Maybe it's in the genes. John Cullen playing in the NHL was perhaps not that hard to imagine, given the fact his father and two uncles preceded him in doing so. Growing up in a hockey environment, young John began playing the game at the age of three. And, from an early age, his father and uncles made it clear that obtaining a proper education was extremely important. It was something they had not done, and wanted to be sure their children did not follow that same path.
With the thought of continuing his education after high school, Cullen had to resist accepting offers to play major junior hockey, which would have disqualified him from playing in college. After playing Tier II while in high school, Cullen enrolled in Boston University at the age of 19 in 1983. During his freshman year, Cullen was an immediate impact player, scoring 23 goals and 56 points in 40 games. That total went to 59 the next year before a 74-point season in his junior season. In each of his four years in the NCAA, Cullen scored over 20 goals and 50 points each season.
Cullen turned pro in 1987-88, playing in 81 games with the Flint Spirits of the IHL, filling the scoresheets with 48 goals and 109 assists for 157 points. He was named league MVP and was given a good long look at the Penguins' training camp the following year, which led to a starting spot with Pittsburgh. In his rookie season, Cullen appeared in 79 games, scoring 12 goals and 49 points. He followed that up with 32 goals and 92 points the next year. In 1990-91, he had the best statistical season of his career, scoring 31 goals and 94 points in 65 games with the Penguins before being traded to the Hartford Whalers with 13 games left in the season. He scored another eight goals and 16 points there to finish with a combined total of 39 goals and 110 points. In his one full season with the Whalers, Cullen contributed 77 points in as many games.
Midway through the 1992-93 season, Cullen was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He helped lead the Leafs to the Conference finals where they lost a thrilling seven-game series to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. During his time in Toronto, Cullen was saddled with an assortment of injuries, the most serious of which was a herniated disc in his neck.
Cullen signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the shortened 1994-95 season, looking to recapture some of that magic he had when he first came into the league. However, times had changed and Cullen was unable to produce to the satisfaction of himself or the team, scoring 37 points in 46 games and shortly after signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1995, where he played for another two seasons before facing the biggest test of his life, a battle with cancer, in 1997.
Cullen underwent chemotherapy sessions and had bone marrow transplants. There were times he was so weak, he could barely walk around the block with his wife and their three-year-old daughter. Thankfully, Cullen successfully battled back from the non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Even more amazing, Cullen returned to play four more games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1998-99, wanting to prove to himself, and others, that he could do it. After playing a mere four games with the Lightning and another six games with the Cleveland Lumberjacks, Cullen decided to call it a career.
Following his playing career, Cullen went on to be an assistant coach with the Lightning for the 99-2000 season.