As Matt Cullen sat at the dinner table at the Burnsville home of his sister, Annie, on Thanksgiving night, the Minnesota native had a lot to be thankful for.
A loving wife, three healthy sons, three supportive siblings, eight nieces and nephews, two awesome parents and a really big-hearted NHL schedule-maker.
Right after Cullen re-signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in August for his 19th — and latest “final” — NHL season for a chance to repeat as a Stanley Cup champion, Cullen’s wife, Bridget, was excited to see that the Penguins would be playing the Wild during a day-after-Thanksgiving matinee in St. Paul.
That meant her husband, who turned 40 earlier this month, would get to enjoy the holiday with his large family.
“I couldn’t have been more excited,” Bridget said, before laughing. “Matt doesn’t look too far ahead. I don’t think he knows where he’s going to be next week.”
It’s been an incredible year for the Cullen clan. On Thursday, Annie’s husband, Adam, prepared most of the feast and Bridget cooked the turkey.
“I’ll have a couple beers to start the day just to get through the rest of it,” Matt’s youngest brother, Joe Cullen, kidded.
In the summer of 2015, Cullen — born in Virginia, Minn., raised in Moorhead, Minn., and a former St. Cloud State standout — seriously considered retirement until maybe his biggest fan, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, persuaded him to sign for another year in Pittsburgh.
Rutherford twice had acquired Cullen before as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, and 10 years earlier, Cullen was a big part of the Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup.
Rutherford thought the versatile, great-skating Cullen would be a perfect leader to throw into Pittsburgh’s locker room. He became so respected, teammates began calling him “Dad.”
The season ended perfectly.
Cullen not only hoisted the Stanley Cup at age 39, but he was a trusted contributor in the decisive game in San Jose. Elevated to Sidney Crosby’s line down the stretch, he played seven shifts in the final 10 minutes and was on the ice when Patric Hornqvist sealed the deal with an empty-netter.
After an emotional Cullen lifted the Cup, after he was surrounded by interview-seeking media, the Zamboni door swung open and out came his wife, three sons, three siblings and very proud father, his former high school coach and longtime mentor, Terry.
From the ice, Cullen then called his mom, Nancy, watching from Moorhead.
The reunion, the hugs, the tears, it could not have been a better experience for the hockey-loving family.
“It was beyond anything I ever hoped for,” Cullen said. “Especially seeing the boys run on the ice, oh man, they had tears in their eyes and it was just so cool to see how much they understood the magnitude of the moment and how much it meant to me. That was about the most special moment I’ve ever been a part of.”
His biggest fans
In 2006, when Cullen won the Stanley Cup the first time, Bridget was pregnant with their first child, Brooks. So the Cullens feel blessed that 10 years later, three children who weren’t around the first time could experience their dad’s career and understand what it takes to win hockey’s most treasured trophy.
Brooks is now 10. Wyatt is 8. Joey is 6. The night before every home playoff game, they’d stretch with Dad while Mom read aloud the opposing scouting report.
“They just get it,” Bridget said. “Even this summer they’d say, ‘Mom, we have to play for the Penguins again because we have to win the Cup again.’ ”
In Raleigh, when the Hurricanes beat the Edmonton Oilers, only Bridget, Annie and Terry celebrated on the ice with Matt. Hockey-playing brothers Mark and Joe attended Games 1 and 2 but not Game 7.
They watched on TV.
“I think we were too young to realize how cool it was and how unbelievable it was then,” said Joe Cullen, 35, who retired from pro hockey in 2014. “Matt was still young, and it didn’t hit us as much then as it did the second time.
“Still to this day, you get emotional thinking about it. It was too good to be true.”
After Cullen greeted his wife and children and gave his dad the warmest embrace, he hugged his crying brothers. Mark Cullen, 38, is not officially retired from hockey. He’s in talks with a few European clubs.
