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Cullen says this season with Wild 'probably' end of NHL career

Minnesota native, 40, signs one-year contract to play near family

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

Matt Cullen was barely five minutes into the media conference call Wednesday to discuss his decision to come back for another NHL season, and return to his home state to play for the Minnesota Wild, when the inevitable question came.

Will this be the center's final season?

 

[RELATED: Cullen agrees to one-year contract with Wild | NHL Free Agent Tracker]

 

With his 41st birthday approaching on Nov. 2, it's an understandable question and one that brought a familiar answer.

"Probably," Cullen said.

The truth is Cullen has thought he was playing his last season a few times already. He was leaning toward retirement again in June after winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second consecutive season.

But after he took some time to let his emotions settle and see how he felt physically and mentally, his competitive fire was still burning. So after talking it over with his family, he decided to come back for a 20th NHL season and signed a one-year contract with the Wild. The contract is worth $1 million, and Cullen can earn up to $700,000 in bonuses.

"I think I've probably said the same thing the last two years and I would probably say the same thing now, that I'm going into it expecting it will be my last [season]," Cullen said. "I'll try to figure out what's right at the end of the season, but until then I guess I don't know. But I fully expect this will be the last one."

Video: The crew discusses Matt Cullen signing with the Wild

Cullen began his NHL career with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1997-98 after being selected by them in the second round (No. 35) of the 1996 NHL Draft. He thought it was over two years ago after his second of two seasons with the Nashville Predators.

While he was pondering what he'd do in retirement, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford called and asked if he'd be interested in playing for him again. Cullen, who won the Stanley Cup playing for Rutherford on the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, jumped at the opportunity. It paid off twofold for Cullen and the Penguins in the form of back-to-back championships.

On Wednesday, it was Cullen's turn to call Rutherford to inform him he'd decided to sign with the Wild instead of returning to the Penguins for a shot at a three-peat. It was not an easy call to make.

"If [Rutherford] hadn't made the phone call a couple years ago, I don't know, I'd be coaching youth hockey right now," Cullen said. "So I owe him an awful lot."

But at this stage in his life, Cullen's decisions are about more than just him. He and his wife, Bridget, would like their sons, Brooks, Wyatt and Joey, to get into more of a normal routine; they were schooled by a private teacher at the Penguins practice facility the past two seasons.

Minnesota remains home for Cullen, who played at Moorhead High School for his father/coach, Terry; played college hockey three hours from home, at St. Cloud State; and played for the Wild for three seasons from 2010-13. He goes back to the Fargo, North Dakota/Moorhead area each summer and will bring the Stanley Cup to Moorhead for a third time on Aug. 31.

Video: Cullen on winning the 2017 Stanley Cup

So being closest to home and family made the most sense when it came time to decide where he was going to play.

"Having three boys that probably love the game of hockey as much as me makes it a lot easier to continue playing," Cullen said. "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 all experience all that comes with being in the NHL is really special."

None of this would matter if Cullen couldn't play at a high level. He attributes his longevity to understanding the importance of nutrition and training from a young age. He's made some adjustments as he's gotten older, but he's found what seems to be the perfect mix.

Last season, he had 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in 72 regular-season games and nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 25 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan mainly used Cullen on the fourth line, but did not hesitate to move him up in the lineup when needed because of injury. That was the case in the Stanley Cup Final against the Predators after third-line center Nick Bonino fractured his leg blocking a P.K. Subban shot.

Cullen filled in for Bonino seamlessly. In the 2-0 Cup-clinching win in Game 6, no Penguins forward played more than Cullen (19:42), who was on the ice for Patric Hornqvist's winning goal.

Cullen expects to play a similar role with the Wild.

"I guess that's one thing that comes with playing for a long time," Cullen said. "I'm pretty versatile as far as where I can fit in a lineup and I'm comfortable playing wherever the coach asks me to."

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