One of the worst parts about growing up was having to make a malt.
Don't get me wrong, the ingredients are pretty simple. And I loved drinking them. But if I had to make a malt, that meant one thing: I lost a hockey match on our outdoor rink.
My father, Terry, built an outdoor hockey rink in our backyard. Me and my two younger brothers, Mark and Joe, spent every spare minute we had on that ice. We'd come home from school, change and hit the rink. Every birthday party was on the rink. We hooked up lights onto the roof and would play until it was dark and all we could see were the bright Minnesota stars above.
All I've ever known in my life is hockey. My earliest childhood memories were on that rink in Virginia, Minnesota. That's all I really wanted to do as a kid, was be on the rink and play with my brothers and friends. There was nothing better in life. I know it's the same story for a lot of guys, but that's how I fell in love with hockey.
If we weren't spending our night in the backyard, we were usually attending one of my father's high school games. From my youth until I was 10 years old, my father was the hockey coach for the Virginia Blue Devils. And I imagined myself being a Blue Devil one day. But when I was in the fourth grade he took over as coach of the Moorhead Spuds.
(I remember being so mad. I didn't want to be a spud. I wanted to be a Blue Devil! They had such a cool logo. What even is a spud? A potato? We're going to be potatoes? It's so funny thinking back at how upset I was at the time).
I still remember going to watch my dad coach. My friends and I collected programs and would tear out the pages. If our team won the game we would count down the final seconds and throw those pages into the air like confetti and celebrate like we just won the Stanley Cup. In between periods my brothers and I would play mini sticks with the team doctor in the hallway.
When we got home there was always one final chore for the night. We shoveled off the outdoor rink and flooded the ice so that it would be nice and solid for the next day. On the nights before a big game or tournament Dad would bring out a bucket of hot water. It was like we were Zamboni-ing it. It felt like big time. The ice would be super smooth after. The stakes were high.
And those tournaments could get pretty intense. My father, my brothers and me would mix teams for a 2-on-2 matchup. The losing team had to make the winning team malts and serve them to the winners.
So if I was making the malts, it meant that I had lost. But if I had won, then the losing team had to make malts for me and my teammate. The only thing better than the sweet taste of victory was the sweet taste of drinking that malt.
In Minnesota, high school hockey is king.
We didn't have NHL on the Fly or ESPN Hockey. The NHL was another planet. To kids growing up in Minnesota in the 80s, playing for your high school team was the dream.
My favorite moments were when my dad would let me in the locker room. I was in awe of the high school players and wanted to be them one day. For me, it was the equivalent of my children being in the locker room with Sid and Geno.
To us Minnesota kids, high school hockey was the NHL. And playing for the state championship was our Stanley Cup.
Every year my family would drive three-and-a-half hours south to the St. Paul Civic Center to watch the tournament, whether my dad's team was in it or not. I remember it had clear boards and was filled with 15,000 people watching. It was the highlight of my whole year. It was like a holiday.
My best memories of my high school career at Moorhead was playing in that tournament. For a kid growing up around high school hockey, that was the ultimate. I played in the tournament during my sophomore, junior and senior years. Unfortunately, we never won the title, but we were runner-up twice and finished third the other year.
What sticks out most was my senior year. I was playing with my brother Mark and we had a good team. That year I started thinking that I was good enough to maybe play in college and maybe, someday, the NHL. We made the state tournament again that year. We faced Rochester in the semifinal and the game went into double overtime. I scored the game-winner to get us to the final, though we didn't finish it off in the last game of the season.
Losing was tough. Obviously, I wanted to win. But I think losing in those games was good for me in the long run. Losing in the finals and never quite getting there, I felt like there was maybe more I had. I felt that this isn't my big moment. There's maybe more ahead. I don't know why I thought that. I'm not sure where it came from. But going through my head during that defeat was that my big moment was still to come.
I jumped over the boards at Maple Leaf Gardens and skated to the faceoff circle to square off against Hall-of-Famer Mats Sundin. It was October of 1997. Two years ago I was just a high school senior.
