What could the scouts have been thinking? You ask yourself that the first time you see John Cullen skate over the blue line, then spin toward the boards in what you thought was a Wayne Gretzky trademark move, then feed a teammate a no-look pass while the defensemen sag back on their heels.
How could so many people have missed so much talent? You brood on that while watching Cullen control the pace of play like a young Stan Mikita—one-timing a touch pass when the defense is expecting a shot, or stickhandling across the offensive zone to buy time, before firing a be-hind-the-back pass to a teammate he could not possibly have seen.
"Scouts stereotype you," says the 27-year-old Cullen, who was lightly recruited for college, ignored the first year he was eligible for the NHL draft and uninvited to try out for the 1988 Canadian Olympic team. "Everyone thought I was too small and couldn't skate."
They don't think so today. Not after Cullen, who may be the best player you've never heard of, scored 110 points for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers in 1990-91, the fifth best in the NHL. Certainly not after he signed a contract with the Whalers for $1.2 million this season and $4 million over four years, making Cullen, who a mere four years ago was an unsigned free agent playing for $550 a week in Flint, Mich., the 10th-highest-paid player in the NHL.
Too small? At 5'10", 185 pounds, Cullen is bigger than three Hall of Fame centers who leap to mind: Mikita, Bobby Clarke and Henri Richard. This isn't basketball we're talking here. The center's job is to quarterback the offense, to move the puck, and Cullen's hands are magic in that regard.
"The biggest thing that's lacking in scouting today is the ability to project which of these small kids will be players," says Jimmy Roberts, the Whalers' first-year coach. "With the weight training they're doing today, the small guys are able to take the punishment they have to take to succeed in this league. And they add the element of quickness."
As for speed, you don't score 202 points over two seasons, as Cullen has done, without being nimble of skate. "Cully has deceptive speed," says line-mate Pat Verbeek. "When he throws those shoulders at you, the defense tends to play it safe and back in. He creates things."
Which returns us to our original query: What were these people thinking? Scouts don't look for creativity? They don't look for passing and puckhandling, for great vision and imagination, for intangibles like toughness and personal resolve? All they care about is size and speed?
What about bloodlines, for cripes' sake? Cullen's father, Barry, spent five seasons in the NHL in the late '50s, when it was a six-team league. Two of his uncles, Ray and Brian Cullen, played in the league six and seven years, respectively.
John's brother, Terry, four years his senior, was a young star in Canada in the mid-'70s who was mentioned in the next breath after a kid named Gretzky. "Terry was the most sought-after kid in Canada after his Guelph [Ont.] team won the Centennial Cup," says John, referring to the highest prize in Tier II junior hockey. "I idolized him. No question, he'd be a star in the NHL today."
Except that Terry's career came to a halt when, as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan, he was hit from behind in the fourth game of the season and collapsed with numbness in his legs. X-rays revealed a broken neck, which doctors suspected had occurred the season before when Terry went headfirst into the boards while playing for Guelph. He underwent an operation in which bone from his hip was fused with three of his vertebrae, and today he leads a normal life as an automobile dealer outside Atlanta. But his hockey career was over.
As a youth, John Cullen wasn't about to make anyone forget his brother. "John was a late bloomer," says Barry, who has owned an auto dealership—like father, like son—in Guelph since 1969. "He wasn't as intense when he was growing up as he is now. He didn't seem to have that tremendous desire to excel. That's what a lot of scouts missed—his desire. They kind of overlooked John."
The college recruiters who had courted Terry seemed to have forgotten the way to Puslinch, Ont., when John's time came. Only two schools, Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich., and Boston University, offered him a scholarship. He chose BU and wondered if he could even make the team his freshman year.
