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Cullen did it all, and he did it with pure class

Moorhead native and former Wild forward announced his retirement from hockey after a 21-year NHL career

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

Just 18 players in the 100-year history of the NHL have played in more games than Matt Cullen. 

While that alone is an incredible legacy, there is so much more to the player -- and the person -- that is Cullen, who announced his retirement from hockey on Wednesday after a marvelous 21-season career.

A three-time Stanley Cup champion, Cullen skated for eight different NHL teams. His career spanned nearly 8,000 days, three separate decades and four U.S. presidencies. 

And that's just the on-ice stuff.

Away from the rink, Cullen has already left an indelible mark on each of the communities he's played in, but perhaps no more so than his beloved hometown of Moorhead. 

Video: Hockey Day 2018: Cullen Family

While many players have left the places they have grown up and settled in bigger cities where they once played, the Cullen family has never strayed from the dream of one day retiring in northwest Minnesota, where both Cullen, and his wife, Bridget, were raised. 

Matt was born on the Iron Range in Virginia, but the Cullen family moved to Moorhead when he was 10. And despite stops in more than a half dozen other cities around the country, Moorhead has -- and always will be -- home. 

"Bridget and I both went to high school here. Just the uniqueness of it, the small-town feel. We feel like a family here," Cullen said last summer. 

It is there where Cullen's long-term legacy is already making a tangible impact. This fall, a third sheet of ice is expected to open at the Cullen Hockey Center, a dedicated youth hockey facility that, last winter, served as the hockey home of more than 600 kids from the area.

When it's completed, the Cullen Hockey Center will be one of the finest youth hockey facilities anywhere in the country. It's the kind of place Matt hopes kids in the future are able to create the kinds of memories he and his brothers, Mark and Joe, were able to create during their own childhoods growing up in Moorhead.

"I think as we've all gotten older, we've each learned to appreciate it more and more," Cullen told last summer. "I've been around a lot of different places, and as you go through it and you see different situations, you see the unique thing we have here. I think we all want to pass on a better program than we had to our kids -- which is saying a lot, because we had a pretty great program -- but a big part of what brings us home is that."

On a more personal note, Cullen's retirement from the NHL is a blow for those of us that make our living combing the dressing room on a daily basis looking for things to write about.

When there were days where the team was struggling, the mood was sour and there were just few storylines to follow up on, Cullen's locker was always a sure fly-by, because chances are, you'd get locked into a conversation about something -- hockey or life -- that would fill your notebook. 

I had the privilege of spending a day with Matt in Moorhead last summer. In all, we spent about six hours talking about a variety of different subjects, including his career, his future and his family. The remarkable thing about Matt was that he always maintained the "aww shucks" Minnesota sensibility.

Even at age 41, in the twilight of a career that saw him win three Cups, Matt always believed that what he had accomplished was a team effort. It was his wife and his boys, Brooks, Wyatt and Joey. It was his siblings and his parents, Terry and Nancy. It was the countless number of teammates, everyone from his time in Moorhead and at St. Cloud State University to the pros.

At the rink, at the coffee shop and around town, everybody knew who Matt was. And Matt seemingly knew all of them too. 

Covering him on a daily basis during his second stint with the Wild was a treat. He was one of those guys revered universally in the dressing room: Reporters, coaches, and teammates -- veterans and rookies alike -- all respected Cullen because he went about his business as a professional, but he also did it with a smile on his face. 

And nobody would work harder. When you're the oldest player in the NHL (as he was when Jaromir Jagr left the league in the middle of the 2017-18 season), you have even more work to do when it comes to getting your body ready for the rigors of an 82-game regular season. 

A work-out fanatic, one of Cullen's favorite places in the offseason was the gym. It was here where Cullen would do the heavy work of thinking about his future. 

"There's no rulebook; there's no guidebook when you're trying to decide if you're gonna be done after doing something for your whole life," Cullen once said. "It's the only thing I've ever known. It's the only thing I'm good at."

If his brilliant career is any indication, chances are Cullen will be successful in whatever he chooses to take on next. Two things are for certain: Nobody will work harder and nobody will do it with more class.

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