Toronto Maple Leafs: Whatever Happened to John Cullen?

3 Mar 1996: Center John Cullen of the Tampa Bay Lightning moves the puck during a game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California. The game was a tie, 2-2. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Cratty /Allsport
3 Mar 1996: Center John Cullen of the Tampa Bay Lightning moves the puck during a game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California. The game was a tie, 2-2. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Cratty /Allsport /

John Cullen played 100 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1992 to 1994.  He had previously played with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers, and later with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

I was 10 years old when Cullen was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I remember getting really excided after looking at the back of his 1991-92 Pro Set hockey card and seeing he had a 110 point season in 1990-91.

I became a John Cullen fan.  I still play NHL 94, and I love seeing him in that game on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster as the team’s second best centre overall behind Doug Gilmour.

John Cullen’s career had a lot of ups and downs which includes a great comeback story worthy of the Bill Masterton trophy.  So, whatever happened to John Cullen?
(stats from and some  info from wikipedia)

John Cullen Before the Toronto Maple Leafs

John Cullen was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2nd round (8th overall) in the first ever NHL Supplemental Draft in 1986 as he was on his way to becoming Boston University’s all-time leading scorer with 241 points in 160 games.  He still holds that record today.

The NHL Supplementary Draft was used to select collegiate players who were ineligible for the Entry Draft from 1986 to 1994.  John Cullen has the most career NHL points (550) of any player selected in the NHL Supplementary Draft.

Despite winning ECAC Rookie of the Year in 1984 and be selected to the All-Hockey East First Team in 1985 and 1986, as well as being an AHCA East Second-Team All-American in 1986 and the being selected to the All-Hockey East Second Team in 1987, the Buffalo Sabres passed on offering John Cullen an NHL contract after college.

John Cullen instead signed with the Flint Spirit in the IHL for the 1987-88 where he lead the league with 157 points in 81 games.  He also won the Gary F. Longman Memorial Trophy as the IHL’s rookie of the year (along with Ed Belfour) and the James Gatschene Memorial Trophy as league MVP.

John Cullen’s NHL Breakout

Cullen caught the eye of the Pittsburgh Penguins who signed him to his first NHL contract.  Cullen had 49 points in 79 games during his rookie season and 92 points in 72 games during his second season.  He was given the role of filling in for Mario Lemieux while Lemieux was out with back injuries and illness.

John Cullen’s best NHL season was 1990-91 where he recorded career highs with 39 goals and 110 points in 78 games.  He played in his first NHL All-Star game that season with fellow Penguins Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi and Paul Coffey.

Cullen was fifth in NHL points that season after only Wayne Gretzky (163), Brett Hull (131), Adam Oates (115) and his teammate, Mark Recchi (113).

However, at the 1991 NHL Trade Deadline, John Cullen was involved in a huge blockbuster trade.  Cullen was sent to the Hartford Whalers with Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski for Ron Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson.

Ron Francis was a fan favorite in Hartford and the franchises all-time leading scorer.  Fans were so upset by the trade that John Cullen was booed.  Not only that, Cullen also witnessed his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, win their first of back-to-back Stanley Cups mere months after he left the team.

In 1991-92, Cullen recorded 77 points in 77 games in his first full season with the Whalers and played in his second NHL All-Star Game.

John Cullen and the Toronto Maple Leafs

In November 1992, John Cullen was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a 2nd round pick that was later traded to the San Jose Sharks who selected Vlastimil Kroupa.

John Cullen’s father, Barry Cullen, played four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1955 to 1959, and John was excited to be joining his father’s former team.

Unfortunately, injuries held John Cullen back from performing at his full potential, most notably a herniated disc in his neck that required him to play with a bulky neck brace.

The Toronto Maple Leafs chose not to renew Cullen’s contract when it expired in 1994, but he was able to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins on a one-year deal.

John Cullen After the Toronto Maple Leafs

After one year back in Pittsburgh, John Cullen signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  During his first season in Tampa, he helped the team reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history and led the lightning in playoff scoring with three goals and six points in five games.

In 1996-97, he was leading the Lightning in scoring when his health took a turn for the worse.  A CAT scan revealed a baseball-sized tumor in his chest and he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  John Cullen’s mother, Loretta, died of skin cancer when John was a college freshman.

John Cullen missed the remainder of the season as well as the entire 1997-98 season to battle cancer while his team wore #12 patches in his honour.  During one of his treatments, he went into cardiac arrest and had to be revived by doctors.

In 1998, Cullen made an NHL comeback, but after playing four games with the Lightning, he was demoted to the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the IHL, the league he lead in points 11 years prior.

Cullen put up nine points in six IHL games but decided to retire after contracting a case of bronchitis.  He was awarded the NHL’s Bill Masterton trophy and the IHL renamed it’s Comeback Player of the Year award the John Cullen Award.

Next. Whatever Happened to Nikolai Borschevsky?. dark

After hockey, John Cullen joined his brother’s car dealership in Jonesboro, Georgia where he is currently the General Manager.