1,000 games: Matt Cullen's rink reminiscence

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2012 - 6:36 AM

Wild forward Matt Cullen plays his 1,000th game Tuesday night, growing from a raw rookie into a Stanley Cup winner.

hide

Wild forward Matt Cullen (center) plays his 1,000th NHL game Tuesday night.

Photo: Jeff McIntosh, Associated Press

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Matt Cullen was sitting in the Wild dressing room a while back when it hit him.

He was the old man. At age 35, he was the grizzled veteran, and not just because of a beard in which the 5 o'clock shadow comes early.

"It happens fast," Cullen admitted. He can still remember being a rookie in Anaheim, fresh out of St. Cloud State, and NHL play making his head spin. Or in 2006, when he won the Stanley Cup with Carolina, and was one of the young guys.

Not now.

"I cannot get over how fast it's gone," Cullen said. "Unbelievable. It just makes you realize you have to enjoy it."

Cullen is not prone to nostalgia. But there are times when this has to happen, and this is one. When the Wild takes the ice Tuesday against San Jose at Xcel Energy Center, Cullen will become the seventh Minnesota-born player to play in 1,000 NHL games.

The milestone came up on him almost by surprise, a hard check when his head was down. So, for a few moments, Cullen looked back. At his time in Anaheim, learning to be a pro; to Carolina, where he learned to believe in himself; to his homecoming in Minnesota, which had been a lifelong dream.

"I guess the only way to say it is that playing hockey is the only thing I ever wanted to do," Cullen said. "To be able to do it this long? It's something I'm proud of. There have been ups and downs. It's funny, though. All you remember are the ups."

Starting out

Cullen's skating was the big question when he signed his first NHL deal. Now it's his strength.

His father, Terry, said that is an example why his son's career has lasted.

"He always works," said Terry Cullen, who coached his son at Moorhead High School. "He has never taken anything for granted."

Cullen decided as a youngster that every summer he'd improve in one area. Skating came first; one of the reasons he chose to play at St. Cloud State was because the school's Olympic-sized rink would force him to improve.

Then came stick-handling, quickness, faceoffs.

Bret Hedican -- another Minnesotan and St. Cloud State alum who played 1,000 NHL games and was Cullen's teammate in Carolina -- remembers that work ethic.

"The things it takes to play 1,000 games usually happen when the lights are off and nobody is around," Hedican said. "That's when you go to the gym, get your training in."

Cullen's versatility is his strength -- for instance, he's a point man on the Wild power play. Ray Whitney, who skated on a line with Cullen at center during the Stanley Cup season in 2005-06, said he's one of the league's best stick-handlers.

"Look at the guys who stay in this league," said Whitney, who at 40 is closing in on 1,200 NHL games played. "It's because they do everything well. Maybe not one thing great like the highest-end guys. But they do it all well, and they stay in the league."

But when Cullen started in the NHL with the Ducks, after two years of college, living in California, playing with grown men? "It took a while to figure out," he said.

The progression

Cullen played his first five seasons with the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim before being traded to Florida during his sixth. After two years there, he was a free agent heading into what would be the lockout season, a season he played in Italy. Cullen skated in the world championships in Prague for the U.S. team coached by Peter Laviolette, who became one of the biggest influences on Cullen's career.

Cullen always struggled with confidence. "When you're on your own, trying to find a way in the league, that's one of the things that gets shaken when times get tough," Cullen said. "Peter changed that."

Cullen signed with Carolina in order to play under Laviolette. In 2005-06 Cullen set career highs with 25 goals and 49 points.

"He believed in me," Cullen said of Laviolette. "He expected a lot out of me. I can still hear him saying this: 'Cully, be dynamic.' I'd never heard anything like that before. I loved every day playing there."

Said Cullen's wife, Bridget: "Carolina put him on another level. Not just hockey-wise, but personally. We started having children. That was a new meaning in his life."

