David Cullen: Quarterback Extraordinaire

This year, Hockey East instituted a Defensive Player of the Week Award to complement its other awards, which forwards and goaltenders traditionally dominate. After Maine’s first weekend of action, the league selected David Cullen. After Maine’s second weekend of action, the league again selected David Cullen.

Two years ago, the Black Bears boasted the best power play in Division I. Last year, only NCAA runner-up Boston College topped them. Through almost those entire two years, the quarterback of that exceptional unit was David Cullen.

"He’s one of the top two or three, at the worst, defensemen in the league. Offensively, he might be as good as there is."

— Maine coach Shawn Walsh

This season, even though Maine’s man-advantage has experienced ups and downs, Cullen has been a constant force from the blue line. He has totaled more points than any other defenseman in Hockey East and trails the national leader, Colorado College’s Scott Swanson, by only one.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that he’s developed the way he’s developed,” says coach Shawn Walsh. “You could see recruiting him that he wanted the puck at the end of a tight game. He had the ability to go end to end. He’s got some things you just can’t teach. Where he’s developed is his physical strength and his defensive ability.”

As a freshman, though, Cullen joined a blue-line corps that already included Jeff Tory, Jason Mansoff, Brian White and Jeff Libby, as well as fellow freshman Brett Clark. There was plenty of offensive firepower in that group. As the sixth defenseman, Cullen would have to focus on the weakest part of his game, playing in his own end.

“Our team in juniors only had two hours of practice a week and then we just played games,” he says. “It wasn’t much of a teaching atmosphere. It was just, ‘Here’s the puck and go and try to score more goals than the other team.’ I was mostly up the ice the whole game. I didn’t really worry about my own end.

“When I came to Maine, it was totally different. I had to learn a lot of things that a lot of the kids already knew. The defensive part of my game was pretty bad.

“It took me about till Christmas to get used to everything. I was fortunate that the coaches worked with me every day. I got into a regular role by Christmas and helped contribute as a sixth D.”

The hard work on his defensive game earned him the team’s Most Improved Player Award at the end of the year.

“Definitely when you get recognized by your teammates it’s nice to hear,” Cullen says. “It’s a good feeling that your hard work went somewhere.”

That hard work as a freshman appeared ready to parlay itself into a bigger role for him as a sophomore, especially after the losses of Tory and Clark. But along with the rest of the team, Cullen got off to a disappointing start. At the exam break in December, the Black Bears held a 2-5-1 record in Hockey East games and stood 5-7-1 overall in Division I play.

And Cullen was struggling.

“At Christmas, I think I only had about eight or nine points,” he says. “I really hadn’t found my game. I know when Coach Walsh came back [after a one-year absence], I played terrible the first game in Denver. I just didn’t do anything right.

“He took me aside in practice and told me to work on my defense and to jump in the O when I should jump in the O. He started getting on me a little more about certain things and started pushing me more in practice.

“That helped me to understand the game a lot more and become a better player. I got more confidence as I got more playing time and just took off from there.”

Took off, indeed. Within a few weeks, he earned his first recognition as Hockey East Player of the Week, helped in no small part by the Maine power play going 7-for-9 with him at the helm. Four weeks later, he again earned Player of the Week honors.

After scoring only six points as a freshman, Cullen jumped to 30, despite the slow start. He also finished with a team-low eight penalty minutes, a remarkable number for a defenseman.

And most importantly, he played a big part in Maine finishing the season as the hottest team in the country, losing only twice after New Year’s.

Last season, while improving his defensive consistency, he ratcheted his offensive game up another notch as well. He doubled his goals to 10 and totaled 37 points, trailing only Boston College’s Mike Mottau and Boston University’s Tom Poti.

To become one of the league’s elite, Cullen has had to apply himself off the ice as well as on. He entered Maine as a 185-pound freshman, but now weighs in at 209. As Walsh puts it, “He’s become a man out there.”

“When I came here to Maine,” Cullen says, “I wasn’t in too good shape and didn’t lift much weights at all. I really needed to get into the weight room. I wasn’t too aware of the extent to which you need to be in condition to be a college athlete.

“A lot of that was also just maturing as a person. I was pretty young when I came here. Now, I’m [22]. It’s just been growing as a person and putting a couple of extra pounds on of muscle.”

In dramatic contrast to the shape he was in as a freshman, Cullen’s conditioning now gives Walsh extra options.

