Matt Cullen has played for eight different teams during his 18-year NHL career, which means his wife Bridget has spent time in a lot of different organizations. But there’s two in particular that have been extra special to her, and they have one common denominator – Leslie Rutherford.
In addition to everything Leslie does to take care of the wives and families during the regular season while her husband Jim did the same for the players, she undertakes a unique project at the start of the postseason that is incredibly meaningful for everyone involved.
Leslie comes up with what she calls “mojo gifts” for every single playoff game, home and away, that she gives to each player’s significant other for good luck. She attaches an inspirational quote to each one – which could either be more fun or more serious, depending on the situation – that would get the women excited and keep the mood positive during an extremely stressful time.
Even though Leslie doesn’t get to interact with the players’ wives and girlfriends all that much, she said the mojo gifts were her way of letting them know that she’s always there for them, that her and Jim are proud of every individual on this team and that they were thinking of them every single game. And that meant everything to the women.
“It speaks to her as a person so much because a lot of people could do nothing,” Bridget said. “It would be really easy for someone in her position to just separate herself. But instead, she chooses to do these things.
“With this group of girls, because there’s such a big age gap and we have so many girls – I’ve never been on a team where everyone has a girlfriend – that made it special too, because there’s so many of us and there’s so much difference in our ages. Doing that one thing that she does just brings us all together no matter where we’re at in our lives. The camaraderie, it’s pretty special.”
Leslie first had the idea to create these mojo gifts back in 2006 with Carolina, which was Matt’s first season in Raleigh. Once Leslie handed out the first one and the Hurricanes won, of course she had to continue doing them out of superstition. And it worked, as the team went on to lift the Stanley Cup at the end of their run.
“It was our first year there, so the whole gift thing was new to me in general,” Bridget said. “It kind of just took off. It’s funny, when the playoffs start you don’t really know how far you’re going to go even if you feel like you’ve had a magical season. But I just remember after the first round and all of the gifts, it was like, ‘This is working! (laughs).
“We’re all so superstitious. We said, ‘We have to keep going, we have to keep doing these gifts.’ And as the rounds kept going, the gifts got more elaborate and more special too, because we were accomplishing things you just didn’t expect.”
Ten years later, Bridget still has all of those gifts she received from Leslie in a box.
“It’s just something to look back on and reflect,” Bridget said.“It just brings us closer together. It’s just a really cool thing Leslie does. Nobody does this. I’ve been everywhere in the NHL and nobody does this. It’s pretty unique and heartfelt, and it’s awesome.”
Now, Bridget will have another box to fill with gifts as Leslie gave out mojo gifts again this year for the Pens’ playoff push. And even though Bridget kind of knew what to expect having received them before, she was still blown away by the incredible amount of thought, time and effort that Leslie put into each one.
“The the gifts this year were just amazing,” Bridget said. “I was like, 10 years have gone by and the gifts are getting bigger and bigger. She pays for all of them out of her pocket. She goes all out and I think just being able to tell the girls for Leslie, this is her normal, they were so pleasantly surprised and happy and excited. We were like, ‘What’s Leslie going to have next? What do you think it’s going to be?’
“It was just kind of fun and it was a good little distraction too, because everything was so high pressure and high strung that it was something to talk about besides just the hockey side. She really took it upon herself to bring us all together and just give us something special to remember.”
That’s exactly what Leslie hoped to accomplish. The main reason she does it is to bond the women and keep them excited about each game as they go through a lot during every one. And with it being such a magical year, she also wanted them to remember the friendships, struggles, good times and great memories they all made together – regardless of the result.
And while personally, the creative process helps take her mind off the stress of playoffs, Leslie does put a lot of pressure on herself to keep outdoing herself with amazing gifts for all of the girls – a lot of them being created under a time crunch when series started going game-to-game.
Some nights she would stay up until 4 a.m. in her dining room putting everything together. Some gifts she thought of herself; some of them she found on Pinterest and would make into her own – and every one was tailored to the situation.
For example, some of the gifts Leslie would give after a loss were designed to keep the wives positive. After a setback to San Jose, she gave out hand towels monogrammed with every players’ number on it with a note attached saying “Don’t throw in your towels yet.”
Another gift that stood out was during that same series, where Leslie googled the term “shark repellant” and found a hot sauce in San Jose that the company wouldn’t ship to her – “because I think they knew why I was calling,” laughed Leslie. So she called a girlfriend who lived in San Jose who went out, bought the hot sauce and shipped it across the country to her.
However, the one gift that stood out to both Leslie and Bridget was a blanket given out before Game 5 against San Jose.
Any time a player and his wife has a baby, Leslie orders them a special blanket from the same vendor, so she developed a relationship with one of the employees. That employee told Leslie she’d like to do something for the Penguins, and ended up donating most of the blankets – which retail at around $210 – for that game’s mojo gift.
The two of them worked together to design them, making sure to stay away from the words like “champions” or “Penguins” so they wouldn’t jinx anything. Instead, they decided to just put the date because it was such a memorable year regardless of whether or not they won the Cup.
“We have the three boys, and it was just such a special gift because they’re always going to have it,” Bridget said. “They put it where they watch movies and it’s a reminder. It’s not just a blanket, it signifies something.”
That’s exactly what Leslie hoped when creating that gift. She knocked it out of the park with each and every one, and is already starting to think of more ideas for next season, because she’s optimistic about what the team can accomplish.
Leslie has even started writing things down whenever inspiration strikes, to the point where she’ll pull over in the middle of driving or wake up in the middle of the night to jot ideas down in the notes section of her iPhone – which she said is getting quite full.
But no matter what happens next year, she and the wives will always have the memories from last year.