The Hurricanes beat Montreal, New Jersey, Buffalo and then Edmonton to win the Stanley Cup. In Game 7 against the Oilers, a 3-1 Carolina victory, Cullen assisted on his team's first two goals.

"Every guy on that team had their moment, one night when they were exceptional," Hedican said. "Matt was probably the best player in the world that night."

Bridget remembers Matt waking from his pre-game nap that day.

"He said, 'I'm going to have a good game tonight, Bridge,'" his wife said. "I said, 'You'd better, because the Cup is on the line.'"

Carrying the load

Cullen signed with the Rangers following that season, but was traded back to Carolina in the summer of 2007. Bridget marvels at her husband's play in the Hurricanes' drive to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, when Cullen played in the playoffs despite a broken ankle, taking numbing injections before every game.

There have been tough times, too. Both Bridget and Terry talked about how hard Matt took last season's struggles with the Wild, problems that are resurfacing this season.

"He takes it home," Hedican said. "He wants to make a difference."

But Matt says most people remember the good times more.

"But I feel really good right now," Cullen said. "As good as I've ever felt, on the ice, mentally and physically."

Whitney, now playing for Phoenix, suggested jokingly that when the official celebration for 1,000 games comes later this month, Cullen should alter his normal grooming regimen. "It looks like he normally combs that hair with a pork chop," he said. "He should be up in Brainerd with Paul Bunyan."

Said Terry Cullen: "You know what I'm most proud of? He has stayed the same person he's always been. For all his accomplishments, all he's been through, he's still a really good young man."

