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Bridget Cullen reflects on 1,500 games: "It's been a ride"

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Bridget Cullen first met her husband, Matt, when they were in junior high, but they didn't have any classes together until high school. That's when they sat next to each other in chemistry, and began dating.

But after graduation, they ended up going to different colleges. Bridget played basketball at Minnesota State-Mankato, while Matt played hockey at St. Cloud State. Since they both had games on the weekends, they never saw each other during the school year - but whenever they returned to Moorhead for the summers, they would pick up where they had left off.

This went on for a while, even after Matt moved to Anaheim to play for the Mighty Ducks, who had taken him in the second round (35th overall) of the 1997 NHL Draft. Finally, the two of them decided it was time for them to take their relationship to the next level, so Bridget joined Matt in California ahead of the 2001-02 season.

"I remember my first experience walking into the arena, my first game," Bridget said. "I'm just getting off the plane from Minnesota, so all of this is new to me. I can't really explain it, but I remember a peace came over me. Then I was so excited and humbly proud because I was like, this is going to be my life.

"And I don't know, I can't really explain it other than I knew that it was meant to be and I knew God was running the whole thing. That's kind of the way that we both look at it. We're like gosh, it was like effortless."

Bridget has been by Matt's side ever since, through the highs and lows of life in the NHL and everything in-between. She has been by Matt's side as he's dressed for eight different franchises (Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Minnesota, Nashville and Pittsburgh), won three Stanley Cups and raised three young sons together. And on Tuesday, she was by Matt's side during a pregame ceremony in honor of him playing his 1,500th NHL contest against Florida.

"I'm just so proud of him," Bridget said. "If someone tells him he can't do something, he always proves them wrong, and it's just the best quality he has. He works for everything that he gets. He's such a good dad. He balances all of this so well. You look back and you're like, holy smokes, you can't believe that this much has time has passed."

It's crazy to think where life has taken them in the years since those days at Moorhead High School. The two of them were actually reminiscing about that period in their lives the other day with this milestone fast approaching.

"I told him we've had 15 homes in 15 years, renting and owning, a combination," Bridget said. "And we're going to be married for 15 years. So 15, 15, and 15. He goes, 'No way, that can't be right.' I walked him through every single home and he goes, 'Oh my gosh, I've got to get out of the league' (laughs)."

There are so many stories that stick out from those years to Bridget. One season that particularly stands out is the 2005-06 campaign, which was Matt's first year in Carolina with Jim Rutherford, who was the general manager of the Hurricanes at the time.

"Our team wasn't supposed to do anything, but we knew we had something special from the beginning," Bridget said. 

However, midway through the season - around the end of January - Matt suffered a fractured jaw when he was struck by a puck. That kept him out of the lineup for a few weeks, and Bridget had to blend up his food that entire time.

"I remember he wanted P.F. Chang's and I went to P.F. Chang's, got him food, brought it home and blended it so he could eat it out of a straw," Bridget said before adding with a laugh, "so disgusting. But that's just what you do. You figure it out. You just keep going and keep moving."

Fortunately, Matt was able to recover in time to travel to Turin, Italy for the 2006 Winter Olympics as a taxi-squad player for Team USA. After that, the Hurricanes went on a magical run and ended up winning his and the franchise's first Stanley Cup that June.

"They're all so different, but that was our first one, so you're never going to forget it," Bridget said. "And he was 29, so he was kind of in his prime and had a different role. The team had five or six veterans that had been around forever and gosh, you could learn so much from them and you just soak up everything they say. That part was just so cool."

When the Cullens celebrated on the ice after the win, Bridget was six months pregnant with their first child, Brooks, who was born that September. At that point, the Cullens were in New York, as Matt had signed a four-year deal with the Rangers as a free agent. 

He played one season there before getting traded back to Carolina for the majority of the remainder of the contract, which had the Cullens absolutely thrilled. Born and raised in the Midwest, they realized that life in a big city just wasn't for them, especially with a baby and another one on the way.

"It's one of those things that I couldn't believe was happening," Bridget said. "We were jumping up and down screaming, we were so excited. Because we knew we were going to have three years there, so we knew we could raise our family. That was the first time I think we felt stable, if you could say three years is stable. In our experience, I guess it is."

Matt and Bridget loved that time spent in Raleigh, where they lived across the street from Eric and Tanya Staal. Years before Matt adjusted his diet so that he could continue to play at a high level as he got older, the four of them had what Bridget called 'dessert club.'

"Every other night, we were in charge of making a new dessert," Bridget said. "Matt would always be like, 'You should make what Tanya made' (laughs). And Eric and Matt would eat gallons and gallons of ice cream. For a few years this went on. We have the best memories of Raleigh and the Staals. It was so nice to share those years with them."

Matt and Bridget welcomed their second child, Wyatt, in September of 2008, and were expecting their third child, Joey, in the spring of 2010. That year, Matt had been traded from Carolina to Ottawa at the trade deadline, and the Senators played the Penguins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

"It was such a good series, and I was in the hospital having a baby by myself," Bridget said. "It was crazy."

