The '88-89 comeback of the year in college hockey had nothing to do with wins or losses or dramatic slap shots in overtime. In fact, the University of New Hampshire won only 12 games while losing 22, which wasn't a grand improvement over the previous season's 7-20-3 record.
Still, UNH had a pretty fascinating season. In August 1987 Wildcat hockey coach Bob Kullen, the victim of a rare blood disorder that had severely damaged his heart, had been told by doctors that he was going to die. Then, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, he received a new heart. The disease did not reappear, and only a few months later Kullen strolled over to a Wildcat afternoon practice. "Hey," said one player after another, "look over there. Kully's back!"
Kullen, 40, grew up in Milton, Mass., a town in the hockey-mad greater Boston area. Never big but always scrappy, Kullen played both football and hockey while at Bowdoin College. "I wasn't flashy," he recalls. "But I loved to check." Charlie Holt, who was UNH's hockey coach for 18 years before Kullen took over in 1986, remembers a compact, hard-hitting defenseman. "Kully was good, and he had his own style," says Holt. "Back around 1970, there was this thing we called the Kully Check. He'd slide in low, throw the hip and clean the guy out. I taught that check for years, after watching Kully."
Kullen was named All-America in '71, his senior year at Bowdoin, then rode his hip check to a spot on the national team and won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics. He hacked around the old New England Hockey League for a while, and in 1973 he took a job coaching hockey at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass. After four seasons, Kullen's record was 60-18-1, and in 1978 Holt brought him to UNH as an assistant.
In Durham, a town a few miles from the New Hampshire seacoast, Kullen fell into a most agreeable life-style. He skated hard with the team during practice, as Holt watched from the boards. Kullen developed a passion for golf, and for three seasons coached the UNH golf team. For five he coached the soccer team, leading the Wildcats to their first-ever Yankee Conference title. He took up squash and played three vigorous games a week. On days when he didn't play, he jogged a four-mile loop during lunch hour. "I weighed 155 pounds," Kullen says, "just a couple over my playing weight in college, and I was probably as fit as I've ever been."
After eight years as Holt's assistant, Kullen took over a young team in '86-87 and suffered through an 8-27-3 season. "That's O.K.," he thought as he looked toward the following year. "Now I'll do some hard recruiting." But as he started to throw himself into building the team, things went wrong.
"I was in really great shape," Kullen says. "I was feeling good, all pumped up about being head coach, and then, suddenly, I try to go out and run and I can't. I would go to the squash court, and I'd have to sit down against the wall. My partner would say, 'What the hell's going on?' "
Kullen had no answer, and neither did the doctors at UNH Health Services, who ran tests on him during the spring of '87: chest X-rays, electrocardiograms, stress tests. The results indicated a slightly enlarged heart, but doctors couldn't tell him much beyond that.
On May 11, 1987, Kullen reported to work. He would not return for 15 months. "I was walking up the stairs to my office with a recruit and—bang!—I fainted. I fell right on my face and ended up with a black eye. The poor kid, he is from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and he's been on campus for 10 minutes and doesn't even know where he is, and now he's got to run and find someone, 'cause he's got a passed-out hockey coach on his hands.
"We got the kid, though. Pat Szturm, a goalie, he ended up coming."