Father Timeless

As He Gets Ready For His 21st NHL Season, Three-Time Cup Winner Matt Cullen Is Still Going Strong
By: 
Joe Sager

"Dad" is back.

And, he's ready for another run at another Stanley Cup.

Matt Cullen, who enters his 21st NHL season this fall, is the league's eldest statesman. At 41, the Virginia, Minn., native is old enough to be the father of some of his teammates. Hence, the nickname.

"Playing this long is definitely something that never crossed my mind when I was starting out," Cullen said. "Once I got there, I was just trying to solidify my role and position and where I fit on the team. You work so hard to stay in the NHL and want to become a good player and, someday a great player, that you never look at the long view of it."

The "long view" shows that Cullen's career has gone from centering Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to chasing another Stanley Cup with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. With 1,445 NHL games under his belt, Cullen could become the 19th player in league history to reach the 1,500 mark after the calendar flips to 2019.

"I have been really lucky and blessed to be healthy enough and my game has stayed good enough to last this long," said Cullen, who has 711 points to his credit. "I love this game. I have a lot of fun playing it. It's been awesome being able to stick around this long."

So, after all those miles up and down the ice, what keeps Cullen coming back?

"I just love to compete," he said. "If you want to stick around, you better enjoy those big moments and enjoy playing in tough games. I have taken a lot of pride in the fact that I've found ways to play my best hockey in the biggest moments. I think it comes down to being competitive and believing in yourself, but wanting to compete and battle. There's nothing like that."

Those are some of the traits Jim Rutherford, as Carolina general manager, embraced when he signed Cullen in 2004. Cullen helped the Hurricanes capture the 2006 Stanley Cup. Looking to assemble another championship team as Pittsburgh's general manager, Rutherford called on Cullen again in 2015 where he helped the Penguins win back-to-back Cups in 2016 and '17.

"The experiences I had in Pittsburgh-winning the Cup and playing with that group of guys-really rejuvenated me," said Cullen, who signed a new one-year deal with the Penguins on July 1.

"I felt I was pretty close to being done before I got to Pittsburgh. Going through those experiences-there's nothing like that and it really gives you a spark."

Being able to share that with his wife, Bridget, and three sons-Brooks, Wyatt and Joey-made it even sweeter.

"You see how excited they are going to games and being around the locker room," said Cullen, whose father, Terry, was his coach at Moorhead High School. "It makes you see how lucky you are to be in the NHL. When you see it through their eyes and their awe of the whole NHL experience, that's really helped to keep me motivated and keep me going."

After two campaigns in Pittsburgh, Cullen returned to his native state last year with the idea of playing  one more season for the Minnesota Wild.

"It was fun going home," he said. "Not many guys near the end get a chance to go play at home. I grew up watching the North Stars. Just going through the season and the disappointment of losing in the first round, it was something that served as motivation."

Cullen's contributions on and off the ice were huge factors in Pittsburgh's championship repeat. Without his presence in the locker room and on the ice, the Penguins fell to Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals this spring.

"Matt is not only a great player, but just a terrific person. I always looked at Matt as an extension of our coaching staff," said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who played against Cullen during his NHL career.

"There are certain guys the coaching staff can go to for feedback, honest feedback on where our team is at and Matt is one of those guys. He is one of those 'glue' guys that I think helped bring a team together in the locker room and his play on the ice speaks for itself. He's one of those guys I'll always have so much respect for how he helps a team win."

Cullen embraces that role, which factored into his decision to return to Pittsburgh for another season.

"As I get older, I am more comfortable with sharing my experience. I think I have a new appreciation for how important it is to a team," he said. "There were a lot of older guys who helped me out a ton when I was younger. Those are the guys who are the most special to you, guys who went out of their way to help you. I want to be one of those guys."

The Penguins look forward to Cullen's work on the ice, too. He settled in as a fourth-line center during his first time through the Penguins lineup, but showed the ability to slot in anywhere throughout the lineup.

"I love that challenge of moving around the lineup and playing different positions," he said. "I wouldn't play if I didn't think I could be effective. I feel like I have a lot to give on both ends of the ice. Just the opportunity with the Penguins to be in big games and, hopefully, make another run-those are the moments you really come back for."

 

 


Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

 

Issue: 
2018-09

Poll

Where's your favorite place to play?: