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The missing link? Cullen brings Cup credibility home again

Moorhead native and three-time Stanley Cup champion eager to begin second stint with hometown team

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

 

This story is part of Wild.com's 2017-18 season preview.

Matt Cullen sat in his locker stall, sure the end of his hockey career was finally upon him. 

Last spring, it came in Nashville; in an ironic twist, the same feeling had also come over him twice before. The year before that, it was in San Jose, each time drenched in champagne after a Stanley Cup championship.

At 40 years old, and at the end of a second consecutive grueling trip through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there seemed no better way than to ride off into the sunset with a pair of shiny championship rings.

But old habits die hard. And when you've been an NHL player for two decades, the pull of one more season can become too much to ignore.

"After you win it, everything is kind of a blur for a couple of weeks. The parades, the parties, you're celebrating with your buddies," Cullen said. "I really expected to be done. I was happy with the way the last couple of years had gone. But I just came around; my body started feeling really good, I found myself after a couple of weeks getting the itch to get back in the gym and start training."

It became clear rather quickly that Cullen would play if it was with one of two teams: the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Minnesota Wild.

Cullen had just won back-to-back Cups with the Penguins and felt a tremendous amount of loyalty to the team that had given him an opportunity after he was certain he was finished after a pair of seasons with the Nashville Predators. 

"It was a really interesting summer; I've never gone through anything like it," Cullen said. "I don't think anything can prepare you for it, because you feel a strong sense of loyalty to the team you just won two Cups with."

The only thing that could break that loyalty was the opportunity to come home a final time and play for his home-state Wild. Seven years ago, when he signed with Minnesota for the first time, Cullen thought the end of that three-year deal would mark the final chapter of his pro hockey career.

That contract was supposed to be the feel-good, cliche'd "finish the career with the hometown squad" deal.

Cullen said he could he have never imagined playing four additional seasons, for two other teams, and hoisting the Stanley Cup twice -- all before signing with the hometown club for a second stint.

"No; 100 percent, no," Cullen said. "I've approached the last four seasons as if it would be my last. I try to enjoy it for everything it is and not miss a moment and experience it. But I think you get re-energized when the season ends with the Stanley Cup. The last two years, you feel re-energized going through that playoff run and experiencing the ultimate high. It drives you to want to get back there again."


Cup cred

It's not difficult to quantify the things a player like Cullen can bring to the table as a player. 

The speedy pivot has had a career rejuvenation with the Penguins, scoring at least 30 points in each of the past two seasons, including 29 goals during that span.

He's a valued face-off man who won more than half his draws in each of the past eight seasons. During the playoffs last season, Cullen won 56.4 percent of his faceoffs, best among all Penguins centermen. 

For years, Cullen has been a quality penalty killer who's able to play multiple positions on the power play, including the point.

He's a fourth-line center who can capably jump up and play on any line with any kind of player, even seeing a few shifts with Sidney Crosby on the Pens' top line last year.

And he does it at a cost that won't explode a team's salary cap.

"We've got a guy who can take faceoffs, you can play him on the fourth line, you can play him against anybody," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "There's so many good things that he brings to the table along with three Stanley Cups."

Where he brings perhaps his most value is as a leader in the dressing room. It's no coincidence that perhaps the happiest Wild player when the Cullen signing was announced in August was forward Jason Zucker, who immediately tweeted out his appreciation of Cullen and the effect he had on him during the early part of his NHL career.

Tweet from @Jason_Zucker16: Cully was a huge mentor of mine my first couple years. Great to have him back in the #StateOfHockey! https://t.co/eRkprY9UmD

More than that, there are precious few three-time Stanley Cup champions playing in the League. And while rings don't help someone score a goal, get a clear or kill a penalty, they add intrinsic value to a team and a player's value to a team.

"I think it can bring you a sense of perspective," Cullen said. "Once you've been there and you see what it takes; the highs and the lows and all of the ups and downs that come with going through that experience. And when you have guys that have been there and can provide that perspective when it seems like things are going terribly or things are going really good, those guys can help keep the eyes down the road a little bit and see the bigger picture as opposed to what's right in front of you. I think that can help a lot."

During the postseason, players often talk about the step up in intensity and pace. Maintaining that level of play for a series can be a challenge, but the ability to maintain it for two months -- the length of an entire postseason run -- is typically what sets the eventual winner apart from everyone else.

Cullen recalled a story from the Penguins' first Cup run two years ago where he remained in his stall after the first game of the first series, completely spent. 

He wondered how he'd be able to handle a lengthy run. 

By the time the Penguins got into the Eastern Conference Final and through the Stanley Cup Final, many players were simply working off adrenaline and the vision of finishing off a goal they can practically reach out and touch.

"It's hard to describe it, but I'm getting goosebumps thinking about it," Cullen said. "It's such a fun feeling. What drives you is that feeling of togetherness that you have as a group, because you've been through so much together and you're so close to reaching your goal. It's such an unbelievable feeling, and I can't put it into words.

"It's just something you're hungry to get back to and experience it again because there's nothing like it."


Coach Cullen

During Cullen's first stint with the team, he was present as the Wild's next generation of young talent entered the NHL and got its first taste of the League.

Guys like Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin all debuted during Cullen's time in Minnesota, and he got a sneak peek at what the future of the franchise entailed.

