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Overcoming adversity to become All-Star

January 2, 2010
Photo: Rockford IceHogs

by Chris Etheridge || AHL On The Beat Archive

Watching Rockford IceHogs alternate captain Mark Cullen work around an opponent’s goal is like heading to the county fair for a nice evening of demolition derby.

Cullen’s process in front of the net is quite simple: Get near the goalie, collide with a defenseman protecting the crease, briefly collect senses, get up and repeat.

It’s usually the bigger guys on a hockey team whose role it is to push their way down to the cage and disrupt the goalie’s concentration (the larger the hockey player, the more viewing area he takes up). But it seems like there is always a smaller player or two doing the dirty work in front of the net – taking the brunt of the hits and jabs. On this year’s IceHogs team, it’s the gritty center Mark Cullen.

“I’ve always played that way,” Cullen said. “If I’m not around the puck and involved in the play, that’s not me and that’s not my game.”

In recognition of the 31-year-old’s hard work and offensive prowess, the native of Virginia, Minn., has been named one of Rockford’s two PlanetUSA All-Stars. It is his first All-Star nod after nearly 500 games in an eight-year professional career.

At 5-feet, 11-inches, Cullen excels when he’s winding his way to the crease looking for an errant rebound. Fighting for a loose puck and grappling for position, Cullen’s body takes a beating every game. But it seems like no matter how hard he hits or is hit, Rockford’s leading scorer and most veteran forward gets up and jumps right into battle.

“That’s what was instilled in me since I was young,” Cullen said. “I’m a smaller guy but can’t play like a smaller guy. I have to play hard all the time and that’s not the way a lot of small guys like to play.”

And that’s also why the puck has found the end of Cullen’s stick so many times in his career and why more than 120 of those pucks then have ended up in the back of the cage. Surrounded by a group of young Chicago Blackhawks prospects in Rockford, that kind of experience can be crucial to the team’s success this season. Only two other IceHogs skaters had more than 70 career professional goals coming into the 2009-10 season and just two players have more professional skating experience than Cullen.

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His hard play is also likely why Cullen found himself on the sidelines with multiple shoulder injuries in 2008-09 with Manitoba. With the Moose, who wound their way to the top of the Western Conference, Cullen finished fifth in points with 39 (14 goals and 25 assists) in just 56 games, his second lowest number of games played since he turned pro. He has rebounded well, knocking in 12 goals and 17 helpers in Rockford’s first 37 games. He has yet to sit out a single tilt for the IceHogs.

The other time Cullen missed as many games in a season as he did last year, the culprit keeping him on the sidelines turned out to be much more heinous.

In his second professional season with the Houston Aeros, Cullen was diagnosed with melanoma, a malignant skin cancer that forced him to sit out more than 25 percent of the 2003-04 season.

After four surgeries, one that removed the lymph nodes under his left arm and left a long scar in his arm pit, it was determined that Cullen was free of cancer.

“Being diagnosed with melanoma made me realize a few things and helped me prioritize a few things in life,” Cullen said. “Family is number one for me and hockey is a really big part of my life. I realized that when I was diagnosed. I didn’t want to miss any games, but it helped me realize how lucky I was. I was fortunate to make it out relatively unscathed. It made me feel very lucky.”

Now with his sixth team in the American Hockey League, the 31-year-old has been to the Calder Cup Finals in 2003 with Houston and 2009 with Manitoba, winning the league’s top prize with the Aeros seven years ago. In 2006, during his first stint with the Chicago Blackhawks organization, Cullen was given the American Hockey League’s Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award for best exemplifying sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.

It was that season in Norfolk that Cullen calls the turning point of his professional career. After 119 points in 189 games over three seasons with the Houston Aeros, Cullen signed with the Blackhawks. He credits Norfolk’s then-general manager Al MacIsaac and head coach Mike Haviland, who both moved with the organization to Rockford when Chicago switched affiliates, with putting more faith in his offensive capabilities.

“We had a good team (in Houston) but I wasn’t in as offensive of a role,” Cullen said. “When I got to Norfolk, they put me in a more offensive role. It was a turning point in my career. It was the first year I got to play in the NHL and a breakout year for me in the AHL. I owe those guys a lot of thanks for sure.”

Cullen played in 29 games with the Chicago Blackhawks that season, tallying seven goals and nine assists.

Back with the Blackhawks organization in Rockford, Cullen has found that MacIsaac and Haviland have both been promoted to jobs with Rockford’s parent club, but the expectations on him are similar – put points on the board.

That’s exactly what he has done, leading the IceHogs in goals, assists, points, multi-point games, power-play goals and power-play points for the majority of the season.

And now thanks to all of that hard work, the champion, point-scoring, cancer-surviving sportsman now has one more title to add. He’s an American Hockey League All-Star.