By: Ken Rodriguez
The routine physical exam left a jagged scar, 10 inches long. A mole removed from the back of NHL hopeful Mark Cullen yielded a strange diagnosis and a set of statistics he did not care to ponder.
The words “malignant melanoma” fell from the doctor’s lips. A look of bewilderment fell on Cullen’s face.
The doctor explained it was a form of cancer, and Cullen struggled to comprehend. He was only 25-years-old, one of three hockey-playing brothers from Moorehead, Minn., and there had been no such history in the family.
Now here he was, an invitee to the NHL training camp of the Minnesota Wild, and a doctor was removing a hockey puck-sized patch of skin from his back. A second procedure, to remove 15 lymph nodes, left an incision that began at his bicep, ran through his arm pit and down to his torso.
The malignancy had advanced to Stage 3. The survival rate, he heard, could be 30 percent. “That was pretty scary,” Cullen says.
He could not know in the Fall of 2003 what he knows in the Winter of 2012 -- that he would beat the disease, return to the ice shortly and turn the cancer into a cause that would raise more than $1 million for children’s charities.
“Looking back,” says Cullen, the Rampage’s 33-year-old center, “it was a good thing. It’s made me a better person for sure.”
Inspired by his brother’s fight against malignant melanoma, NHL veteran Matt Cullen and his wife Bridgette formed the Cullen Children’s Foundation, a non-profit that serves children with life-threatening diseases. Beneficiaries are known as “Cully’s Kids.”
Every third weekend in July, Mark joins Matt, Bridgette and others for a celebrity fundraising event in Moorhead to benefit the foundation. “We have a golf tournament, a silent auction, a concert and a picnic,” Mark says. “We take kids to a minor league baseball park. We sign autographs and take pictures. It’s awesome meeting with the kids.”
No one could have imagined the turn in Mark’s life after that routine physical. The Cullens are the first family of hockey in Moorehead, a city (pop. 38,065) that shares a border with Fargo N.D. Terry Cullen taught sons Matt, Mark and Joe stickhandling skills in the garage. The boys played games in the family basement and had birthday parties in their backyard rink. “We hooked floodlights to the gutters on our house to shine on the rink so we could play all night,” Matt says. “We loved the game.”
Terry and Matt, at age 16, even made an instructional video on puckhandling. The brothers played for Terry at Moorehead High and each turned professional.
A center for the Wild, Matt has logged 14 seasons in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. Joe plays for Brunico in the Italian League. Before joining the Rampage, Mark’s career included stints with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Philadelphia Flyers and several American Hockey League teams.
After his physical in 2003, no one knew if Mark would play again. He remembers fear and a numbing discussion with doctors: Should they treat the melanoma with radiation, chemotherapy or surgery?
Mark leaned on his family and oncologist for support and advice. He drew strength from his girlfriend Jayme, who would become his wife. Surgeons operated. Three weeks later, with the prognosis looking good, Mark resumed action with the Houston Aeros (AHL).
“That was so unbelievable,” Matt says, “What a resilient person. To get back on the ice like nothing ever happened, wow.”
Mark underwent testing every three months for the first year and a half. Each test result -- negative. Physically, he looked fine. But Mark battled with his head more than his body. Minor fatigue and occasional sickness made him wonder.
Is it back?
“It was an uneasy feeling for the first year,” Mark says.
The best therapy for anxiety, he learned, was playing the game. Roughing. Body Checking. Crashing into the boards. “Taking a beating was good for the mind,” he says. “You can’t think about cancer on the ice.”
More than eight years after surgery, Mark remains cancer free. Grateful for his health, he’s also grateful to be playing at 33. Mark may be the oldest player on the Rampage roster, but he’s also the fourth leading scorer He earned his first call up to the NHL since November 2006playing eight minutes in the Panthers 3-1 victory over the Hurricanes on Nov. 29, 2011. Mark played in six games with the Panthers before returning to the Rampage on New Year’s Eve, just in time to welcome his third child, a baby girl, on Jan. 8.
Off the ice, Mark devotes himself to Cully’s kids. He secures sponsors, raises money, signs autographs, poses for pictures and befriends children with debilitating diseases. “Mark is more of an inspiration than he knows,” Matt says. “He is the motivating factor for the foundation.”
Mark cannot tell you how many boys and girls he’s met through the foundation. But this much is certain: While facing a terrifying disease, he began to touch a world of hurting kids.
Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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