Now a member of the Anaheim Ducks, I was about to skate my first career shift in one of the NHL's most historic venues. I lost the faceoff, a defensive zone draw. The Maple Leafs had a shot on net and the coach called me off the ice. It was a short shift, but I'll never forget it.
Everything was so new to me. I was living in California on my own, the farthest I've ever been away from home. I was balancing all these new experiences from dry cleaning, being on the road and keeping up with an apartment. Not to mention learning how to play in the NHL.
Being a rookie in the league was a lot different back then. I was really quiet my first year, if you can believe that. We had an older group and the rookies were treated like rookies. We only spoke when spoken to. I came home from the rink one day and called my brother and I said 'You won't believe this, but I didn't say one word at the rink the entire day. I was there for five hours, didn't say one word to anybody.'
My welcome to the NHL moment happened on Day 1. Teemu Selanne walked into the room and took out his skates. He hadn't skated the entire summer and his skates had rust on them. He threw them on and was the best player on the ice from the first day. I was thinking, 'This is crazy. This is a whole new level of hockey.' I was on a line with Teemu that first year and he scored a career-high 52 goals - but believe me, it was no thanks to me.
I spent most of my four seasons in Anaheim skating alongside Teemu and Paul Kariya. And they taught me so much about the game.
Teemu was such a fun-loving, easy-going guy. He loved the game. He just played for fun and enjoyed it. Paul was super intense and serious, the ultimate pro. It was super cool to see both sides of them.
But the thing I learned the most that year was from Paul, who was also my roommate on the road during my time there. He taught me how to be a pro. He was super structured and detailed, trained like crazy. He showed me how much you have to commit, how much you had to put in to being a pro if you wanted to be good at it.
Paul would stretch every night before going to bed, so I started stretching every night. I think that was one of the biggest reasons I was able to stay healthy throughout my entire career and play until I was 42 years old. I stretched throughout my whole career.
Coming out of high school I was pretty green. I didn't realize that in an 82-game season you should be working out. I didn't do things like that.
I always think back to spots in my career and people that came across my path, I think it's for a reason. I learned so much from Paul, who remains a close personal friend to this day. Without his guidance I don't think my career would have gone where it did.
My hockey career hit a crossroads in the summer of 2005. I was 28 years old and worried that my career might be coming to an end. My last year in Anaheim and the next year-and-a-half with Florida were unmemorable. Then the NHL lockout happened. I knew if I had another bad season, retirement might come earlier than I anticipated. You can fall off the map pretty quickly in the NHL.
Then came a dilemma. Two teams called me with a contract offer. One was my hometown team, the Minnesota Wild. The other call came from Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford.
Minnesota was my hometown and was offering more money. Carolina seemed a much better fit and I already had built a relationship with Peter Laviolette, who coached me with the U.S. at the World Championship.
The chance to come home to Minnesota seemed too good of a dream to pass up. Going to Carolina would require a huge risk and huge leap of faith. I talked with my wife Bridget and we prayed. Something told me to take the risk and go to Carolina.
We had an interesting group. There were some unknowns like Eric Staal, Justin Williams, Andrew Ladd, even myself. There were also some older, veteran guys like Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman, Rod Brind'Amour and Brett Hedican. We had Martin Gerber in goal and a rookie, Cam Ward, as the backup.
Sports Illustrated picked us to finish 30 out of 30 teams. But everything came together in a way that I never experienced. We got off to a great start and things just worked out. I scored 25 goals and had one of my best years. We finished second in the East and added guys like Mark Recchi and Doug Weight at the deadline.
We opened the playoffs against Montreal at home and lost the first two games. It was awful. I was thinking our great season was coming to an end. We switched goalies and Cam stepped in and he was lights out. He played unbelievable and won the Conn Smythe.
We beat Buffalo in Game 7 to get to the Stanley Cup Final and faced Edmonton, a Cinderella team that was an eighth seed in the West. We had a chance to win the Cup on home ice in Game 5, but lost in overtime. Then we went to Edmonton and got pounded.
Game 7 was back in Carolina. It was the most fun game I've ever played in. The crowd didn't sit the entire game, they stood the whole time. It was intense. I hadn't experienced that before. I was nearly 30 years old, but I felt like a little kid.