Well, young is relative. His son is now the oldest guy on the Wild.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Toronto - LP: D. Hutchison 2 FINAL
NY Yankees - WP: M. Tanaka 5
Washington - WP: S. Strasburg 2 FINAL
Miami - LP: N. Eovaldi 1
NY Mets - WP: J. deGrom 10 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: E. Santana 2
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 3 FINAL
Baltimore - LP: M. Gonzalez 2
Milwaukee - LP: W. Peralta 0 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: V. Worley 1
Chicago WSox - WP: J. Danks 10 FINAL
Tampa Bay - LP: N. Karns 5
Cleveland - WP: C. Kluber 7 FINAL
Minnesota - LP: A. Swarzak 2
Detroit - LP: R. Porcello 2 FINAL
Kansas City - WP: J. Guthrie 5
Seattle - LP: H. Iwakuma 3 FINAL
Houston - WP: C. McHugh 8
Los Angeles - WP: C. Perez 8 FINAL
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Turner 5
Texas - WP: S. Tolleson 2 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: H. Street 1
Philadelphia - LP: M. Gonzalez 6 FINAL
Oakland - WP: S. Doolittle 8
San Francisco - LP: R. Vogelsong 2 FINAL
San Diego - WP: I. Kennedy 8
Arizona - LP: W. Miley 3 FINAL
Colorado - WP: C. Bergman 8
Cincinnati 3 Bottom 7th Inning
St. Louis 2
San Diego 22 FINAL
Buffalo 10
Dallas 34 FINAL
St. Louis 31
Washington 34 FINAL
Philadelphia 37
Houston 17 FINAL
NY Giants 30
Minnesota 9 FINAL
New Orleans 20
Tennessee 7 FINAL
Cincinnati 33
Baltimore 23 FINAL
Cleveland 21
Green Bay 7 FINAL
Detroit 19
Indianapolis 44 FINAL
Jacksonville 17
Oakland 9 FINAL
New England 16
San Francisco 14 FINAL
Arizona 23
Denver 20 FINAL
Seattle 26
Kansas City 34 FINAL
Miami 15
Pittsburgh 9 3rd Qtr 12:33
Carolina 3
Chicago 9/22/14 7:30 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 9/25/14 7:25 PM
Washington
Columbus 4 FINAL
Carolina 3
Buffalo 0 FINAL
Washington 1
St. Louis 3 FINAL
Columbus 4
Calgary 1 3rd Prd 5:00
Edmonton 3
Edmonton 0 3rd Prd 3:21
Calgary 1
Old Dominion 45 FINAL
Rice 42
Troy 0 FINAL
(12) Georgia 66
Georgia Tech 27 FINAL
Virginia Tech 24
Eastern Mich 14 FINAL
(9) Michigan State 73
Iowa 24 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
Bowling Green 17 FINAL
(19) Wisconsin 68
Maryland 34 FINAL
Syracuse 20
Tulane 13 FINAL
Duke 47
Hawaii 12 FINAL
Colorado 21
Marshall 48 FINAL
Akron 17
North Carolina 41 FINAL
(23) East Carolina 70
Army 21 FINAL
Wake Forest 24
Virginia 33 FINAL
(20) BYU 41
(6) Texas A&M 58 FINAL
SMU 6
Rutgers 31 FINAL
Navy 24
Central Mich 10 FINAL
Kansas 24
Utah 26 FINAL
Michigan 10
Florida 21 FINAL
(3) Alabama 42
Louisville 34 FINAL
FIU 3
Fla Atlantic 19 FINAL
Wyoming 20
Indiana 31 FINAL
Missouri 27
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Minnesota 24
Texas State 35 FINAL
Illinois 42
Massachusetts 7 FINAL
Penn State 48
Georgia State 14 FINAL
Washington 45
Appalachian St 20 FINAL
Southern Miss 21
(14) Miss State 34 FINAL
(17) LSU 29
Northern Ill 14 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Middle Tennessee 17 FINAL
Memphis 36
Utah State 14 FINAL
Arkansas State 21
Miami-Ohio 24 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Idaho 24 FINAL
Ohio U 36
Ball State 23 FINAL
Toledo 34
(13) So Carolina 48 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
(4) Oklahoma 45 FINAL
West Virginia 33
Ga Southern 28 FINAL
South Alabama 6
UNLV 14 FINAL
Houston 47
Miami-Florida 31 FINAL
(21) Nebraska 41
New Mexico 38 FINAL
New Mexico St 35
Clemson 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 23
California 45 FINAL
Arizona 49
San Diego St 7 FINAL
Oregon State 28
(2) Oregon 38 FINAL
Washington St 31
Louisiana 9 FINAL
Boise State 34
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(24) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(11) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
Texas-El Paso 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(25) Kansas State
Tennessee 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(12) Georgia
Vanderbilt 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Kentucky
Wyoming 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(9) Michigan State
Northwestern 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Iowa 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
Tulane 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Rutgers
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Colorado State 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
Maryland 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Indiana
Akron 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/27/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
Kent State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Virginia
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Wake Forest 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Louisville
FIU 9/27/14 2:30 PM
UAB
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
NC State
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Colorado 9/27/14 3:00 PM
California
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
Texas 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Kansas
Temple 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Connecticut
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
Washington
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Idaho
Cincinnati 9/27/14 5:00 PM
(22) Ohio State
Rice 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Missouri 9/27/14 6:00 PM
(13) So Carolina
Boise State 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Air Force
North Carolina 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Clemson
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
Troy 9/27/14 6:00 PM
ULM
New Mexico St 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(17) LSU
Memphis 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(10) Ole Miss
Duke 9/27/14 6:30 PM
Miami-Florida
Texas State 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Tulsa
Washington St 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Utah
(8) Notre Dame 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Syracuse
(7) Baylor 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Iowa State
UNLV 9/27/14 7:00 PM
San Diego St
Illinois 9/27/14 8:00 PM
(21) Nebraska
Oregon State 9/27/14 9:30 PM
(18) USC
Nevada 9/27/14 9:30 PM
San Jose St
Chivas USA 0 FINAL
Toronto FC 3
Toronto 40 FINAL
Brt Columbia 23
Edmonton 23 FINAL
Hamilton 25
Calgary 15 FINAL
Montreal 31
Ottawa 32 FINAL
Saskatchewan 35
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Which local pro team are you most excited about?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close