UPDATE: Matt Cullen returning to Minnesota for 20th NHL season
MOORHEAD, Minn. -- In the summer of 2013, former Moorhead High School hockey standout Matt Cullen was walking around the bar at Usher’s House in Moorhead during a silent auction for his Cully’s Kids charity. It was days after he signed a two-year deal with the Nashville Predators, after having played three seasons with the Minnesota Wild.
His jerseys hung throughout the rooms and the patio where people could buy them. His signature was on pucks and pictures of himself in order to make them more valuable. He was a Stanley Cup champion, an NHL player with more than 200 goals in a city that lives and breathes hockey, yet, he did not stand out.
Cullen looked like a man having a beer after work with co-workers. He was home.
“I was lucky enough to play at home," Cullen said that night in regards to leaving the Wild for Nashville. "You can probably count on one hand the number of guys that get to do something like that at the highest level. I know I was pretty fortunate to get that, and I will miss it a lot. I absolutely loved it. I never took it for granted at all. That's the nature of the business and it doesn't always work out the way you thought it would. Minnesota has been awesome. They've been very good to us. Life just changes."
Life changed again on Wednesday, Aug. 16, as Cullen signed a one-year contract worth $1 million and $700,000 in potential bonuses with the Wild for his 20th NHL season.
For the second straight summer, Cullen had a chance to end his career as a Stanley Cup champion, but the 40-year-old keeps coming back to the sport he began playing in his living room at the age of 2.
He had scored 15 goals and dished out 25 assists in 97 games last season during Pittsburgh’s championship run, including two goals and seven assists during the playoffs. Cullen’s main purpose came in the faceoff dot and on the penalty kill.
There was interest from other teams as soon as Cullen decided against retirement, but the decision came down to the Wild or returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins to attempt three straight Stanley Cup titles.
“It was not an easy decision,” Cullen said. “Obviously, Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me, but everything that we’ve gone through in Pittsburgh the last two years has been pretty special. It’s a fantastic organization and the friendships you make along the way, it’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away.”
For the last four summers, Cullen has thought about retirement. It seemed imminent in 2015, until Penguins GM Jim Rutherford gave him a call. Cullen had won a Stanley Cup with Rutherford in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. He added two more the last two seasons with the Penguins thanks to that call. Rutherford was the first person Cullen called Wednesday.
“Jim Rutherford has been as good to me as anybody, and he’s had as big of an impact on my career as anybody,” Cullen said. “I owe him a lot. That was part of what made the decision so difficult, is having to say goodbye to Jim and everything he’s done for me. It’s an honor to be able to play in the league for this long and I don’t take it for granted. I’m really, really happy to have one more chance at it this year.”
Penguins fans chanted for Cullen to give them one more year the night the Penguins won the Stanley Cup and at the parade in Pittsburgh. A big part of his decision came to his wife and Moorhead graduate, Bridget, and his three young sons.
“She’s fully on board and is behind me all the way and I’m really lucky that way,” Cullen said. “Having three boys that love the game of hockey probably as much as me makes it a lot easier to continue playing. I know that every day they’re at a game is the best day of their life, so to be able to continue to give them that opportunity and have them in the locker room with me and get to know the guys and experience all that comes with being in the NHL it’s just really special.
“They were fully on board. They’re excited to come home to Minnesota too. It’s pretty cool. It’s going to be a really fun experience. That adds so much to the whole experience of playing in the NHL for me as a dad to have my boys right there with me. My dad was a high school hockey coach, so I grew up in a locker room. Don’t think there’s any better place to have them than at the rink.”
As for whether or not this will be Cullen’s last season, the current oldest player in the NHL expects it to be. But who knows.
“I’ve been really blessed to be able to play this long, and I love the game of hockey,” Cullen said. “I never would’ve expected to be playing this long. I’m thankful, I am, and there’s a lot of things that have to go right along the way.
“I think I’ve probably said the same thing the last few years and I’ll probably say the same thing now. I’m going into it expecting it’ll be my last. You just never know what happens along the way. It goes fast and I’m just going to take this year for what it is. It’s a great opportunity.”