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Cullen contemplates future in beloved hometown

Moorhead native leaving legacy well beyond his NHL career

by Dan Myers @DanMyers /

MOORHEAD -- Matt Cullen isn't sure if he's coming back for a 21st season in the NHL. It's a decision he expects to make in the next few weeks, but one the 41-year-old former St. Cloud State Husky never takes lightly.

This time around, Cullen has the luxury of time. Sure, he'd take the hurried nature of a decision in exchange for a Stanley Cup, a trade-off he's made each of the past two offseasons. 

Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of Pittsburgh's Game 6 win over the San Jose Sharks, a victory that gave Cullen his second career Stanley Cup. Monday marked one year since the Penguins knocked off the Nashville Predators in six games to capture a second consecutive Cup and the third of Cullen's career. Next Wednesday will be two months since the Wild lost in Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets, a defeat which ended its season.

That's two months Cullen has had to stew about his future in professional hockey, a decision that becomes harder and harder every year.

Cullen is comfortable with his legacy in the game. He's won three Stanley Cups. He's played in 1,445 career regular-season games and 128 more in the playoffs. 

Video: MIN@WPG, Gm1: Cullen whips home one-timer to tie game

If he's played his last NHL contest, Cullen says he'll do so with absolutely zero regret.

"I've had more experiences in the game of hockey than I could have ever dared to imagine. It's beyond anything I ever would have hoped for, a kid coming out of a small town here," Cullen said. "I love the game of hockey and I always have. But I never would have imagined winning three Stanley Cups and having played as long as I have and make this a life for me but also pass these experiences on to my kids."

Will he or won't he

Last summer, Cullen signed a one-year contract with the Wild, marking his second tenure with his homestate club. It was a decision announced on Aug. 16, about a month before the start of training camp and just over two months after Pittsburgh's Cup-clinching game in Nashville.

If he follows a similar timeline this time around, Cullen could arrive at a decision closer to July 1, the date unrestricted free agency begins.

"Honestly, I haven't even gone down that road seriously yet," Cullen said Tuesday. "My approach this year has been a little different, finishing up early this year and giving myself some time to heal and rest up."

So yes, Cullen has been back in the gym training for the last few weeks. But no, it's not because he's made a decision on whether to return. 

"This is really the first time in the last few years that I've had time to heal up and really let my body calm down," Cullen said. "The last two years, you get home and you kind of just make the decision right away to start training again, just because it's been so late."

A gym rat who takes tedious care of his body, Cullen figures if he stays out of the gym, his decision about whether to play will already be made for him.

And even if he was dead set on retirement, it's the gym where you'd probably find Cullen on a mid-June morning anyway.

"I enjoy training, which I guess is part of the reason why I've been able to play as long as I have," Cullen said. "I really enjoy that side of it, but I like trying different training methods and different things with my diet. I've been really interested in it for quite a while."

Following the process

There isn't a tried and true process in deciding whether to play or not.

"The last couple of years, you get home at the end of June and within a day or two, the phone is ringing again and they want a decision," Cullen said. "And I understand all that. But it's hard to separate your season you just had and looking towards the future."

Cullen will never make a decision about playing until consulting many times with his wife and kids. If he plays -- wherever it would be -- Bridget and his sons Brooks, Wyatt and Joey will not stay back in Moorhead during the season. 

The entire crew will pack up for the season and ship out to wherever Cullen signs up.

"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 said. "It's the only thing I've ever known. It's the only thing I'm good at."

The early ending to the season has allowed Cullen an opportunity to spend more time at home with his family.

During this particular week in June, a month dubbed "Camp Month" by Cullen, the veteran NHLer is a glorified chauffeur. 

By 9:15 a.m., all three boys have been dropped off for dry land training. By lunch, all three will have been moved to Moorhead Sports Center for 90 minutes of on-ice time.

After that, Cullen brings the boys home and has a couple of hours for himself, usually spent in the gym, before an evening schedule filled with baseball games and practices. 

It's a time of the summer Cullen has missed a bulk of in recent years but has fully invested in this year. And he's having the time of his life doing it.

"It's been really fun being home and being a part of the kids' lives," Cullen said. "You can see how much having dad around, being at all the baseball games and the hockey practices. You only get one chance to do that, so it's a big deal to be a part of it."

