After playing 880 NHL games over 12 seasons with five different organizations, Matt Cullen
finally felt comfortable enough to go home.
The Minnesota native will play his first regular-season game as a member of the State of Hockey's home team Thursday, when the Wild open their slate at Xcel Energy Center against Edmonton.
The moment is not lost on the 33-year-old former runner-up for the prestigious Minnesota Mr. Hockey award.
"It's one of those things that not many people get the opportunity to do and I've been around long enough to realize how fortunate I am that it worked out the way it did," Cullen told NHL.com while in Helsinki with the Wild last week. "Time makes you appreciate it more. I think you realize how lucky you are for what you have, and I have been really lucky."
Cullen has played in warm-weather climates -- Anaheim, Florida and Carolina twice. He's played one season in the world's largest media market, New York (Rangers), and for 21 games and a round in the playoffs last season he experienced what playing in Canada is all about as a member of the Ottawa Senators
But he's always been a Minnesota kid. He's always thought about going home.
Cullen, 33, was born in Virginia, Minn., and raised in Moorhead, a town of roughly 13 square miles in the Red River Valley. He married his high school sweetheart, Bridget, and together they have three boys.
A story last month in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune detailed how Cullen's old room inside his parent's house in Moorhead remains perfectly intact, as if his mother, Nancy, is waiting for him to come home from hockey practice and eat some supper, do his homework and head off to bed.
"I told the wife she's in charge of the tickets now, I'm not dealing with it," Cullen joked. "We went to high school together in Minnesota, so it's great. I'm looking forward to it. My family is looking forward to it. It's great."
Cullen isn't so sure it would have been great earlier in his career. He admits there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with being a Minnesota kid playing for Minnesota's NHL team.
Since signing a three-year contract with the Wild on July 1, Cullen has been a media darling and has been featured twice in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, once taking Wild beat writer Michael Russo down memory lane in Moorhead.
Cullen playing for the Wild is a big deal, as he's only the seventh Minnesota-born player to skate for the team.
"Anybody that plays for 13-plus years, I think you figure out a way to put enough pressure on yourself that the outside pressure doesn't weigh on you," Cullen said. "I mean, I've played in New York. I've played in Ottawa in the playoffs. I've played the Stanley Cup Final. So I've dealt with a lot of pressure. This is a different pressure, but … to me it's more of a motivating pressure. It's not anything that slows me. It excites me. It is a new challenge."
couldn't believe what he was just told.
Cullen never has produced a 50-point season. He reached 49 twice as Brind'Amour's teammate in Carolina and last season got to 48 between 60 games with the Hurricanes and 21 with the Senators, but 50 has eluded the speedy center.
Brind'Amour was flabbergasted.
"I would have thought for sure he has a year in there where he did way more than that," the former Hurricanes captain told NHL.com. "He's got the potential of making the great play anytime, but over the last couple of years he's signed some big deals so they realize how good he is not even based on the numbers."
Still, that stat seemed so out of whack to Brind'Amour because he remembers thinking, "it was a steal," when the Hurricanes got Cullen in 2005.
"I was like, 'How did we get this guy for nothing?'" Brind'Amour said. "He was one of those guys that I played against that was a real good player that you never heard about. We got him and he was all that."
He was on both ends of the ice, which is why Carolina coach Paul Maurice
said Cullen hasn't been given the freedom to be a major point producer in the NHL the way he was in high school and at St. Cloud State University.
"What happens to him is that because he's able to play both sides of the puck you start asking him to never cheat offensively," Maurice said. "Certain guys you give a little room to and then you make a decision that maybe he's not a 100-point guy in this League even if he opens it up. Because he skates so well and he's so good on faceoffs and he thinks the game defensively, I think he gets the reigns taken away from him so he just can't go as much. I do think he can score more."
He might in Minnesota.
As a second-line center behind Mikko Koivu
, Wild coach Todd Richards
will give Cullen a little more leeway to go as long as he doesn't abandon his defensive responsibilities. With Carolina, Cullen was the third-line center behind Brind'Amour and Eric Staal
"It seems like there is a little bit more freedom, and being a veteran and going through what I've gone through pushes you up to the front as far as you need to do something and make things happen," said Cullen, who has a goal and an assist in two games this season. "With the guys that I'm playing with and the role I'm playing on this team it should allow me a little more room offensively."
A career year will make his return to Minnesota that much sweeter, if that's even possible.
"To be able to come here and call this home now -- and this is home -- it's great," Cullen said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl