Matt Cullen played 21 seasons in the NHL, winning Stanley Cups with Carolina and Pittsburgh, and spending two stints with his home state Minnesota Wild.
Matt Cullen is the epitome of what every Minnesota-born hockey player should strive to be.
As a youngster, he skated in his backyard, like so many Minnesota kids do today. He played high school hockey in a mid-sized northern city. He was good enough to eventually play Division I hockey and ultimately, through hard work and dedication, was drafted into the NHL.
But Cullen’s career arc didn’t plateau there. No, it kept rising as he jumped from organization to organization, becoming known as a player who was reliable both on the ice and in the locker room. Grounded. Gritty. Gifted. All those terms fit what Matt Cullen was as an NHL player. But if one term could be used to describe the 42-year-old, it would be courageous.
“Courageous people are not afraid to fail,” Cullen once said. “So often in life and in sports, we’re afraid to fail. Instead, we should attack things with excitement and enthusiasm and think about the positives as opposed to the negatives.”
That is exactly what he did. And now, 21 years and three Stanley Cup titles later, a Minnesota legend has called it a career.
Cullen’s humble beginnings never changed his mindset – even after he reached the bright lights of the big NHL cities. After two successful seasons at St. Cloud State, he was drafted in the second round (35th overall) in 1996 by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks where he played six seasons before moving on to play two years with the Florida Panthers. In 2005-06, he was picked up by the Carolina Hurricanes and hoisted his first Stanley Cup that summer.
After spending the next season with the New York Rangers, he was back in Carolina for three more seasons before eventually landing in Ottawa for the 2009-10 campaign. His first stint with the Minnesota Wild came the following three seasons where he became a fan favorite.
After two years in Nashville, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins where he was an integral part of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. Another year in Minnesota at age 41 brought him back to the State of Hockey. Last season, he played one final year in Pittsburgh and will retire as a Penguin.
But he will retire as somebody much more – as one of the most successful American-born players to ever lace up a pair of skates.
While Cullen was never a flashy goal-scoring machine (he scored just 20 goals twice in his career) or playmaker (he never scored more than 50 points in a season), he did the little things right. By all accounts, he was a great teammate, a leader on and off the ice, a tireless worker, and played with grit, endurance and perseverance you just don’t see among professional athletes these days.
“I don’t really set a ton of personal goals for myself,” he told Manuel Brizuela in an article written for St. Cloud State’s website. “I kind of try to hold myself to a standard of play throughout the course of the season. When I focus on numbers and things like that, I find that I can get myself into trouble mentally. I prefer focusing on my overall game and thinking I am a piece to the puzzle.”
Cullen was known for his two-way play and his ability to win big draws. One of the reasons he was able to play at such a high level for such a long period of time was his fearless nature and tremendous work ethic. Fear can weigh a player down, toy with their confidence and ultimately affect their game. Cullen decided early on that fear would not dictate his success.
“Everyone is going to be afraid sometimes. Then you ask yourself, ‘What am I really afraid of?’” he once said. “Then you can address it, because there’s nothing to be afraid of. It helps a lot when you just face it and put it in perspective. It gives you that courage to fight through it. As an athlete, you can’t be afraid to make a mistake.”
A man of great faith, Cullen refers to the story of David and Goliath. Now a father of three children, it’s a story he reads to them often.
“That’s one of the first stories we ever learn as kids,” he once said. “That’s one of the most inspirational stories about courage. David stood in the face of terrible odds and defeated the giant. I love reading that story to my boys. Being courageous is doing something that isn’t easy or fun, but you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Hockey players often face great odds. Making it to the NHL is beyond tough, staying in the NHL is even more difficult, so to play 21 seasons in the top professional league in the world is almost miraculous. In all, Cullen ends his career with 1,516 games played, second only to Chris Chelios among American-born players.
He will be remembered as someone who always put the team first. Someone who was willing to sacrifice personal achievement for that of the team. He will be remembered as a great teammate, and a man who defied the odds by playing into his 40s.
For Cullen, fear simply was not a factor. His courageous nature and his dedication to the game have elevated him to legendary status in the State of Hockey.
He is a great example to young players on what could be if they work hard and don’t let fear of failure stand in their way. It’s a great lesson for hockey, and also a great one for life.
Congratulations to Matt Cullen on a memorable career that has truly made us hockey-loving Minnesotans proud.