Push or pull

Enjoying his time at home as much as he has then begs the question: Does it push him closer to retirement and a chance to take on this role full time? Or does the early exit from the playoffs motivate him for yet another final crack at a championship?

"I think it's a little of both," Cullen said. "As you go through the game , you're always proving yourself. So after a quick exit from the playoffs, you want to go out there and re-prove yourself, that's the natural instinct as an athlete and a player.

"But as you get older, I think as I get to the point where I'm at, it pulls you closer to home. It just gives you an opportunity to be a part of your family's life. The last couple of years, these two months leading up to the end of the season, that's the only thing. You're sort of there for your family, but you're mostly not. You focused on getting your rest and getting your food, the next game and the next day. 

"These two months of the playoffs, you're kind of absent from everything."

Video: Matt Cullen, oldest active NHL Player

The busy schedule doesn't just come to a halt after winning the Cup, either. For Cullen, planning his day with the Cup in a hockey-crazed town like Moorhead takes some time. As does the physical recovery from a long season.

A few days later, July 1 rolls around, the phone calls come, and before long, the hockey season is right around the corner. 

Bottom line, Cullen will likely arrive at a decision on playing earlier than the mid-August one he came to last year. Either way, it's one he will be very comfortable in making.

"If I feel really good, and I feel energized and it works for our family, then I can look at it. But if not, then I'm happy to walk away," Cullen said. "Either way, I just want to let it happen more naturally as opposed to forcing a decision."

At home in Moorhead

Over the course of his professional career, Cullen has called Southern California, Raleigh, New York City, Nashville, Pittsburgh and the Twin Cities -- among others -- his home. 

But for him, those much larger locales are just stops along the way.

Born in Virginia, Minnesota, Cullen moved to Moorhead when he was 10. From that day on, he's called the city home.

And while many players typically settle in a town they once played in, the Cullens will always be a Moorhead family. 

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

Cullen said the opportunity for his sons to potentially experience the same kinds of hockey memories both he and his brothers, Mark and Joe, did two decades ago is intriguing to him.

"I think as we've all gotten older, we've each learned to appreciate it more and more," Cullen said. "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."

Leaving a legacy

For Cullen and his family, they will be a part of Moorhead long after the current generation is gone.

Renovations began this spring on the youth facility in town, a two-sheet rink a few blocks away from the Moorhead Sports Center, which is where the high school team plays.

Among the additions to the youth facility will be a new sheet of ice along with updated and improved concessions, a new pro shop, additional dry-land training space, new locker rooms, the addition of warm areas for fans to congregate and watch games out of the freezing cold and even meeting rooms and classrooms for teams to watch film. 

When it's complete, the arena will be renamed the Cullen Hockey Center and should be one of the top youth hockey facilities in the country. 

"Hockey is still growing here in Moorhead, and we're finding a need for more ice," Cullen said.

Cullen never played in the facility that will soon bear his name. The building in which he played his youth hockey was north of town and was a notoriously cold barn during the brutal winter months.


The current youth facility opened sometime when he was in college but serves now as a potential winter home for his boys once Cullen decides to hang up his skates. It's also where he does his own summer-time on-ice work.

The Cullen family has been one of the biggest financial supporters of the project, along with others in town and the city itself, which continues to invest in hockey.

For Cullen, the ability to give back to the community, and more specifically, the hockey community in Moorhead -- one that helped foster not only a love of the game but helped him reach the highest of mountains in the sport -- made deciding to contribute a no-brainer.

"This is what I grew up doing and gave me the career I have," Cullen said. "As I've gotten older, I've learned to appreciate it more. When you grow up around it, you assume it's like that everywhere, and now that I've been a lot of places, I have a new appreciation for when you have a community and a group of people that's so passionate about something and put everything into the kids. I know I appreciate it a lot more now that I have my own kids."

Cullen has left his mark on the game across North America. But it's clear the biggest comes in his beloved hometown.

He'd have it no other way. 

"It's nice to be to be in a position to be able to leave a little bit of a legacy," Cullen said. "And this is where I would want to leave it. It's just been an awesome community for me and my family. It's nice to be able to contribute to what got you to where you are.

"I know it means a lot to both me and my family. This town has meant a lot to all of us, so it's cool to leave a bit of a legacy, but more importantly to help out with something that's been such a big part of our lives and something we all love being a part of."


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