He now has the unique perspective of being able to come back as many of these same players are just entering the primes of their careers.

"It's fun to see the way that they've come along," Cullen said. "To see the way that they've developed and come into their own, they're all really good hockey players in this League. And continuing to develop, it's fun to see and it's made this team an extremely deep one. It's a huge reason why the team is as good as it is."

Cullen's game resonated especially with Zucker; both are smaller, speedy players that play a similar game. 

During their early games together, rarely was there a moment on the bench where Cullen was talking and Zucker wasn't right next to him taking in every word. 

"He was one of the first guys to kind of take me under his wing a little bit and show me the ropes and give me some advice that even though it was very simple, it's stuff that I still look at today," Zucker said. "He was just a good sounding board for me at that time.

"It's crazy how four years can change things. We were talking the other day about how I have kids now and before I was just a kid coming into the NHL. It's kind of funny how that works. It's nice to have him back, especially with two more Stanley Cups. That experience is going to be huge for us." 

In some ways, Cullen had morphed into a version of his own father, Terry, who coached Matt when he played at Moorhead High School. Cullen had, in essence, become like a coach on the ice.

"We played together quite a but and you could see the potential he had with his speed and his nose for the net," Cullen said of Zucker. "For a guy like me, it was really fun to work with him. He was always so eager to learn and he asked a lot of questions. It's fun as an older guy to be able to help with that and do your part in that regard.

"It's fun to see how he's progressed and become one of the more dangerous players in the League with his speed and the way he can get the puck to the net."


Witnessing greatness

Following a two-year run in Nashville, Cullen wasn't sure what the future held for him any longer. After a few weeks of "will I play or won't I," he received a call from his old general manager in Carolina, Jim Rutherford, now the GM of the Penguins. 

He offered him a chance to play with one of the game's great players, Sidney Crosby.

Cullen, who arrived in the NHL at the tail end of Wayne Gretzky's career, jumped at the opportunity to play next to another of the League's generational talents.

"That was one of the big draws of going to Pittsburgh," Cullen said. "Obviously, the opportunity to go to a hockey town like Pittsburgh and seeing the organization. But it was a huge draw getting to play with Sid.

"He was everything I expected and hoped for and more, as a player and as a teammate. I don't think a lot of people understand how unique and how special of a teammate he is, first of all. Obviously his play ... he's arguably the best player to ever play the game and I would argue that with just about anybody, I think that much of him as a player."

In addition to having Crosby as a teammate, he was also able to bring his sons, Brooks, Wyatt and Joey into the dressing room almost daily, giving them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chat it up with a player who could go down as one of the best to ever play the game.

 

"It was a cool opportunity to see everything he does, and I had a lot of conversations with my boys telling them to watch everything he does in practice, because you're going to be amazed every day," Cullen said. "I found myself amazed at so many things he did every day, and I've been in the NHL a long time."

The Penguins' acceptance and willingness to allow players to make their families a part of what they were doing at the rink every day is one of the things Cullen said he will cherish most about his time in western Pennsylvania. 

Being able to spend valuable time with his three sons while also being able to live out his career as a player made the time there worth it. It's those memories, as much as winning the Cups and playing the games, that Cullen said he will remember long after his career as a player has ended.

"That's what I take away from these last two years the most, as a dad, to be able to give them that experience, there's nothing more than I could ever hope for," Cullen said. "I can't teach them a lot of stuff; I've played hockey my whole life, but to be able to give them that experience is something I am so proud of and I'm so happy they got to go through it. They look at those teams like a bunch of uncles in the locker room. For kids that love the game of hockey, that was just the ultimate."


Friendly face in a new place

There's an ad that plays during Wild radio broadcasts that features Cullen and Wild forward Eric Staal. The two, who won a Cup together in Carolina a decade ago, have forged a close friendship that has lasted through the years. They're now stall neighbors in the Wild dressing room and teammates once again as they chase a Stanley Cup in Minnesota.

In the radio promotion, Cullen introduces himself and Staal responds by mentioning Cullen's status as a newcomer, and his own willingness to "show him around a little bit."

Cullen responds, "I also used to play for the Wild, I think I know my way around."

Staal deadpans back, "As one of the vets in the lineup, it's up to me to take these younger guys under my wing. It's what a leader does."

Cullen: "Hey Eric, I grew up in Moorhead, I was a Spud. I played at St. Cloud."

The commercial ends with Cullen, seemingly shaking his head and wondering aloud, "So many Staals to choose from and I'm friends with this one."

Their banter reveals an easy-going relationship that was able to pick up right where it left off in Carolina so many years ago.

"I'm excited to play along side him again, for sure," Staal said over the summer. "Playing with him that season, and watching what kind of professional he is, I'm not that surprised that he's still playing and still being a factor like he has been for Pittsburgh the last two years."

Like playing with Crosby was a draw in going to Pittsburgh, in addition to all the benefits of playing at home, the opportunity to lace them up once again with Staal was certainly a draw in getting him back to Minnesota.

"You make a lot of friends in the League through the years but you only make a couple of really close friends," Cullen said. "It's fun to get that experience with him again. We went through an unbelievable experience together in Carolina and it's fun to get back together and try to do that again."

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