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12/31/2004 7:30 AM - Courage and perseverance have enabled Houston Aeros center Mark Cullen to overcome a series of bad breaks, from fractures to cancer

Story and photo by Mark Newman

You’ll have to excuse Mark Cullen if he avoids walking under ladders or opening an umbrella in the house. You can’t blame him if he cringes a bit when a black cat crosses his path or somebody breaks a mirror.

In the past four years alone, the Houston Aeros center has experienced a fractured vertebra, broken ankle, separated shoulder and cancer. He’s spent more time in hospitals than in the penalty box.

It’s no wonder that Cullen can imagine himself as a contestant someday on the popular Survivor television series. He’s already endured more than his share of bad luck and bad breaks.

He’s happy to finally be healthy this season – knock on wood – and counting his blessings as he establishes himself as one of the top point-getters on an Aeros team filled with NHL prospects.

“It feels good to start off healthy and hopefully I can keep it going,” Cullen says. “Last year was a tough year for me.”

Cullen, 26, missed the beginning of the 2003-04 season when a funny-looking mole on his back turned out to be malignant melanoma.

“It was obviously a big scare because I didn’t really know much about skin cancer,” he says. “When you look at the pamphlets and see the percentages, it’s not very good.”

Cullen was in the NHL training camp of the Minnesota Wild when the skin cancer was discovered. He had surgery right away; the doctor removed a large chunk of skin about the size of a hockey puck, along with two lymph nodes.

“The initial results looked good, so I packed up all my stuff and started driving down to Houston when the doctor called again and said a new test found the cancer had spread to one of the lymph nodes,” Cullen says.

As a result, Cullen found himself at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y. A second surgery removed 13 more lymph nodes – essentially every one of the lymphatic vessels under his left arm.

“You wonder how can this happen to me?” Cullen says, explaining the initial shock and denial he experienced. “I couldn’t believe a guy like me, who wasn’t in the sun that much, could get skin cancer.”

He admits that the disease might have been more debilitating mentally than it was a drain physically.

“When cancer gets into your lymph nodes, it’s pretty scary,” he says. “For a while, I wasn’t thinking about hockey. I was just thinking about whether I was ever going to be able to have a family or even if I was going to see next year.”

Cullen has a scar several inches long under his arm from the surgeries, but the melanoma left a much deeper emotional wound. “It definitely puts a whole new perspective into your mind, that’s for sure,” he says.

He’s thankful he had the support of his family, friends and teammates. “They were a huge part of my rebounding as quickly as I did,” he says, explaining that it took time to get full motion and strength back into his arm.

Regular checkups are a constant reminder of the seriousness of his condition. He has to be re-tested every 2-3 months during the first 18 months, then every six months thereafter.

Undaunted, Cullen has channeled his emotions into charity work. He has partnered with Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston to help raise awareness of the disease and its prevention.

He has also worked with Sunshine Kids, a non-profit foundation for children with cancer. Every point he scored during the regular season and playoffs last year helped raise money for the local Houston charity.

Unfortunately, a separated shoulder in December forced him to miss more time. “I got hit from behind into the boards,” he says. “I fought (the pain) the whole year. You try to get the shoulder as strong as you can during rehab, but you keep taking hits and it just never heals.”

Cullen managed to stay positive, in part, because it wasn’t the first time that he had to overcome adversity. The previous season saw him break his foot in Grand Rapids during the Aeros’ playoff run to the Calder Cup championship.

“It happened on the opening faceoff of Game 6 against the Griffins,” he says. “I don’t want to blame it on the referee, but he dropped the puck really hard and it bounced two feet off the ice.

“Both centers were swinging at it and the other guy unintentionally got tied up in my skates and I just felt my ankle snap.”

The break was bad enough – the injury required the insertion of a plate and screws – but the injury was even tougher on his psyche. “I had been enjoying a good playoff, so it was tough when I couldn’t be out there during the final series,” he says.

The Aeros beat Hamilton in seven games to win the 2003 title. “I went out on the ice in my walking cast and got to hold the Cup,” he says. “It was fun to be a part of it, but disappointing because I couldn’t play and it could be the only time I ever get there.”

Cullen has a right to feel ill-fated. A two-time All-American at Colorado College, the Moorhead, Minnesota, native suffered a broken neck during his junior season. “A bad hit drove me head-first into the boards and I suffered a compression fracture of the seventh vertebra in my neck,” he says.

He wore a neck brace for eight weeks. “I can’t even say what was the hardest part because everything was hard,” he says. “It’s not easy sleeping when you can’t move your head.”

Amazingly, Cullen was back on the ice 10 weeks later. He still earned All-American honors, despite missing a chunk of the season. At Colorado, he set a school record with a 26-game scoring streak.

It was during his time in Colorado that Cullen discovered the joys of fly fishing, a relaxing recreational activity that has been his elixir for taking his mind from all the misfortune that has come his way.

“If I could go fly fishing every day of the year, I would be happy,” he says. “I like everything about it. You go out there and you’re just by yourself out on the water and it’s so peaceful. It’s relaxing, it’s fun and it’s a challenge at the same time.”

He particularly enjoys fly fishing on the San Juan River in New Mexico during the off-season. “I started going there when I was at Colorado College,” he says. “We would get what were called block breaks and we’d make the five-hour drive to camp and fish there. We always had a great time, catching a lot of big fish.”

Cullen goes fishing most weekends during the summer. For the past several years, he’s lived with his older brother Matt, who played for the NHL’s Florida Panthers last season, and younger brother Joe, who is currently playing for the Edmonton Road Runners in the AHL.

“Matt got married last summer, so Joe and I will be moving out next summer,” Cullen says. “We all work out and train together all summer long, but we like to hunt and fish as much as we can.”

He thinks having two brothers in professional hockey could play to his benefit. “It’s nice to have two guys who can help like they do,” he says.

“With Matt, we talk about things that work for him, even in the off-ice area, like mental preparation and mental toughness. Joe’s been a great help, too. He’s got his own thoughts and theories.”

Cullen has set his sights at the highest level. “I hope I can play in the NHL,” he says. “It’s a tough road, especially when you’re a smaller forward. It doesn’t make it any easier. Right now I’m doing everything I can to get there,” he says.

That includes – cross your fingers – staying healthy for a whole season.

Cullen definitely feels prepared to take the next step. Like his brothers, he credits his grasp of the fundamentals to what he learned under the tutelage of his father.

Terry Cullen coached hockey at Moorhead High School for 20 years before being elected to the Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches Hall of Fame. “He was a great coach, and a great dad, too. He really helped all of our careers immensely.”

The Cullen brothers, who hope to someday realize their dream of playing in the NHL together, hadn’t faced any of their siblings on the ice as pros until earlier this season when the Aeros traveled to Edmonton for a pair of games.

Joe Cullen recorded an assist in the first game, but Mark had a goal and assist in the second game. Houston won both contests.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was really weird,” Cullen says. “I definitely wanted to do the best I could – and I did that – but I didn’t want to make Joe look bad by doing something.”

Even so, the brothers remain extremely competitive. “I definitely won more draws,” Cullen says with a chuckle. “I definitely got the better of him there.”

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference and Cullen is determined to prove that he deserves an opprortunity to play in the NHL. “If I continue to develop and improve, hopefully I will get the chance,” he says.

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