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Cullen offers hope to Koivu

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001


BRANDON -- John Cullen vowed to keep phoning Canadiens star Saku Koivu until the two connect.

BRANDON -- John Cullen vowed to keep phoning Canadiens star Saku Koivu until the two connect.

The former Lightning player and assistant coach has an important message for Koivu, who has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the disease Cullen beat.

"A way to pump him up is to hear my voice," Cullen said Thursday from Atlanta, where he is sales manager for his brother's car dealership. "With all I went through to feeling great and living my life to the fullest, I'm going to tell him it's a winning battle.

"It's a bend in the road, but it's not a dead end."

Cullen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in March 1997. He became an inspiration after returning to the game after missing the 1997-98 season.

Cullen played four games for Tampa Bay and six for Cleveland of the IHL before retiring at age 34. He won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication. "When I was going through this I told (then-Lightning general manager) Phil Esposito I wanted to be back on the ice," Cullen said. "But my main goal was to get healthy. Luckily, (Koivu) is a pro athlete, and he's a gritty player. He's going to be down during that treatment. He has to stay positive to beat it."

Cullen was positive through chemotherapy, radiation and a procedure in which bone marrow was extracted from his body, cleansed and reintroduced.

Cullen said many times non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is eradicated with just chemotherapy and radiation. If that happens for Koivu, Cullen said his chances of returning to the NHL are even greater.

"If I had just chemo and radiation," he said, "I think I would have played for a couple more years."

Cullen said his most recent tests, last month, were negative.

"Everything looks good," Cullen said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

SCRIMMAGES: The white team beat the black 2-1 in a 40-minute scrimmage on the first day of practice at the Ice Sports Forum.

Ben Clymer and Nikita Alexeev scored, and Nikolai Khabibulin made 15 saves. Brad Richards scored for the black off a feed from behind the net from Fredrik Modin. Kevin Weekes made 12 saves.

The blue team beat the red 3-0. Dmitry Afanasenkov had a goal and an assist. Ryan Tobler and Sheldon Keefe scored, and Evgeny Konstantinov had 14 saves.

HAVE A GO: The first fight of camp was in the red/blue scrimmage as 6-foot-4, 225-pound defenseman Henrik Bergfors dropped 6-4, 195-pound forward Aaron Lobb.

General manager Rick Dudley likes Bergfors, who was the last player taken (289th overall) in the June draft and showed composure and feistiness in the scrimmage.

"We like him very much, especially when you see his size," Dudley said. "He's a very competitive kid."

PRESENCE FELT: Defenseman Mathieu Biron, all 6 feet 6, 229 pounds of him, put good licks on Richards, Martin St. Louis and Jimmie Olvestad in the black/white scrimmage that featured Tampa Bay's top players.

Coach John Tortorella liked what he saw but wants Biron take the body more often. So does Biron.

"The physical part of my game has probably been my weakest part," he said. ODDS AND ENDS: The Lightning changed its practice schedule for Saturday. Scrimmages will begin at 9 a.m. ... Anyone with questions about tickets for Sunday's canceled game against the Hurricanes at the Ice Palace should call (813) 301-6600. ... Forward Jeff Nielsen decided not to come to camp on a tryout basis and has hooked up with the Hurricanes. ... Because of the uncertainty regarding air travel, the Lightning told prospect Andreas Holmqvist to stay in Sweden. ... Modin, Richards, St. Louis and Matthew Barnaby are scheduled to sign autographs at 5-6:30 p.m. today at Dillard's at the International Plaza.

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