“We train together, and I definitely wouldn’t be playing still if it wasn’t for them,” Matt Cullen said, adding with a giant laugh, “I have a great picture of Joe. He couldn’t handle it. He sat there during the whole [Cup-clinching game] with his head in his hands.”
It wasn’t quite the whole game, but Joe Cullen indeed was a nervous wreck in the third period.
“I just looked at the floor and hoped I didn’t hear the extremely loud eruption of the [San Jose] crowd,” Joe Cullen said. “The three of us — me, Matt and Mark — we’re three best friends. I don’t think any of us would have gotten to where we got to without the others pushing the other, trying to make each other better, encouraging each other, always competing against each other.
“It’s truly amazing how much work Matt puts in, and Mark and I are so proud of what he’s done. It really did feel like we [won the Cup] together.”
That’s because, Bridget says, they did: “Mark and Joe are his motivation. They get him up every day in the offseason and get him going.”
The Cullen way
For the second year in a row, Matt and Bridget organized what teammate Trevor Daley has dubbed “the Matt Cullen Hockey Academy.”
During Cullen’s two years in Nashville after three seasons with the Wild, Bridget spent three hours daily shuttling her kids from home to school to all their activities. So last year, she came up with the idea of home schooling so their children wouldn’t have to enroll in a new school for only one year.
She went online and hired a teacher. Every day, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Brooks, Wyatt and Joey attend school at the Penguins’ state-of-the-art practice facility.
One of the auxiliary locker rooms has been turned into a classroom. They have gym class in the Penguins’ fitness center, eat lunch cooked by the Penguins’ chef, skate on the Penguins’ ice. After Daley was traded to the Penguins last season, his son Trevor joined the class.
“This is such a cool concept and gives us stability where we don’t always have to switch schools,” Daley said. “And all of this was orchestrated by Matt and his wife.”
“It’s perfect,” said Cullen, a lifelong rink rat. “They’re well taken care of. If we have a practice day, I get to see them; if we have practice and then fly, I can stop in and say goodbye; our skills coach skates the boys a few times a week.
When Cullen re-signed with Pittsburgh, the Cullens organized the school again.
“The younger two, this is like their dream life,” Bridget said. “They get to play hockey every day during school. Wyatt, the other day, I said, ‘Do you need help with your math?’
“He goes, ‘No, Mom, this is easy. When I’m 18, Auston Matthews is going to be 29, and I’m coming for him!’ He just has it in his head.”
But at some point, reality will set in and they’ll have to re-enter school, preferably in Moorhead.
Allegedly, this is Cullen’s final year — again.
In July, when Cullen and his friends and family celebrated with the Cup for two days (his kids ate cereal out of it), the party in Frazee doubled as a potential retirement party.
Everybody who had something to do with Cullen’s hockey career and life was there because the Cullens weren’t sure if he’d re-sign in Pittsburgh or return to the Wild.
Cullen has played 1,414 regular-season and playoff games, the most of anybody from the 1996 NHL draft.
Asked if the goal is for her husband to indeed retire after this season, Bridget said with a big snicker: “That’s my goal. I’m hearing a lot from him lately, ‘When I go hunting next fall … when I go hunting next fall …’ ” Asked what she thinks life after hockey would entail for Matt, Bridget said, “I don’t know. Probably dive into our boys and what they’re doing. They’re only going to be this young for so long.”
The Cullens recently built their retirement home in Moorhead. They have so many friends at home and are especially close with the Wild’s Eric Staal and his wife, Tanya, and Zach Parise and his wife, Alisha.
And, of course, there’s the big Cullen clan, who got to enjoy each other’s company this Thanksgiving thanks to some perfect NHL scheduling.
Perhaps they’ll even get to reunite during the next Stanley Cup Final.
“That would be a dream,” Cullen said. “Last season does blow my mind in a year I was thinking probably was not going to happen. But it’s funny how things work out.
“As a family, it’s something we’ll cherish forever. It’s a special memory for all of us to share.”