The '88-89 comeback of the year in college hockey had nothing to do with wins or losses or dramatic slap shots in overtime. In fact, the University of New Hampshire won only 12 games while losing 22, which wasn't a grand improvement over the previous season's 7-20-3 record.
Still, UNH had a pretty fascinating season. In August 1987 Wildcat hockey coach Bob Kullen, the victim of a rare blood disorder that had severely damaged his heart, had been told by doctors that he was going to die. Then, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, he received a new heart. The disease did not reappear, and only a few months later Kullen strolled over to a Wildcat afternoon practice. "Hey," said one player after another, "look over there. Kully's back!"
Kullen, 40, grew up in Milton, Mass., a town in the hockey-mad greater Boston area. Never big but always scrappy, Kullen played both football and hockey while at Bowdoin College. "I wasn't flashy," he recalls. "But I loved to check." Charlie Holt, who was UNH's hockey coach for 18 years before Kullen took over in 1986, remembers a compact, hard-hitting defenseman. "Kully was good, and he had his own style," says Holt. "Back around 1970, there was this thing we called the Kully Check. He'd slide in low, throw the hip and clean the guy out. I taught that check for years, after watching Kully."
Kullen was named All-America in '71, his senior year at Bowdoin, then rode his hip check to a spot on the national team and won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics. He hacked around the old New England Hockey League for a while, and in 1973 he took a job coaching hockey at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass. After four seasons, Kullen's record was 60-18-1, and in 1978 Holt brought him to UNH as an assistant.
In Durham, a town a few miles from the New Hampshire seacoast, Kullen fell into a most agreeable life-style. He skated hard with the team during practice, as Holt watched from the boards. Kullen developed a passion for golf, and for three seasons coached the UNH golf team. For five he coached the soccer team, leading the Wildcats to their first-ever Yankee Conference title. He took up squash and played three vigorous games a week. On days when he didn't play, he jogged a four-mile loop during lunch hour. "I weighed 155 pounds," Kullen says, "just a couple over my playing weight in college, and I was probably as fit as I've ever been."
After eight years as Holt's assistant, Kullen took over a young team in '86-87 and suffered through an 8-27-3 season. "That's O.K.," he thought as he looked toward the following year. "Now I'll do some hard recruiting." But as he started to throw himself into building the team, things went wrong.
"I was in really great shape," Kullen says. "I was feeling good, all pumped up about being head coach, and then, suddenly, I try to go out and run and I can't. I would go to the squash court, and I'd have to sit down against the wall. My partner would say, 'What the hell's going on?' "
Kullen had no answer, and neither did the doctors at UNH Health Services, who ran tests on him during the spring of '87: chest X-rays, electrocardiograms, stress tests. The results indicated a slightly enlarged heart, but doctors couldn't tell him much beyond that.
On May 11, 1987, Kullen reported to work. He would not return for 15 months. "I was walking up the stairs to my office with a recruit and—bang!—I fainted. I fell right on my face and ended up with a black eye. The poor kid, he is from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and he's been on campus for 10 minutes and doesn't even know where he is, and now he's got to run and find someone, 'cause he's got a passed-out hockey coach on his hands.
"We got the kid, though. Pat Szturm, a goalie, he ended up coming."
After the incident, the university doctors referred Kullen to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., a place renowned for its diagnostic facilities. For four days in May, Kullen was given test after test. On the night before he was to receive the results, he was visited in his hospital room by Dr. Rob Malacoff. "He said, 'It could be this, could be that, it's probably this. There's a remote possibility it could be this other thing, but that's very, very rare.' " The next morning, Malacoff returned, and Kullen could tell by the look on his face that the news wasn't good. "He said, 'Well, it's the absolute worst. This is the disease you have—amyloidosis. There's no treatment for it. I don't know how long it will take, but it will get worse. And it's fatal.' " (Amyloidosis is a buildup of protein in the heart that prevents its muscle fibers from functioning normally.)
Kullen faced the task of buoying up his parents and fiancèe, then UNH women's sports information director and now interim women's athletic director Cathy Derrick, even as he faced the prospect of losing them. He was released and tried to resume parts of his usual routine. He found he could get through a round of golf, and so he signed up for the annual UNH coaches' outing on Cape Cod in June. Kullen grew fatigued on that trip, and ended up spending 10 days in a New Hampshire hospital with pneumonia.
