ST. PAUL, Minn. – As the summer continued and the euphoria over another Stanley Cup victory had subsided, Matt Cullen weighed his options. The 40-year-old Cullen conversed with his family and felt ready for another year in the National Hockey League.
Chasing another Stanley Cup was very tempting. Cullen’s been on three Stanley Cup championship teams, including the past two with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The option to return home and finish his career in Minnesota presented itself for the Moorhead, Minnesota, native, meaning Cullen could spend his final season, at least for now, surrounded by family and friends.
Cullen has represented the U.S. at four World Championships
Cullen felt there was no “bad decision” on where he would play his 20th NHL season, but the lure of familial bonds eventually led Cullen to signing a one-year contract with the Minnesota Wild in August.
Yet, those back-to-back Stanley Cups were difficult to move on from.
“It really made it harder,” Cullen said when asked if winning the past two NHL championships made it easier or harder to finish his career in Minnesota. “It was really hard to leave. I owe Pittsburgh a lot. I really do. It was awfully hard to say goodbye to all those guys; [Penguins general manager] Jim Rutherford, who’s done more for my career than probably anybody in the game of hockey. I owe him a lot and respect him more than anyone."
“It was hard to make those phone calls and hard to do that. But at the same time, everybody’s understanding of the fact that at 40 years old and playing in the NHL, my family has sacrificed a ton to allow me to play this long. It comes down to what’s best for all of us.”
One of the biggest factors for Cullen was the fact he has family in the Twin Cities, which are just a 3-hour drive away in Moorhead. With three young sons, Cullen is eager to show them life in the winter in Minnesota.
“We kind of got to the point where we felt it was the right thing for our family to be able to put down some roots at home,” Cullen said. “There’s life from the outdoor rink and seeing the state high school hockey tournaments, college hockey and all that goes with being in Minnesota. That was all help driving the decision.”
Cullen was a three-time all-state selection in Minnesota at Moorhead High School. He played two seasons at St. Cloud State University before turning pro with the Anaheim Ducks, who had drafted him in the second round while he was at St. Cloud State.
The versatile center won his first Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s played 154 regular season games and added another 49 in the playoffs the past two seasons in Pittsburgh, helping the Penguins to back-to-back cups.
Cullen enters this season sixth among active players with 1,366 career NHL games played.
Last year, Cullen had 13 goals and 18 assists while filling roles throughout the lines and as a penalty-killer and faceoff specialist for Pittsburgh. He won 51.22 percent of his face offs while averaging nearly 14 minutes of ice time per game.
Cullen ranks sixth among active NHLers with 1366 games played
“The effect it’s going to be, he’s a mentor and he’s a stabilizer and he’s a guy that we can count on in important situations for veteran leadership,” said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau.
Cullen’s impact in Minnesota’s dressing room could be similar to his first stay with the Wild from 2010-13.
Minnesota forward Jason Zucker said Cullen’s mentorship played an integral part of Zucker’s development. Zucker was a linemate of Cullen’s as a rookie.
“I think just his demeanor, the way he is,” Zucker said of learning from Cullen. “He’s a true pro. I think everybody that’s ever played with him, I think, would tell you that. Just the way he goes about work every day. This is absolutely our job, but you’d never know it with a guy like that. Just the way that he goes about his business every day and the way he carries himself is something to learn from.”
Cullen sees many familiar faces with the Wild, but they’ve grown their games. Cullen said he felt Minnesota was the best team Pittsburgh faced from the Western Conference last season and is hopeful that they can build after last year’s disappointing first-round playoff loss to still give him a chance at another Stanley Cup.
“I think this group is awfully close and this group has a lot of good, veteran guys that have played for a long time and understand the game,” Cullen said. “I just think that the more guys that you have that have been there, that have that experience, that can help pull in the right direction when times get tough, I think you’re a better team for it.”
Cullen said he feels good physically and passed Boudreau’s infamous skate test with ease. He’s signed for one season and approaches the year as if it will be his last in an NHL uniform.
“I’m treating it like it’s my last,” Cullen said. “I don’t want to miss out on any opportunity. Looking ahead, I’m just going to enjoy it for what it is and treat it like it’s the last. End of the season, we’ll sit down and go through the whole thing again and make a decision.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.