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The Pressure Cooker Of...Minnesota?

by Glen Andresen / Minnesota Wild

Wild GameDay
In these parts, we love our hometown kids.

Every time a native Minnesotan "makes it big," we feel like we all collectively got there. Perhaps it's because it seems there are about two degrees of separation between all of us.

If we don't know Joe Mauer personally, we probably know someone else who does. Thus, we're all tight with Joe Mauer. He's one of us, and that will never change (unless he forces a trade to the New York Yankees).

I used to work with a guy who graduated from Park of Cottage Grove High School with Stiffler from American Pie. That practically makes me the guy that got all of the girls in that movie.

In hockey, the sense of provincialism is magnified. Not many days go by without an email hitting a Wild inbox, or a Message Board or Facebook post wondering why there aren't more Minnesotans on the team.

"How can we call ourselves the State of Hockey when we don't have any Minnesotans on the team?!?!?!" say the anonymous rants.

Usually, that's followed by more rational responses about getting the best players available, and not necessarily the ones that used to wear maroon and gold and hung out in Dinkytown. Wild management has made clear that they never look at a player's hometown when signing, drafting or trading players.

Still, it's nice to have our native sons pulling on the red and green, giving us someone we can point to and say, "Look son! I used to play shinny hockey with him. To be honest, I think I was better, but it was all politics."

Virginia-born and Moorhead-raised Matt Cullen, who next week will become the ninth Minnesota native to play for the Wild, knows this. He's also aware that of those previous eight, few have made a significant impact (although one is Nate Prosser, who is expected to play a lot more than the three games he currently has under his belt).

Darby Hendrickson had by far the most success, playing in 182 games and posting 60 points. The only other Minnesotan to score more was Mark Parrish, but his Wild career came to an unceremonious end after just two seasons.

The rest of the list has names like Wyatt Smith, Erik Westrum and Brian Bonin - players who endeared themselves to us in high school and college, but never made an impact for the Wild.

So the 1995 Mr. Hockey Finalist and former St. Cloud State Husky comes in ready to face the expectations of being the homegrown kid on the home state team in search of its first Stanley Cup.

"There is pressure," admitted Cullen about returning home. "But if you're going to be successful in this League, the outside pressure isn't more than what you already put on yourself."

Cullen is used to outside pressure. He's played for the New York Rangers. He was in Ottawa during last year's playoffs. He's been through the grind of an entire Cup playoff with Carolina, and he emerged holding the big trophy over his head.

"If you don't enjoy those high pressure situations, you're in the wrong line of work," he said.

Cullen's new assistant coach, Darby Hendrickson, also admitted there is some pressure on a Minnesota kid playing here. He thrived as the face of the franchise for the club's inaugural season, and he was a key character on a team filled with happy-go-lucky plumbers that exceeded expectations. Teammates nicknamed him "The Governor" due to the often used storyline of him playing in his hometown.

"I think a lot of it has to do with where you're at and what you've been through in your career that helps you," said Hendrickson, who came to the Wild in 2000, looking for a chance to establish himself on an NHL team. "I think you're so excited, and you want to do well. There's a huge pride in that."

There's also ticket requests from family and friends. There's plenty more public appearance requests. Wild PR mavens Aaron Sickman and Ryan Stanzel make daily visits to your locker to try and get you to appear on Sid Hartman's Sunday morning radio show. And how can you forget about the home cooking during the holidays when mom forces you to down another plate of mashed potatoes?

"You have to figure out a way [to avoid distractions], and that comes with experience and maturity," Cullen said. "Fortunately, I've been in a lot of high pressure situations throughout my career, and this is something I'm comfortable with."

Hendrickson, for one, is not worried.

"Earlier in your career, it could be tougher for a guy," said the 1991 Mr. Hockey winner. "You get caught up in what everybody is saying, and not what you've got to do. This is a good time in his career for it. He's matured and he's a well-rounded pro athlete."

Cullen takes pride in playing "at home" (although home is a good three hours away on the Western side of the state), but he's not just here to hang out with friends and family. He came here because the Wild targeted him as a free agent who could fill in the critical role of playing center on the Wild's top line.

The pressure of filling that need that hole that was so gaping last year is more than that of playing in Minnesota.

"There's a lot of new systems and getting comfortable with new guys," he said of the adjustment. "I feel like I'm getting comfortable here and getting settled."

He just can't get too comfortable. He's got a radio interview in 10 minutes.

Minnesotans To Play For the Wild

Player GP G A Pts.
Darby Hendrickson 182 29 31 60
Mark Parrish 142 35 34 69
Wyatt Smith 61 3 3 6
Jeff Nielsen 59 3 8 11
Sean Hill 35 2 7 9
Erik Westrum 10 0 1 1
Brian Bonin 7 0 0 0
Nate Prosser 3 0 1 1

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