We battled and held on for a 3-1 win, and you can't even believe it's actually happening. After Aaron Ward handed me the Cup, I did a quick twirl. There was a sold-out crowd in the building, but when I looked up all I could see was the Minnesota stars and the hanging lights on that outdoor rink growing up.
All those games I played with my brothers and friends, pretending to be playing for the Stanley Cup, and there I was, holding this trophy high above my head and living that dream.
Our families joined us on the ice for the celebration. And I remember all those times when things didn't work out. Not winning Minnesota's Mr. Hockey as the best high school player (with all due respect to Erik Rasmussen, of course). Not getting drafted in the first round.
And I remembered that feeling of losing in the state final my senior year, when I believed that my big moment was still to come. And this was it. This was the big moment I was waiting for. We reached the pinnacle of the hockey world: Stanley Cup champions.
And no one will ever take that away from us.
But what I really took away from that group of guys was leadership. There were a lot of good leaders on that team, and they all weren't wearing letters on their jerseys. You see it takes a large group of leaders on your team to win.
And for some of those older guys, this was their only and last chance to win a Cup. You see how fleeting your opportunity is for winning a championship. They fought so hard for it. They put so much into it. It was eye-opening to see how much it meant to them.
I know I've said it before, but really do believe everything happens for a reason. Instead of playing it safe, taking more money and playing in my home of Minnesota, I took a chance on Carolina. I went into that year thinking it could be my last one in the NHL. And I ended it by lifting the Stanley Cup.
There are few things I loved more than coming home after a game and flooding my own outdoor rink. I would drive home, put on my warm clothes, fill a thermos with some wine and go outside and drink it while I flooded the rink.
By that time I was back in Minnesota, having signed a contract with the Wild. My chance to come back home came true after all. And it seemed like the perfect time to go home, play out those three years, retire a Wild and live in Minnesota.
By that time, I also had a family. Three young boys of my own: Brooks, Wyatt and Joey. And for the first time in my life, it was my job to build the rink in the backyard. I had never done it before, but it was so fun. I felt like I was my dad.
I wanted to give my boys all the things that I had growing up, except now I'm the old guy flooding the rink. They were still very young in those years. Joey had just been born a few months before (I actually watched him being born on Skype from my hotel room while I was playing with Ottawa in the playoffs against the Penguins).
When I skated on that outdoor rink, it was the first time I had done so since I left my home in Minnesota in 1997. I was just as excited as the kids to be on the outdoor rink. It was the coolest thing. It certainly brought back a lot of memories, but mostly I felt my life coming full circle.
That included sharing in the Cullen family tradition of attending the Minnesota high school tournament. We actually saw a young Jake Guentzel skating there for Hill Murray on that ice sheet. I definitely didn't think I'd see him scoring 30, 40 goals in the NHL alongside Sidney Crosby one day. It's funny how it works out.
But those three years in Minnesota, it was really about family. We spent holidays at home with my boys and the entire family. It was a really special experience getting to play at home. I really enjoyed it. It gave the kids the experience of growing up on the outdoor rink.
It was during that time in Minnesota that they started to really love the game. For me as a dad, that was the ultimate to be able to share it with them.
The phone didn't ring on July 1, 2015, the annual start to NHL free agency. I had just finished two great years in Nashville, but my future was still unclear. I still wanted to play even at 38 years old, but I was pretty sure that it was the end.
That day came and went without a call. Then the next day came and went. Then the next week. Then the next month. Even so I continued to train and keep myself ready just in case an opportunity came up. At least I would be in shape and could make a decision for myself. I didn't want it made for me because I was out of shape.
One day in early August, the phone rang. It was Jim Rutherford.
Bridget was out for a run. When she got back, I said, 'You'll never guess who just called.' And she goes, 'Was it Jim?' It was crazy. She just knew.
As usual with these decisions we talked for a while and prayed on it. But we felt like we kept getting these opportunities and it would be crazy not to jump on it and give it a try. We took that leap and went to Pittsburgh.
