NASHVILLE – Matt Cullen has treated this season as his last.
His wife is homesick for Minnesota, and he craves the chance to coach his three hockey-loving boys.
“It’s pretty likely that this will be the end, and if it is, I’d love it to be holding that sucker again,” said the Pittsburgh Penguins veteran, who has played the second-most games (1,488) of any Minnesotan in NHL history.
Cullen smiles widely, his eyes sparkling at the vision. That “sucker” is the Stanley Cup.
If Cullen’s 19-year career is one, possibly two games from drawing to a close, he’d love nothing more than to depart as a back-to-back and three-time Stanley Cup champion.
“That would be pretty unreal. We’re so close,” Cullen said with the Penguins up 3-2 on Nashville with Game 6 on Sunday. Coincidentally, Predators assistant coach Phil Housley is the only Minnesotan who played more NHL games than Cullen.
Last season’s Pittsburgh championship in a large way was unexpected. The Penguins got off to a terrible start, one that cost Mike Johnston his job in December.
“I still remember the day Wyatt, my middle guy, had a tear running down his face the first time we fell out of the playoffs somewhere around the middle of the season,” Cullen said. “He’s like … ‘We’re not going to make the playoffs.’”
“I’m like, ‘Wyatt, It’s December,’” Cullen said, snickering hard. “But I can still remember it clearly and then to turn it all around and go through everything that we went through, it was just such an amazing experience. Going though it with the boys, it was like unwrapping presents every morning on Christmas. Every day was just awesome.”
This season, the Penguins picked up right where they left off.
“And my boys, they have just fallen in love with it,” Cullen said. “I love the game more than just about anyone. It’s been so good to me and I love every part of it. For me to see them getting to go through these experiences and falling in love with the game the way that I have, it just warms my heart.”
But, Cullen says, it may be about that time to hang up his skates.
“I’m aware of the fact that I’m 40 years old,” Cullen said. “Time’s ticking. It’s weird. I don’t feel like an old player. The game keeps you feeling young. But I look around, and I understand I’m a lot older than everybody else.”
Cullen, however, says his approach will be the same as last summer. He owes it to himself to take some time after the season and contemplate returning for a 20th season or retiring.
“I know enough just to give myself time,” Cullen said. “It’s a decision that deserves a little time. It carries a lot of weight, for me at least. I’ll get away from it, and then decide.”
Bridget Cullen, Matt’s wife of 13 years and together since they were 17 years old, thinks she knows which way her husband’s leaning.
Their three boys — Brooks is 10, Wyatt is 8, Joey is 7 — have been home-schooled at the Penguins’ practice facility the past two years. At some point, the Cullens want their kids back in school in Minnesota.
And, other than the sisters of both Matt and Bridget who live in the Twin Cities, their entire family lives in Moorhead, where they each went to high school.
“I’m personally homesick, and I think he wants to be home with us,” Bridget said. “But if he still wants to play, I’m behind him. Every August, he tells me he feels amazing, so I don’t trust it. I’ll wait til August to see how he feels, and I’ll stand by whatever he wants to do.”
“That’s what I love about Bridge,” Matt says. “She doesn’t want to make the decision for me.”
Cullen left the Wild in 2013 and played two seasons in Nashville before joining the Penguins in 2015. He also played for Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, the New York Rangers and Ottawa and has 248 goals and 441 assists in 1,366 regular season games, and another 56 points in 122 playoff games.
This late in one’s career — he has played the most games of any player from the 1996 draft when he was selected 35th overall by Anaheim — it’s usually the offseason training commitment that a player dreads.
For Cullen, however, he loves that part because he gets to work out and skate with brothers, Mark and Joe. For Cullen, it’s the grind of another 82-game season that he wonders if he can keep enduring.
“The season is long,” he says. “It’s 82 games with the travel. Not to make more out of the travel than it is, but it’s hard to leave and miss [my boys’] hockey games and hockey practices. I know a lot of people travel for work, but at this point, I just don’t like being gone. That’s a hard deal.”
When Cullen won his first Cup with Carolina in 2006, Bridget was pregnant with their first son. What was so special about last season is the Cullens’ now-three kids got to live through the run, understand it and cherish it. They’re loving it again this postseason, although Bridget says they’re stressed out of their minds and still cry when the Penguins lose.
And, frankly, they’re a riot.
“In Ottawa [during the Eastern Conference Final], a puck popped out right in front of the net and I took a slapshot from the hash marks and I ended up pulling it and missing the net,” Cullen said, laughing. “I got home, walk in the door, and this is like a perfect summary of my three boys right here.
“Wyatt, the middle one, comes up to me before even saying hi and goes, ‘Dad, how did you miss that chance? High blocker was open, high glove was open plus you could have gone five hole. How did you miss that?’ Honestly, he wanted to know what I was thinking.
“Brooksy, the oldest one, comes up, and goes, ‘Hey Dad, you know what? You played great, you played so good, you worked so hard out there. Good job, I thought you did great.’”
Cullen, with a huge laugh, continued, “And then the little guy — that little fireball! — cruises by and goes, ‘Dad, you stink!” It was a snapshot of my three boys’ personalities and where they’re at in their development.”
Cullen has been hit from behind twice in this series. Bridget admits she teared up when Matt was slow to get up after the first one.
She thought to herself, “it’s time,” and told Matt, “Maybe it’s OK to be done. We have our whole life ahead of us. At some point, we have to get back home. Just physically, it’s such a grind.”
If Cullen gets to go out on top, Bridget said, “That would be like the ultimate. We just can’t think about it and get ahead of ourselves. I’m just so proud of him. I’m just proud of the person he is. I can’t believe he’s still doing this for a living. He amazes me every day.”