After being released, he was constantly tired, and decided to stay at home. He was also losing weight each week and developing new aches. The crisis came in late July 1987. Down to 119 pounds and suffering again from pneumonia, he checked back into the Lahey Clinic. It was the pneumonia that nearly killed him; because of his deteriorating heart, he wasn't strong enough to fight the fluid buildup in his lungs. Each evening for five days the doctors told his family that Kullen probably wouldn't live until daybreak, and each morning they warned that he might not last until night.
After nearly a week, Kullen regained full consciousness. "I remember saying to the doctor as soon as I was revived, 'Look, if this heart's not working, what about getting a new one?' "
Malacoff had considered a transplant, but had doubted that Kullen was strong enough to survive the surgery. Nevertheless, he petitioned several hospitals, and Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh immediately accepted Kullen as a candidate. Unfortunately, the first heart available was too small, and Kullen was wheeled from the operating room back to his room. Three days later, on Aug. 29, he made the trip again, and this time received a new heart.
After a postoperative bout with a virus, Kullen started to gain weight and strength. "All fall it was a real gradual recovery," says Kullen. "I'd do 200 yards walking, then build up to a mile, two miles." He was getting himself in shape for Dec. 19. "We had put the wedding off for six months," he says, "and now I had to ask the doctors if I'd be strong enough to do it before Christmas. They said, 'Sure, you'll be skating in a month.' " He pauses, then continues slowly, "December 19th—that was an unbelievable day. It was snowing a little, a beautiful day. Christmas was coming. We got hitched right here on campus, and 250 friends came. It was something I had never dared to dream about."
It was about that time that Kullen took his first stroll by hockey practice. "Look over there. Kully's back!" Of course, he wasn't really. Holt and Kullen's assistant, Dave O'Connor, had agreed to split the coaching duties during the '87-88 season. "I didn't want to do it," says Holt. "But it seemed kind of important that Kully see UNH people doing it, so he wouldn't think his job was gone."
Not everyone thought Kullen should return. Hockey is everything to Wildcat fans, so while UNH backers throughout New Hampshire were happy that Kully was recovering, not all of them were sure they wanted a frail Kullen back as coach.
His superiors didn't hang out any welcome-home signs, either. "I had set my goals for '88: to get better and better, stronger and stronger, and to return to coaching," says Kullen. "But I found right away that there were some concerns about liability, about me passing out. My status as an employee was that I was on total disability [leave], and so I had to reapply for my job."
One afternoon Kullen found the UNH coaching position advertised in a local newspaper. He was hurt—and also determined to prove himself fit for the job. In the spring of '88 he was all over Durham, walking everywhere and getting in four or five rounds of golf each week at the Cocheco Country Club. He didn't look like a person who was a health risk, and finally, that summer, he was renamed the Wildcat hockey coach. On Sept. 26, 1988, he greeted his team at the season's first practice. "Men, it's good to be back," he said simply. "Now we're going to start with some one-on-ones...."
"Having him back helped a lot of players," says Tim Shields, the UNH captain for '88-89. "Everyone was aware of what he had accomplished. The best part was, he was the same—a calm guy, friendly, skating around, doing the Ickey Shuffle in practice the week before the Super Bowl. Maybe he was a bit more careful when someone shot the puck at him, but basically he was the same. The players saw this, and they got a lift from it."
In fact, though the Wildcats' record that season was 12-22, the team fared better than it had in the previous three years, and by mid-January of this season, the Wildcats were ranked 13th in the NCAA Division I hockey poll with a 10-7-5 record.
Kullen, who has always been an even-tempered, undemonstrative coach, agrees with his players that outwardly things had appeared the same. But subtle changes had occurred. "As far as hockey goes," he says, "the entire ordeal was like taking a sabbatical. You know, coaching can tend to consume you. That's not the way it should be. Don't get me wrong—I still plan and think and work hard, but I'm more on an even keel about it. Nothing is that awful anymore about a loss, and nothing's that wonderful about a win. Everything's pretty good. The only wonderful thing, truly wonderful, is being here."