The rest speaks for itself. We won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships the next two years, the first team to do so in two decades. It was a historical run.
I just pinch myself and think about how close it was to not happening. Those were probably the best years of my whole career and life with the Penguins. Going through all that with the boys and Bridget and that group of players, the whole organization, everything was perfect. It was beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
I certainly couldn't have imagined it the way we started that first season, though. We had such a terrible start that nobody had any expectations. I remember my son Wyatt coming to me at Christmas and crying because we had dropped out of the playoff picture.
Then Mike Sullivan came and we made a bunch of changes. Things started rolling from there. It was a unique group. It was a special group. That first year everything came together, and we were having so much fun. We were like a machine, all the way to the Cup.
The second year it was the same group, but it was a totally different year. We had to really lean on each other the most that year. The expectations were high going in and it brought our group closer together. It was rewarding because we stuck together through so many ups and downs.
I'll always have the Cups and those memories. But when I think back on those times what really stands out is watching my boys with those guys. A lot of the guys would come over to my house, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Sidney Crosby, Ian Cole, Marc-Andre Fleury, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin. We'd all have a couple glasses of wine and the guys would play mini sticks with the boys (the most intense games were between the boys and Patric Hornqvist; I know you're shocked).
That, for me, was the coolest thing ever to watch. It was like the boys were part of the family. They'd come in the locker room after practice trying to avoid doing homework. They'd steal gum. One time, Joey hid in Ian Cole's change stall. He jumped out and scared the crap out of him.
Those are the memories I'll treasure, probably more than anything. Just seeing them around the room every day. I know the boys will remember it forever.
I've been in a constant state of almost-retirement for the last few years. But coming into this last season, I knew that no matter what it would be the end. Even if we had won the Cup I would have been done. Playing those last few years really gave me the clarity to know this was it.
It was an emotional time, but I knew it was coming. It just felt right and I was really at peace with everything when it was over.
I felt like it was only right to retire in Pittsburgh with everything that the organization had given me and done for me. I'm so happy I came back and finished my last year in Pittsburgh. I wouldn't trade that last year for anything.
I've spent a lot of time reflecting. More than anything I'm just so appreciative of everybody that helped me along the way. Looking back on it there are people that came into my life at the right time to lead me one way or teach me something. It's not an easy thing to play for that long of a time. It takes so many people to step out of their way to help you, and I needed a lot of help!
And the friends I've made along the way, whether it was Eric Staal or Mike Fisher or Ryan Suter or Paul Kariya or the guys in Pittsburgh. There are just too many to name and I'm sorry if I left anyone out.
I just hope I had a positive impact with my teammates wherever I went. I tried to be the best teammate that I could be throughout my career, and be there for other people, try to be a good example.
But the biggest lesson I've learned from my 21 years and 1,500-plus games in the NHL is that you have to take a risk.
By my nature, that's not me. I'm not a risk-taking guy. I think you're given certain opportunities in life and if you're willing to take a risk and throw yourself in all the way then special things can happen. For me, that was the case. We leaned on our faith a lot and took leaps of faith. Thank God we took those chances and opportunities where He was sending us.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night many times these last few years thinking, 'What am I doing? I'm 40 years old. I don't think I can play another year in the NHL.' After each time I signed the past few years I woke up in a cold sweat, not sure if I could still play.
Honestly, if I could play forever, I would. All I know is hockey. I've never done anything. I never wanted to do anything else. I don't know anything else.
I may have skated my last shift, but I'm not hanging up my skates just yet. After all, there is a sheet of ice in Minnesota that needs to be flooded every night. That's where you'll find me, sipping my thermos. Maybe, even using the hot water to get the surface nice and smooth so the next day me and my three boys can have our own little intense 2-on-2 tournament with a malt on the line, skating in the open air, on the outdoor rink, under the hanging lights, under the Minnesota stars.
For me to be able to take them to the rink and play with them on the ice, as a dad, that's as good as it gets. I couldn't ask for more. That's what I had as a kid and to be able to share it with my kids is my greatest joy.
It's funny. When I was a kid, I used to hate making those malts. Nowadays, it's not so bad.