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.

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

Photo: Jeff McIntosh, Associated Press

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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.

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