That year his mother, Loretta, fell gravely ill with skin cancer. Cullen got a call at BU telling him it was time to come home. "She died before I got there," he says. "I didn't want to go back to school. I told my dad I'd rather just stay with the family. He said, 'You've got to. Your mom would want you to get on with your life.' And to make a long story short, that's what I did. That was the turning point in my career. You realize what life is all about and how important someone is to you. My mom knew what the hockey life was like. She'd had Terry when my dad was playing on the road. She took me to all those games and practices. I dedicate every game I play to my mom. I will for the rest of my life."
That, too, the scouts missed—a resolve to succeed forged by a sense of loss. Cullen led BU in scoring as a freshman with 56 points in 40 games and was rookie of the year in the Eastern College Athletic Conference. Still, he was bypassed in the 1984 amateur draft.
He became BU's alltime leading scorer and was eventually selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 1986 supplemental draft. The Sabres, however, didn't even offer him a contract to come to camp and cut him without so much as dressing him for an exhibition game.
So he tried out for the Flint Spirits of the International Hockey League—the redoubtable "I" in hockey circles. Soon Cullen was scoring at a pace that became difficult for NHL scouts to ignore. In 1987-88 he was the I's leading scorer with 157 points in 81 games. He was also the league's MVP and shared the Rookie of the Year award with Ed Belfour, now goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Cullen passed up a more generous offer from the Sabres to sign a minimum NHL contract with the Penguins, despite the fact that Pittsburgh was loaded at center with Mario Lemieux—the franchise—and 40-goal scorer Dan Quinn. "He was so cheesed off at what happened in Buffalo, he didn't care about the money," Brian Cullen recalls. "I figured he'd play maybe third or fourth line for a few years, have some fun. But he got a break when Mario got hurt."
Cullen failed to turn many heads during his first season in Pittsburgh: He scored only 49 points. But in 1989-90 his ice time increased dramatically when Lemieux missed 21 games because of a back injury, and Cullen finished third on the team in points, behind Lemieux and Paul Coffey, with 32 goals and 60 assists in 72 games.
Last season, with Lemieux missing the first 50 games while recovering from back surgery, Cullen got off to a torrid start. Under the Penguin coach, the late Bob Johnson, Cullen logged much of his ice time during power plays and had 94 points in the team's first 65 games. But when Lemieux returned to the lineup, Cullen's ice time dwindled.
"Once the Penguins saw Lemieux was healthy, they wanted a little better defensive player for a second center," says Hartford general manager Eddie Johnston. "We were looking for a more creative centerman. Cully gave us an ingredient we needed here—more excitement."
The March 1991 deal that Johnston and Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick put together was a blockbuster. Cullen, defenseman Zarley Zalapski and right wing Jeff Parker went to Hartford in exchange for the Whalers' alltime leading scorer, Ron Francis, plus defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings.
Cullen went from a team that 2½ months later would win its first Stanley Cup to the woeful Whalers, who had never advanced out of the Adams Division. Hartford fans were no less disappointed. Who the hell had ever heard of John Cullen, anyway? Still, Cullen scored 16 points in the Whalers' last 13 regular-season games and won fans over with his performance in the playoffs, when he was the Whalers' best player (two goals, seven assists) during their rugged six-game loss to the Boston Bruins.
That might explain why Cullen's one and only entry in the Whalers' 1991-92 media guide, under Greatest Thrills in Hockey, is Proving People Wrong. If most of your life people have been looking right past you, focusing on what you're not or who you're not, it's kind of a thrill to finally be recognized for what you are.
In Cullen's case, what he is is a resolute, unselfish overachiever with magical hands who is the Whalers' leading scorer this season, with 19 goals and 40 assists in 53 games. And Roberts, who has the young Whalers playing a more up-tempo style than in years past, is pleasantly surprised with another quality that the scouts seemed to have missed in Cullen: leadership. "He's a competitor and a leader type," says Roberts. "He's going to enjoy working with these young guys."
"It's pretty amazing," says Cullen, "It's my fourth year in the NHL, and I'm considered a veteran, one of the guys they're supposed to look up to."
Cullen is shaking his head. He has been proving people wrong for so long, he can't quite believe that now others are trying to prove themselves to him.