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Zucker, Cullen reunited (in more ways than one)

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

Matt Cullen landed at the Minneapolis airport on Tuesday afternoon and made his way to get on his connecting flight. As he boarded the plane, he saw a familiar face in the crowd: Jason Zucker.

The former teammates with the Minnesota Wild were on the same journey.

Destination: Pittsburgh.

"There aren't a lot of flights coming out of Fargo to Pittsburgh so I figured there might be a chance that (Zucker and I) were on the same flight," Cullen said. "It was good to catch up and have a conversation about what to expect."

Cullen, a Minnesota native, and Zucker, an adopted Minnesotan, played together with the Wild for parts of three seasons in 2011-13 and 2017-18. Now, they've been reunited in the Penguins organization with Cullen serving in a development coaching role and Zucker a newly acquired forward.

"He is excited. It was fun to see how excited he was," Cullen said of running into Zucker. "I've been through (a trade). It's like a whirlwind. Your head is going to a million different places. The excitement was pretty clear, and the chance for a new opportunity. It's a lot to take in in one day, and then get there and play a game."

Zucker, who was making his Penguins debut that evening less than 24 hours after being acquired, had just put his luggage in the overhead bin when he turned around to sit down - and there was Cullen standing in front of him.

"It was great. Luckily, I have a past with him. He's an unbelievable guy," Zucker said. "We walked to baggage claim together. He even carried my bags for me."

While the 43-year-old carried the 28-year-old's hockey gear, they talked about, well, hockey.

"When you're traded and have a game that night that's what's on your mind," Cullen said. "The rest of it will take care of itself as far as living and all that stuff. The only thing you're thinking about is having a good impression in your first game. It'll come for him pretty naturally. The style we play will really suit his game."

Cullen saw Zucker's game firsthand, particularly in the 2017-18 season when Zucker set careers highs in goals (33), assists (31) and points (64).

"His speed sets him apart, but he's real dynamic and has good offensive instincts," Cullen said. "It's fun for me to see how far he's come. He's really become a really good player in the league."

Cullen also saw how far Zucker has come as a person, from a 19-year-old rookie trying to break into the league into a true pro, a husband, a father and a community leader. Zucker won the NHL's King Clancy Trophy in 2019 as the "player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution to his community."

"That is one of the things I enjoyed in my career was watching guys grown up," Cullen said. "He was a young kid when he came in. Now he's a dad. He's big into his family, big into charity. He's done a lot in Minneapolis.

"It's good to see guys step outside of their comfort zone and try to make a difference in the communities that they're in. He and his wife (Carly) have done a really good job. He's just a good guy, good person with a big heart that loves to help kids. That side of him is great to go along with the rest of his game."

Zucker, who is signed through 2022-23, made his Penguins' debut in a 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on that Tuesday evening. He enjoyed some instant chemistry with linemates Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon. One Minnesotan believes it's a sign of things to come.  

"I think it's going to be a good fit. He's a good player," Cullen said. "He's a good guy, good guy to have on your team, good guy in the locker room. He's a real dynamic player. His style should fit with what we do. It's good to have him."

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