The first time John Cullen met his new roommate and Windsor Spitfires goaltending partner, Jaroslav Pavelka, was like something out of a bad comedy.
Pavelka spoke very little English and Cullen, trying to be a good teammate, was doing his best finger-point and hand-signal routine in an attempt to communicate.
“We were paired together in a hotel room,” said Cullen. “And I was trying to help him fix his power converter for his (computer) charger.”
That was in November.
“Johnny Cullen, he’s my friend,” said Pavelka, in his steadily improving English. “In practice we try to be better and better. He’s a good guy.
“Johnny Cullen helps me with everything.”
On the surface, the Windsor Spitfires’ goaltenders seem mismatched – a shy teenager from the Czech Republic who struggles to communicate in a new language, and a boisterous American who never stops talking. Together, however, they seem to bring out the best in each other.
“They’ve been good together,” said Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner. “(Pavelka’s) English is just OK and it’s gotten a little better, and (Cullen’s) a pretty good team guy. They support each other in the net.
“Cullen is in his last year and he wants to finish his career off in the right way and Pavelka’s playing for the (NHL) draft, so it’s a good dynamic between the two of them.”
When Pavelka was traded to Windsor in early November, he was a small addendum to a larger deal with the Niagara IceDogs for German forward Tom Kuhnhackl. In an attempt to cut down to the Ontario Hockey League limit of two imports per team, the IceDogs included the 18-year-old goaltender in the package. The Spitfires were lukewarm on taking Pavelka because he had only played seven games with Niagara. Boughner and Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel watched Pavelka closely before deciding to finally sign him to a card, making him eligible to play for the recent two-time Memorial Cup champions.
“When he first got here, it was a big surprise,” said Boughner. “We took him back in the trade just because . . . (Niagara) needed to clear a spot. We took him in and sort of watched him practice for a week before we even signed him because we wanted to see what he was all about. He was impressive in practice. He has quick reflexes, he’s a very athletic kid.”
Since then, Pavelka’s played in 25 games for a rebuilding Windsor squad, going 8-11-1-1 with a 3.58 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. He’s very nicely complemented the 20-year-old Cullen. In 26 games with the Spits (24-26-3-2), the Hamburg, N.Y., native is 10-12-1 with a 3.66 GAA and .900 save percentage.
“Whoever is playing better at the time, that’s who is going to get the start,” said Boughner of his goaltending as the Spits embark on the stretch drive towards the OHL playoffs next month. “At this point I play no favourites. It’s whoever can make the big saves for us. We need wins.”
Although they’re both competing for the same starting job, there’s a sense each player still wants to see the other succeed.
“Goalies, we have our own language,” said Cullen. “So that’s been a way for us to communicate and grow closer with one another. Being out there, the two of us, and competing in practice to get better, that’s brought our friendship to a whole new level.”
There’s also a definite student-teacher dynamic between the two. In the first period of Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Mississauga Majors, Pavelka went behind his net to play the puck, not realizing he had it in his skate. When he came back to his crease, the puck was sitting there as easy gift for Majors forward Riley Brace, who buried it to open the scoring. A quick chat with Cullen proved to be another learning opportunity for Pavelka.
“After the first goal (Pavelka) said, ‘Lucky,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but unlucky for you’,’’ said Cullen. “And he said, ‘Unlucky?’ So it’s little stuff like that I try to teach him everyday – especially hockey lingo. But he’s done a great job of adapting to our culture and he’s done a great job on the ice. We go out (in practice) early and work with each other on little stuff.”
And there is likely no better teacher than Cullen, who, even for a goaltender, isn’t your conventional junior player. When he was with the Kingston Frontenacs, the fourth-year netminder was a weekly radio guest on a popular drive-time morning show where he and the host would discuss politics and current events.
“He never shuts up,” said Boughner with smile. “Even when he’s not playing, he’s great on the bench because he’s screaming and yelling at the players. He’s a character. He loves to do (colour commentary) when he’s not playing. He’s always going.”
Much like Boston Bruins netminder Tim Thomas, Cullen isn’t afraid to share his political views publicly, either. He supported current Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul long before he was able to legally vote and would one day like to run for political office himself.
“What I like about Ron Paul is that he’s not afraid to ask questions,” said Cullen. “For me, the most important thing about his campaign is how he wants to audit the (U.S.) Federal Reserve and I think that has to do a lot with our national debt. It’s a big problem at home and I like that Ron Paul isn’t afraid to ask these questions and he’s not afraid to piss people off.”
Since his mother, Barbara, is a nurse and his father, Thomas, is a social worker, Cullen has grown up with an appreciation for public service. Time spent in Canada, however, has also given him an appreciation for universal health care.
“It’s a great initiative to be able to provide health care for those who can’t afford it,” said Cullen. “I’ve been blessed that my parents both have great jobs back home in the States, so my health care has been covered growing up. But I’ve also seen the other side where I’ve had friends whose parents worked regular jobs but they couldn’t come out and play football for us because they couldn’t afford to get hurt or get their arm or leg fixed if it was broken.”
He said if hockey doesn’t work out, he’ll be happy to use his OHL education package to finish university in Canada, having already taken some political science courses at Queen’s University. In the meantime, though, his focus is on helping the seventh-place Spitfires get back to the postseason.
“I want to go to the playoffs,” said Cullen. “It’s my last year so I want to compete, I want to win. Through the winning will come the individual success.
“When I first came into the league I didn’t have the best practice habits, but that’s something I’ve learned to quickly change if you want to be successful. You need to practice every day like it’s a game.”
It’s these small pieces of advice garnered over the years that Cullen has tried to share with Pavelka – even if the rookie netminder doesn’t quite understand the notion of “tips” just yet.
“He’s a really great kid and I’m happy to work with him,” said Cullen. “He’s got a bright future and, the way he’s been playing, I think he should be a pick in June at the NHL draft.”
And though he might not have the same vast vocabulary, Pavelka can still sum up his sentiments perfectly.
“Me and Johnny Cullen are like brothers.”