There's no doubt that 2006 has been a big year in the life of new Rangers center Matt Cullen.
The first six months were eventful enough. Playing in his first season with Carolina Hurricanes, the eight-year NHL veteran set career-highs in goals (25) and points (49). Then, with only four previous playoff games to his credit, Cullen went on a tear in the postseason, notching four goals and 14 assists as the 'Canes roared to the Stanley Cup championship.
Life couldn't get much better for Cullen, yet amazingly, it did. On July 1, the first day of the NHL free-agency period, he signed with the Rangers, getting a chance to play regularly in his favorite arena, Madison Square Garden. Two days after he signed, Cullen learned that his good friend and Carolina teammate Aaron Ward would be joining him in New York.
The fun of 2006 was only just beginning. A few days before he was set to begin training camp with the Rangers, Cullen became a father, when his wife gave birth to a boy named Brooks. Exhausted and elated, he flew to New York from his hometown of Moorhead, Minn., to join his new team. Only five days later, he was among the best players on the ice in the Rangers' preseason home opener, scoring the game's first goal.
How's that for a welcome to the Big Apple?
At least one more major milestone remains for Cullen in 2006 - his 30th birthday on Nov. 2. Few players manage to accomplish all that Cullen has before turning 30. In addition to his Cup victory, Cullen has already played a remarkable 591 NHL games since entering the league at age 21.
Years ago, Cullen might never have imagined he'd celebrate his 30th birthday as a New Yorker, because he had visited the area a few times over the past eight years while playing for Anaheim, Florida and Carolina. Cullen is truly brand new to the city, and he's certainly thrilled to be here with the Rangers.
Growing up in Minnesota, Cullen was a big fan of NHL hockey. He rooted for the former North Stars, of course, but he also had a keen interest in two other NHL teams.
His first adopted favorite team was the Edmonton Oilers, coached and managed by current Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather. Following the Oilers came easily to Cullen, since his hockey hero, Wayne Gretzky, was leading them to Stanley Cups throughout the 1980s.
The other team Cullen loved as a kid was the Rangers, and his reasons were completely red, white and blue.
"I love the tradition and the prestige of the organization," said Cullen. "I was a U.S. guy, and the Rangers were always America's Team, as far as I was concerned."
Born in Minnesota's Iron Range, Cullen moved to Moorhead at age 10 and was a major high school hockey star before entering St. Cloud State in 1995. Drafted by Anaheim following his freshman year of college, he opted to turn pro after his sophomore season and needed only 24 total games of minor-league seasoning before becoming an NHL regular in 1997-98.
Following six seasons with the Ducks, Cullen went to Florida in a trade for current Rangers teammate Sandis Ozolinsh. He played two years with the Panthers and then signed with Carolina as an unrestricted free agent in 2004. He went to Italy during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and came back perfectly suited for the new era NHL, as his 2005-06 performance proved.
The Rangers took note of Cullen's breakout season and pursued him from the start of the summer free-agency period. Cullen was flattered by the interest, and he quickly became convinced he had found a new hockey home.
"There were two major things," said Cullen of his signing. "The first one is that New York made it clear to me that they really wanted me to be here and high expectations for me, which is important as a player. And the other thing is that it's kind of cool to be part of an organization like this because I've been in Anaheim, Florida and Carolina, which aren't necessarily big hockey areas. So it's great to be in a place like New York, where hockey is so big."
Well-spoken and humble off the ice, Cullen didn't have to wait long for close friend Ward to become his teammate again in New York. Before the free-agency period began, Cullen and Ward did not talk about their plans. But once he committed to the Rangers, Cullen was thrilled to learn that Ward had similar ideas.
"To be honest, I think we both at first expected to be back in Carolina," said Cullen. "But as it went along, and I signed with New York, I happened to call him right after just to let him know and to see where he was at. And he said the Rangers had been talking to him, so obviously I was pretty excited. ... He (Ward) did a lot for our team last year and at times, he was our best defenseman. So, you know, once you've signed with a new team, you're there and you want it to be as good as you can. And when know you've got a guy who can help your team win, you're certainly hoping that he'll come and join you."
With their names already on the Stanley Cup, Cullen and Ward entered a new locker room at the Madison Square Garden Training Center earlier this month, finding many similarities to the one they occupied a year earlier.
"There were a lot of question marks for Carolina last year, because we were actually pretty similar to New York," said Cullen. "I know a lot of people had us picked to finish 30th in the league, and definitely to finish last in the Southeast Division. So I think at this point last year we were kind of in the same boat as New York. We felt like we had a good team, but nobody else did. So we kind of grew the confidence from the inside out."
That home-grown confidence worked wonders for the Hurricanes, who set a goal of winning their division and shooting for the Cup. He sees a similar determination in his new teammates.
"I think this is a great camp," Cullen said during his first week with the Rangers. "There's a lot of good players, and when you see that, and you realize that we're going to make one team out of all these good players, it looks good. I'm really confident about the future of this team, I think it may be very good. We have a lot of good young guys to go along with a real solid core of veteran guys that have won a lot of games in their careers. That bodes well."
It will be easy for Rangers fans to spot Cullen on the ice, because both his skills and his uniform number are sure to draw attention. With the Blueshirts, Cullen chose to wear No. 5, which typically goes to defensemen and has not been worn by a Rangers forward since Hall of Famer Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion had it in 1967-68.
"I like wearing a single-digit number," said Cullen, who wore Nos. 7 and 9 throughout his youth in Minnesota. "I was No. 8 last year, and obviously (Marek) Malik has it here. But when I was in Carolina, I asked for No. 5 and they said it was too low, so I took No. 8. When I came here I asked for No. 5, and they said yes."
In his first preseason game at home against New Jersey, Cullen played on a line with Petr Prucha and Greg Moore, scoring a highlight-reel goal that stood up as the game-winner. In his second game against Florida, he was also outstanding, playing on a line with Prucha and Brendan Shanahan. Cullen might find himself on yet another line in preseason on Monday against the Islanders, as he was teamed with Shanahan and Nigel Dawes during the morning skate.
Coming off his best offensive season, and given what he has shown so far in the preseason, Cullen could be on the verge of another career year. Yet no matter what happens on the ice, this will be a special year for Cullen as he settles into a new city with a new family - and a great sense of pride about his new job.
"Everything around the Rangers is first class, and everybody in the league knows that," he said. "They treat us awesome here."