Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Matt Cullen ... 39 and still Stanley Cup strong

By Larry Wigge

This was going to be it ... one last kick at the Stanley Cup can for 39-year old Matt Cullen.

But ... then he had second thoughts ... about returning to play at all and to play against the Pittsurgh Penguins.

"Pittsburgh is where I want to go," Cullen explained. "It was a pretty special place for me, and it was a great fit for me and my family. I would really like for it to work out there."

Cullen played this season on a one-year, $800,000 deal. Presumably, the same kind of deal can be arranged.

There aren't many positions open for a 6-1, 200-pound fourth-line center, who appeared in all 82 games, scoring 16 goals and 32 points, and finished second to Sidney Crosby in faceoffs won. He scored the game-winning goals four times.

Being behind Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino made for a unique position for the Penguins. But Cullen added another four goals and two assists in the playoffs -- twice providing the game-winning goals.

Cullen had topped out in his career with Carolina, posting 25 goals and 24 assists in 2005-06 -- the last time Matt won the Cup.

In July 31, the day the Cup was supposed to follow Cullen around all day, he still had not heard back from Pens GM Jim Rutherford with a new contract.

"When the stakes are high, he is about as even-keeled a player as you can find," Rutherford said.

"I don't know if I have ever had more fun playing the game," Cullen said. "I'm appreciating the opportunity a lot more. And it's just all about making another run trying to win another Cup.

"It's brought me a lot more clarity at this point in my career."

Growing up in the Iron Range in the mid-1980s of Minnesota, Cullen and his two younger brothers fell in love with the Oilers, the front-running Edmonton team -- not the North Stars.

The Cullen’s father, Terry, a former high school hockey coach who played three years semi-pro in Green Bay of the old United States Hockey League, would flood the backyard of their Virginia, Minnesota home.

He recalled those days at the end of July.

"We had knee-high boards so we'd lose the pucks in the snow banks because the snow would be up to our heads," Matt Cullen recalled with a giant smile.

Like thousands of other kids, the Cullen Brothers strapped on their skates, threw on some elbow pads and grabbed their sticks for hours upon hours of imagination and merriment.

"I was Gretzky because I was the oldest, so I had first pick," Matt said. "Mark, the next youngest, he usually was Mark Messier. And the youngest, Joe, he'd usually be Jari Kurri."

And Matt says 32-year-old sister, Anne, may just be the best athlete of the four. She was a national champion and All-America diver at Concordia, where she just graduated.

Cullen played for the Stanley Cup in their backyard like they did so many times after Matt won the Cup in 2006 when the Carolina Hurricanes won it all.

"We played hockey in the backyard," he remembered. "We had silver buckets ... we carried them around like the Stanley Cup.

"It was everything that you would hope."

Still ...

The best advice from my dad. He always said, "Work hard and have fun. You can't do one without the other."

That always seemed to apply.

Some take the Stanley Cup out for a night on the town. Others take it down waterslides or for an afternoon of fishing or to their favorite tavern.

Matt Cullen of the Penguins had his day with the Cup this weekend. After some family time with the trophy Friday night and Saturday morning, Cullen brought Lord Stanley to Moorhead on Saturday afternoon for local fans to enjoy. And boy did they.

But this day for Cullen's three young boys ... and it started with eating Lucky Charms with a whole gallon of milk on top. Later, Brooks, 9, Wyatt, 7, and Joey, 6, were spottedd drinking Root Beer out of it.

Bridget, Matt's wife, was pregnant with the first son in 2006 when they were in Carolina.

"This one ... meant more ... because of the boys," Bridget recalled. "They were using metal spoons at the lake and they were clanking off the bottom of the Cup. The keeper (Phil Pritchard) of the Cup was like 'Ease up on the spoons, ease up on the spoons.' And then they ate the whole bowl in about five minutes."

There's nothing like Lucky Charms to fill an empty stomach.

Now, it's the three boys that capture all of Cullen's attention.

"On a normal game day, I'll wake up around 7 a.m. and my boys will already be on the couch watching NHL on the Fly. Every morning, without fail," he said, laughing. "They're little experts. I'll make some bacon and sit down with my cup of coffee while they give me a rundown of what happened in the NHL last night -- "Dad, this guy made a terrible turnover. You just can't make that play.

"It's hilarious."

A look at the walls in Matt Cullen's room:

There are multiple Pierre Turgeon posters, one of Doug Gilmour and, of course, a Gretzky. Every hooked-on-hockey kid growing up in the 1980s and ’90s had a Wayne Gretzky poster as the centerpiece of his collection.

Oddly out of place among all the vintage 1990s NHL superstars papering the walls of Matt Cullen's old -- and still untouched after all these years -- Moorhead bedroom is a picture of Mike Antonovich.

Mike Antonovich?

"Besides hockey, I played football and baseball in high school (in Moorhead, Minn.)," remembered Cullen. "I was a quarterback, but the football and hockey seasons got so close. I didn't play football my junior or senior year because I was trying to get ready for hockey.

"The football coaches weren't overly pleased, but I think they understood. I played baseball through my senior year. I was a shortstop. I really liked baseball a lot -- loved it."

But Matt Cullen was more than just another Mike Antonovich from Moorhead.

I want my epitaph to say, "Here lies Matt Cullen, who was an honest and good family man, and a genuine, hard-working person who made the most of what he had."

I think we'll all agree to the truth of that epitaph.

But ... he may have another tour -- adding more things to a near 40-year-olds epitaph.