid in baseball who was getting hit in the face with a bat or the ball,” Cullen said. “I got hit with a bat a couple of times. That’s the way it’s been my whole life.”
Just when you think things can’t get much worse, they can.
Cullen missed the beginning of the 2003-04 season when a funny-looking mole on his back turned out to be malignant melanoma.
He didn’t know much about that type of cancer, but when he looked at the pamphlets and the percentages, he knew his odds weren’t necessarily good.
Discovered in a routine physical exam while Cullen was in the training camp of the Minnesota Wild, his condition was serious enough that he required immediate surgery. The doctor removed a large chunk of skin about the size of a hockey puck, along with two lymph nodes.
That might have solved things for someone born lucky. Not Cullen. Tests showed the cancer had spread to one of his lymph nodes. Not good. Not lucky.
“It was a shock to everyone,” Cullen said, referring to his family, including brothers Matt and Joe, who were playing in the NHL and AHL, respectively. “Here you had three pro hockey players, all very healthy and very fit. How could one of us get cancer? It was such a scare to our whole family.”
Cullen found himself at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, NY, where a second surgery removed 13 more lymph nodes – essentially every one of the lymphatic vessels under his left arm.
For once, he may have been lucky. “With how fast it was spreading in my body, I wouldn’t have had much longer if we hadn’t caught it early,” Cullen said.
His luck, in fact, began to change. Sure, there was a separated shoulder that he had to suffer through a few months later, along with some bumps and bruises, but everything seemed minor in comparison.
If nothing else, the cancer gave him focus.
“It helped put things in perspective – not that I felt out of perspective – and showed me what was really important in life, like my family and Jayme, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife. I realized how extremely important hockey was to me.”
Cullen played three seasons in Houston before he decided to try his “luck” elsewhere. Undrafted out of college, he was a longshot to ever play in the NHL. At 5-11, 175-pounds, some scouts considered him “too small,” but they didn’t look at the size of his heart.
During the 2005-06 season, Cullen beat the odds again, this time on the ice.
Playing for the Norfolk Admirals, Cullen recorded 29 goals and 39 assists for 68 points in 54 games. It earned him a ticket to Chicago, where he wound up playing 29 games for the Blackhawks.
He scored his first NHL goal in his first game. If he had been lucky, he might have had two.
“I missed a wide open net in the first period. Afterwards, I was sitting on the bench, kicking myself, thinking ‘I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight.’ Fortunately, I got another chance.”
Cullen was on a 2-on-1 break with Curtis Brown when he was able to backhand a loose puck past St. Louis Blues netminder Patrick Lalime. It was sweet vindication for Cullen, who had celebrated his 27th birthday two weeks earlier.
“It was a good feeling,” he said. “Playing in the NHL is something we all hope for and dream about growing up. That it took me that long made it extra special. It was certainly worth the wait.”
Cullen tallied seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 29 games with the Blackhawks.
“I thought I had proved, at least to myself, that I can play in the NHL and actually be a good player and contribute. I went from playing on the fourth line to the second line, being on the power play and penalty kill. I felt pretty confident in my job.”
Cullen signed with Philadelphia the following season, but played mostly with the Phantoms (AHL), not the Flyers (NHL), after head coach Ken Hitchcock was fired and general manager Bobby Clarke stepped down.
“It was a tough year for the Philly organization,” Cullen said. “Things didn’t work out the way I had hoped.”
Things would be different for the 2007-08 season. He had stayed in touch with Carl Corazzini, who had been one of his linemates in Norfolk, and they talked about the possibility of playing together again.
“We found out that a lot of the same teams were talking to both of us. I really enjoyed playing with him in Norfolk, so if things worked out and we could play together again, I knew I would be happy.”
Both signed with the Red Wings, knowing the odds were good that they might end up in Grand Rapids. When the season started, they were able to rekindle their partnership while playing for the Griffins.
“Once you start having some success, it makes it fun and once you’re having fun, it’s a lot easier to play,” he said.
Good chemistry is hard to explain, although it’s usually pretty evident, according to Cullen.
“You can kind of tell from your first game, even the first period, if you’ll like playing with someone and whether it will work,” Cullen said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work.
“You could have the two best players on a team, but if their style of play doesn’t blend well together, it won’t work. There’s only one puck out there and you can’t have two guys who want it all of the time.”
Hockey is a game of give-and-take and teamwork is very important. That’s why coaches spend so much time toying with the right line combinations. It’s also why hockey players hate to sit. Chemistry isn’t something that develops on the bench.
“Just playing helps a lot,” Cullen said. “You feel more comfortable the more you play.”
Staying healthy is a top priority for Cullen, who has been cancer-free since 2005. Today, a scar several inches long is all that remains of the disease, save for the emotional effect of facing your mortality.
“Dealing with something that serious at a young age made me take a step back. It made me feel vulnerable and appreciate life even more. It changed my life, for sure.”
And so Cullen keeps his wife a little closer. Jayme, who worked for the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency in New York City, was recently hired as a senior account executive at Hanon McKendry in Grand Rapids.
“You learn your family is most important,” said Cullen, who gets together every Memorial Day – playoffs permitting – with his brothers and relatives at a place in eastern Ontario.
“We’re really close as brothers,” Cullen said. “It’s nice to have someone else who knows hockey and all the things you’re going through.”
Which, in his case, is a lot.
The Cullens all live near each other in Fargo, North Dakota, which is just across the state border from Moorhead, Minnesota, where the boys grew up and where their father, Terry, coached high school hockey.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had and I can say that without much hesitation,” Cullen said. “He’s still a big influence on me. It’s really nice to have an honest opinion, especially someone’s opinion I trust and value.”
His father was a strict disciplinarian. He wasn’t afraid to point to his sons as examples. “Matt was a highly touted player in Minnesota and my dad wasn’t afraid to make an example of him.”
Terry Cullen retired about 15 years ago to start his own insulation company, but his boys are still playing hockey.
Matt, now in 11th NHL season, is back with the Carolina Hurricanes after leaving to play for the New York Rangers for a season. Joe recently went to Germany to play after four years in the AHL and ECHL.
“During the summer, the three of us are together every day from 9 to 5,” Cullen said. “We work out, lift weights and skate together, even eat dinner together at least three times a week.”
The brothers also pull together an annual fundraiser for Cullen Children’s Foundation, a non-profit charity that Matt and his wife, Bridget, started after Mark contracted his cancer.
The weekend event includes a celebrity whiffleball game, a celebrity golf outing, a concert, a silent auction and a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. Proceeds benefit a variety of causes, from sponsoring kids for a stay at Camp Casey to buying wheelchairs for handicapped children.
“It’s a really great thing that Matt and Bridget started. It takes a lot of time, but my younger brother and I help out in the summer.”
The three brothers also have a younger sister, Annie, who is an accomplished athlete in her own right.
She was a gymnast growing up until too many injuries (sound familiar?) derailed her Olympic dreams. So she turned her attention to track and soccer and was pretty good at those sports, too. She tied her school record in the pole vault.
What amazed her brothers the most, however, was her decision to try diving when she was a sophomore at Concordia College. They were surprised because, as a kid, she would plug her nose whenever she jumped into the pool or a lake.
They were even more surprised when she began winning tournaments in her first season. And nobody could have predicted that she would win the NCAA Division III championship.
But they weren’t shocked.
“We’ve always said she’s the best athlete in the family,” Cullen said. “She’s the most competitive girl I know; she loves to win and she hates losing. She’s always up for any challenge.”
Cullen thinks she could have excelled in hockey if there has been a girls program in their town. “She never played hockey, but I’m sure she would have been a great player.”