What could the scouts have been thinking? You ask yourself that the first time you see John Cullen skate over the blue line, then spin toward the boards in what you thought was a Wayne Gretzky trademark move, then feed a teammate a no-look pass while the defensemen sag back on their heels.
How could so many people have missed so much talent? You brood on that while watching Cullen control the pace of play like a young Stan Mikita—one-timing a touch pass when the defense is expecting a shot, or stickhandling across the offensive zone to buy time, before firing a be-hind-the-back pass to a teammate he could not possibly have seen.
"Scouts stereotype you," says the 27-year-old Cullen, who was lightly recruited for college, ignored the first year he was eligible for the NHL draft and uninvited to try out for the 1988 Canadian Olympic team. "Everyone thought I was too small and couldn't skate."
They don't think so today. Not after Cullen, who may be the best player you've never heard of, scored 110 points for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers in 1990-91, the fifth best in the NHL. Certainly not after he signed a contract with the Whalers for $1.2 million this season and $4 million over four years, making Cullen, who a mere four years ago was an unsigned free agent playing for $550 a week in Flint, Mich., the 10th-highest-paid player in the NHL.
Too small? At 5'10", 185 pounds, Cullen is bigger than three Hall of Fame centers who leap to mind: Mikita, Bobby Clarke and Henri Richard. This isn't basketball we're talking here. The center's job is to quarterback the offense, to move the puck, and Cullen's hands are magic in that regard.
"The biggest thing that's lacking in scouting today is the ability to project which of these small kids will be players," says Jimmy Roberts, the Whalers' first-year coach. "With the weight training they're doing today, the small guys are able to take the punishment they have to take to succeed in this league. And they add the element of quickness."
As for speed, you don't score 202 points over two seasons, as Cullen has done, without being nimble of skate. "Cully has deceptive speed," says line-mate Pat Verbeek. "When he throws those shoulders at you, the defense tends to play it safe and back in. He creates things."
Which returns us to our original query: What were these people thinking? Scouts don't look for creativity? They don't look for passing and puckhandling, for great vision and imagination, for intangibles like toughness and personal resolve? All they care about is size and speed?
What about bloodlines, for cripes' sake? Cullen's father, Barry, spent five seasons in the NHL in the late '50s, when it was a six-team league. Two of his uncles, Ray and Brian Cullen, played in the league six and seven years, respectively.
John's brother, Terry, four years his senior, was a young star in Canada in the mid-'70s who was mentioned in the next breath after a kid named Gretzky. "Terry was the most sought-after kid in Canada after his Guelph [ Ont.] team won the Centennial Cup," says John, referring to the highest prize in Tier II junior hockey. "I idolized him. No question, he'd be a star in the NHL today."