“He can take lots of ice,” Walsh says. “He’s got one of those bodies and metabolism that allows him to play 30-35 minutes a game and it doesn’t seem to affect his play.”

Cullen’s off-ice work may also have played a part in his ability to stay healthy. He entered the season having played in 100 consecutive games, tops among the Black Bears, and has yet to miss a game.

“Knock on wood, I haven’t really had an injury here at Maine that’s been very serious,” he says. “Last year, I was behind Brian White and Steve Kariya [for most consecutive games]. Then Whitey went out for a game and Steve became the iron man. Then the end of last year, he came down with that lung injury.

“I kept bugging him, ‘I’m the new iron man,'” Cullen says with a laugh, realizing that the bullseye is now on his jersey. “I hope I didn’t jinx myself. I guess I’ve just been lucky enough not to get hurt.”

Not so lucky at first glance, however, was his first cousin, John Cullen, the former BU All-American and pro standout. John, who had years earlier tried to convince David to follow in his footsteps at BU, missed the entire 1997-98 NHL season battling cancer, including undergoing bone marrow transplants. When the news seemed to be worsening, concern mounted throughout the hockey community, but naturally much more so among the Cullen clan.

“He was my idol growing up,” David Cullen says. “He wasn’t just a good hockey player, he was a great guy. The kind I wanted to model myself after.

“I used to always see him in the summer at family reunions and that type of thing. And when he used to play with Pittsburgh or Hartford we would always go down to Buffalo [to watch him play] because we lived right by Buffalo across the border. We always watched the games there and saw him after the games. When we heard the news, it was a shock to the whole family.”

Fortunately, the John Cullen cancer story has a happy ending. Although he has hung up his skates, the disease is in remission.

“That’s the kind of person John is,” David Cullen says. “He just fought it. And right now, he’s succeeding in life again. It’s great.”

Although next year he’ll almost certainly be following in his older cousin’s footsteps into professional hockey, David Cullen isn’t looking that far ahead right now.

“I’m just going to try to have a good year and help the team win,” he says. “Who knows, maybe there will be something down the road after this year. But if not, that’s why I went to school and am getting my degree. I’m going to be graduating on time. I went to school because I know hockey won’t be there forever. That’s why I went to school, for something to fall back on.”

Until then, Cullen’s focus will be on winning games for Maine, a goal that so far is going almost perfectly. The Black Bears have lost only twice and rank second in the country.

So what does Maine’s power-play quarterback extraordinaire look for when he has the puck at the point?

“I just think you play it by ear,” he says. “The coach says I try to get the puck too much to Stevie [Kariya]. He says Steve and I have tunnel vision. But if I have a guy like Steve Kariya on my power play, I want to try to get him the puck.

“You just basically take what the defense gives you. If they sit back, then just fire the puck. Shoot at the net and let the guys in front smack home the rebounds. If they pressure, try to hit the seams. A lot of it is just going out there and relying on your instincts.”

Which Cullen is also doing when he approaches his role as team captain along with Kariya and assistants Bobby Stewart and Jason Vitorino. Although he feels there’s a time and place for speaking up, a lot of leading is done through a captain’s actions.

“It’s important the way you practice everyday and the way you approach your scheduled lifts,” Cullen says. “Your work ethic on and off the ice matters. Guys look at that. If they see their captain riding the bike after practice, they say, oh, he’s doing it, maybe we should be doing something like that, too. If you’re making your lifts, they should be making their lifts, too. There’s no cutting corners.

“You lead by example, but if someone does step out of line, you say something to him. Both Steve and I are the way that if something needs to be said, we’re not going to hold back.

“We have Bobby Stewart and Jay Vitorino who are also assistant captains. They do a lot of talking for us, too. I don’t think we need four guys yelling. As long as one guy says what needs to be said, that should be sufficient.”

If it all does come together for the Black Bears this season, it will be sweet indeed for seniors like Cullen who have paid their dues the last three years.

“I came here because I wanted to be on one of the top teams in the nation every year and I wanted in my four years to have a national championship ring to look at,” he says. “That’s our ultimate goal, to bring the championship back to Maine.

“That’s definitely on our minds every day, but we can’t look too far ahead. We’ve got to take every weekend, one game at a time.”

This feature originally appeared in the Friends of Maine Hockey Newsletter.