With Matt in Ottawa, Bridget had left Raleigh and returned to Minnesota ahead of Joey's birth. She wasn't due until May, but ended up getting the flu, which sent her into early labor ahead of Game 5 on April 22. That night, the Senators beat the Penguins in triple overtime.

"Matt called to get a pilot to come home for the birth," Bridget said. "The pilots were so excited that they would have a chance to fly him home, but then they had to mention that they were at the game and they were drinking. So Matt was like, 'I think I'm going to go back to Ottawa.' I'm like 'Yeah, do not get on that plane.'"

After the Senators were eliminated by the Penguins in six games, the Cullen family returned to Minnesota, where Matt signed a three-year deal to play for the Wild. At that point, he was 33 years old, and that's the first time they really started to think the end of his career was approaching.

"I think at that age, we thought we were just going to retire there and be done," Bridget said. "But it's not the way that it works."

Matt was now one of the oldest players on the team, and Bridget said that's when it really sunk in for them that he was truly a veteran. Especially when he played in his 1,000th NHL game during his second season with the Wild on Jan. 9, 2012. 

"I remember thinking, oh my God, we're the oldest ones on this team? This is so weird," Bridget said. "We are old. But then that was eight years ago, so now we're really old (laughs). What comes with that, and I'm just humbly saying, is that we're so much wiser. We've learned so much and we've been able to go to places and actually do good things for the better. Especially him. It's a good thing we're this old because we're able to share all of that."

From there, the Cullens went to Nashville for two years, where they made some lifelong friendships - particularly with Predators captain Mike Fisher and his wife Carrie Underwood.

"If we hadn't gone there, we wouldn't have met them," Bridget said. "It's crazy to look back at all the things that happened for a reason. We have the same faith, so it's so easy to get to the heart of issues and talk to them and share in that."

Once the Predators were eliminated in the First Round of the 2015 playoffs, Matt found a quiet spot in the locker room after Game 6, sitting there with Fisher and just reflecting back on a long career. And when the Cullens went back to Minnesota that summer, at first, Matt and Bridget's conversations revolved around what they were going to do with the kids now that he was done playing.

But eventually, those conversations turned into keeping an open mind about playing another year. And at one point, when they were out at the lake, Matt and Bridget had the grandparents take the boys so that they could get some time to themselves to pray, think and talk.

"We both said, 'Let's keep an open mind,'" Bridget said. "'You go for a walk, I'll work out, we'll keep an open mind and pray about it and see what happens.' So I'm coming back from my walk and he's finishing working out and he said, 'You'll never guess who just called me.' And I go right away, 'Jim.' And he said, 'How did you know?' And I go, 'I was just thinking about it on the walk.' He's like, 'It's a one-year contract offer, the money is okay but we have a chance to win. What do you think?' And I'm like, 'We have to do it, we have to do it.' So we drove home, told the kids, and they were so excited. It was just like another God moment."

It's hard to think that there was a time that Matt and Bridget celebrated a Stanley Cup without their three hockey-crazed boys, but that's what happened when he won for the first time in Carolina, as they were just on the brink of starting their family. So to have them there when he won 10 years later in San Jose was such a blessing.

"I remember the first one, (Sidney Crosby)'s parents were sitting behind us, and the two little ones knew what was going on but they were eating French fries," Bridget said. "Brooks was next to me, he's the oldest, and he looked at me and started bawling and then I started bawling. He knew it was a tough year to leave home, and he kind of knows everything that I do. And he was like, 'We did it Mom, we did it,' and I was just like, 'Oh my God.' It was the most amazing moment."

After the first Cup win in 2016, Matt didn't think twice about returning in hopes of making history. But after the second Cup win in 2017, Matt and Bridget were 41 years old and felt like going back to Minnesota to finish out his career was the right choice for their family.

"It's hard to leave home every year," Bridget said. "I thought maybe he would like to be home and he did want to be home for us, not necessarily for himself. If it was a hockey decision he would've came back to Pittsburgh. It turned out Jim still wanted him this year, and he still had enough to give and here we are."

When Bridget looks back on it all, what stands out the most are the friendships and relationships they've developed along the way, particularly with Rutherford and his wife, Leslie.

"Jim has always had faith in Matt, and it's nice to have somebody like that in your corner," Bridget said. "They have your back and you can trust them. There's a history there. It's an easy friendship and working relationship. It's special."

It takes so much sacrifice for a player reach 1,500 NHL games, particularly from their family. And especially in the Cullens' case, with all of the moving throughout the years while juggling the schedules of three active young boys. 

As Matt wrote in a piece for the Players' Tribune, "It's tougher on the wives than the players. People don't understand how much logistics goes into every move, especially at the end of the career when the kids are more grown up."

Those are certainly the most challenging parts, but through it all, Bridget's faith and her ability to keep the right perspective has guided her along on this journey - which has turned out to be the most amazing ride.

"I just try to do it all knowing it's not going to last forever and I know Matt's going to pick up the slack when he's done, so I feel like it's all going to be worth it," Bridget said. "All through having three kids and then doing the day-to-day and this busy schedule, I never for once wished it was over. We're so lucky to be doing this, we're just trying to enjoy everything about it."

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