ST. PAUL -- Matt Cullen has played his fair share of outdoor hockey. Growing up, he practiced on a backyard rink with his brothers; as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he played in a Stadium Series matchup at Heinz Field during the 2016-17 NHL season.
But he can't help but feel a little envious of two of his old teams, the Moorhead Spuds and St. Cloud State University Huskies, for getting to play in a different environment this year as the city of St. Cloud hosts the 12th annual Hockey Day Minnesota. Moorhead will play outside alongside Lake George, while the hometown Huskies play at home at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
"I would have loved doing that back in college or high school," Cullen said with a grin. "But it's fun for me to have teams -- St. Cloud State that I played for, and obviously the Spuds -- those are special teams for me, so it's really fun to be able to see them playing on Hockey Day and it adds a lot for me. I really enjoy it."
Playing under his father, Terry Cullen, at Moorhead, Matt led the team to three state tournament appearances and two runner-up finishes, in addition to being named as an all-state tournament selection all three years, a Mr. Hockey finalist, and state Player of the Year in 1995.
At St. Cloud State, Cullen was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team in 1995 and as a WCHA All-Star the following year before turning pro in early 1997.
Somehow, things haven't changed much since Cullen's days as a Husky. There's only been one coaching change, from Craig Dahl to Bob Motzko in 2005; St. Cloud State remains a constant presence in the postseason; and its teams have called the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center home since 1989.
The men's team has played twice in Hockey Day Minnesota before, in 2009 and 2010, while the women's team was featured in 2017. Cullen's high school team, the Moorhead Spuds, played in 2011, as the city of Moorhead hosted the event.
"Hockey is such an important part of life here in Minnesota," Cullen said. "So many kids are involved in it, it's a fun day to celebrate it as a state. To be able to highlight some high school teams and college teams and younger kids, I think it's a really cool idea and I think it's just fun for everyone."
Naming the outdoor game in Pittsburgh one of his favorite parts of a 21 career that includes three Stanley Cup championships, Cullen said there's nothing quite like taking the ice outdoors. On Feb. 25, 2017, his former team topped the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2, in a frigid battle on the banks of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers.
While the Wild will play its Hockey Day game inside the walls of Xcel Energy Center, there's just something about the energy of outdoor games that's hard to duplicate.
"All of us as players remember back as kids, falling in love with the game outdoors," Cullen said. "To allow the high school kids and everybody [to play outside] … it's a great atmosphere for hockey."
And even though he's more than a few years removed from his first days spent falling in love with hockey, he watches the role Hockey Day has had on a new generation of players and fans like a proud father.
"To see St. Cloud rewarded with a day like this, it's cool to be able to highlight the hockey that they're producing out of there."