Last weekend, Matt Cullen drove east to the Twin Cities to watch his three sons play hockey. On Wednesday, immediately after ending a conference call with the Wild media, Cullen ran into a rink in Grand Forks, N.D., to join his recently-retired hockey-playing brothers, Mark and Joe, so they could all coach their children in a series of games.
This is why Matt Cullen decided against retiring a back-to-back Stanley Cup champ and against re-signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins despite the allure of three-peating.
“I want my boys to experience playing hockey and watching me play hockey at home,” Cullen said. “This was a family decision.”
The former Moorhead High and St. Cloud State standout is returning to the Wild for a second stint and 20th NHL season. It was an agonizing decision. He loved his time in Pittsburgh. He adores General Manager Jim Rutherford, who has acquired him three times. And, of course, there was the appeal of being in Steel City for another banner raising.
But after letting the excitement of winning it all for a third time in his career wear off and making sure he felt fully energized to put his body through another 82-game and playoff run meat grinder, Cullen decided his heart was in Minnesota.
“Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me,” Cullen said. “It’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away [from Pittsburgh]. I’m confident in the decision we’re making and it’s the right thing for our family. But at the same time, it’s not an easy one.
“But at age 40, it’s time to let the kids plant some roots and settle down at home because, as you go through a long career, the kids give up a lot in order to allow you to play. At a certain point here, it becomes more important to be fair to them, too. It’s a great scenario that I can continue to play in the NHL and be home. It’s an organization I’m really comfortable with and happy to be a part of.”
This isn’t all family driven, Cullen made clear: “Last year I thought that Minnesota was the best team in the West that we faced during the regular season. … It’s going to be a really hungry group to win, and I think that last season probably left a sour taste for a lot of guys [in the playoffs].”
Cullen signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the chance to make another $700,000 depending on how many playoff rounds the Wild wins.
“I’m hoping we pay them all,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher quipped.
The deal inches the Wild close to the $75 million salary-cap ceiling once restricted free agent Marcus Foligno is signed. However, if Cullen hits his bonuses, there is a cushion that allows teams to exceed the cap by 7.5 percent if needed.
Coincidentally, Cullen and Foligno have the same agent.
Cullen, who will celebrate with the Cup on Aug. 31 in Moorhead and Fargo, N.D., was leaning toward going out on top in June. He has played 202 games the past two seasons, so he spent much of the past month discussing with his wife, Bridget, the pros and cons of continuing to play. The Wild made clear its interest but gave him the freedom to call back once he decided if he wanted to return. He scored 33 goals and 91 points in 193 games for the Wild in 2010-13.
The Cullens’ three boys spent the past two years being schooled by a private teacher at the Penguins’ practice facility. The couple wants to get their sons back into a regular routine where they can meet friends in Minnesota.
“[Bridget’s] fully on board and is behind me all the way. I’m really lucky that way,” Cullen said.
After taking a few weeks off, Cullen began training like he normally would. Last week, he even skated with local individual skills and skating coach Andy Ness.
He may turn 41 in November, but Cullen showed the past two seasons he can still skate terrifically. He won 56.4 percent of his faceoffs in the playoffs, has won over 50 percent of his draws in every season since 2003-04 and has scored at least 10 goals in 15 of his 19 campaigns.
The Wild needed another center after losing Erik Haula to expansion Vegas. Rookies Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin will vie for roster spots, but Cullen gives the Wild a veteran leader who can slide up and down the lineup with injuries or roster decisions. Coach Bruce Boudreau likes to shorten the bench late in games, and Cullen allows the Wild to move Charlie Coyle or Eriksson Ek to wing if needed. He’s also a top penalty killer.
Cullen, who has played the most games of anybody from the 1996 draft, has scored 248 goals and 689 points in 1,366 regular-season games. He has scored another 18 goals and 56 points in 123 playoff games. He will be reunited in Minnesota with Eric Staal, his close friend whom he won a Stanley Cup with in Carolina in 2006.
“I’ve talked to him quite a bit over the last couple weeks, and I’m excited for him and for our team,” Staal said. “Everyone that’s watched him play the last couple years for Pittsburgh knows he’s been an important part to that team, and I think he’ll fit nicely into a great role with our group.
“Playing with him in Carolina, and just watching how he prepared daily, how he took care of his body, how professional he is, I’m not surprised he’s still going now. We had a great, phenomenal couple years together there, and I think his experience, what type of teammate he is and his ability to play in all situations will be beneficial for our group.”