'I have zero regrets': Former Moorhead hockey standout Cullen retires from the NHL
MOORHEAD, Minn. — The tweet went out at 10:52 a.m. Wednesday from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Matt Cullen: his story, his words."
The video accompanied with the tweet began with the sounds of skating outdoors and the former Moorhead Spuds hockey standout staring directly into the camera.
"Let me tell you my story," Cullen said to begin the video.
What followed were clips of him raising the Stanley Cup three times, his first NHL goal with Anaheim, his last NHL goal with Pittsburgh and clips in between with Carolina, Florida and Minnesota.
"There's only one more part of my story left to write: the end," Cullen said in the video.
In the video, Cullen said it was an honor to put on an NHL jersey, though getting to be part of the lives of his teammates, coaches, trainers and fans has been his greatest honor. He said he was in awe of everyone who helped with his dream over the years.
He thanked and told his parents, his brothers, his sister, his sons and his wife, Bridget, he loved them.
Matt Cullen: his story, his words.https://t.co/rsL9o4yk1j pic.twitter.com/985mgUtqpk
Matt Cullen: his story, his words.https://t.co/rsL9o4yk1j pic.twitter.com/985mgUtqpk— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 10, 2019
"It's hard to believe that this is the end, but here I am," Cullen said at the end of the video. "There's no way to know what's ahead of me, but no matter what it is, I'll always be able to look over my shoulder at what's behind me and see the love and support that's pushing me forward forever filled with gratitude toward the rest of my life."
And then at 42 years old, Cullen walked away from the NHL after 1,648 games, three Stanley Cups, 285 goals and 504 assists. Mike Modano and Chris Chelios are the only American-born hockey players to play more NHL games, playoffs included.
A four-minute video for a lifetime of hockey. But that is not his entire story.
There was no clip of the hit to the head he took from Colton Orr in 2007 that sent him motionless to the ice. Nothing of the handful of concussions or the broken ankle, fingers, wrist and jaw he's had. Cullen speaks of those injuries as if they're nothing, thankful he never needed back or knee surgery.
There was no mention of his scouting report out of high school that said he couldn't skate. What Cullen is most proud of from a hockey standpoint is the fact he put everything into becoming a better skater, so no one could say he was too slow. Eventually, people stopped saying that.
Thanks for taking me along for the ride.... love you and can’t put into words how proud I am of you https://t.co/tiUeN1xkD4
Thanks for taking me along for the ride.... love you and can’t put into words how proud I am of you https://t.co/tiUeN1xkD4— Bridget Cullen (@brcullen) July 10, 2019
"I hope people can learn from me, through hard work, you can take your weakness and make it your strength," Cullen said. "Hard work can get you a long ways. I was given a lot of gifts for sure, but I worked."
There was nothing in the video about his intense discipline and attention to nutrition. The discipline got more intense as he got older. He cut out gluten and dairy, so no pizza, no ice cream, no bread, no milk, among many other things. He had to say no to dinners and drinks with friends because his need for sleep and his nutrition regiment. He had to say no to skiing because it wasn't worth the risk.
He didn't think twice about any of it.
"You have to say no to a lot of things," Cullen said. "That's just what comes with the territory, so I don't ever want people to feel sorry for me. I'm lucky and blessed to have been able to do this."
His discipline did not begin later in his NHL career.
After a high school game, Cullen's former linemate at Moorhead and roommate at St. Cloud State Ryan Frisch saw Cullen with his legs up in the air against the wall. Frisch asked him what he was doing and Cullen told him he was draining the lactic acid from his legs, so he'd have fresher legs.
In college, when they went to the grocery store, Frisch would buy Hamburger Helper, Jack's Pizza and pop, while Cullen was getting water, fruits and vegetables.
"To Matt, his hockey performance was his life," Frisch said. "He was the perfect storm of a very talented athlete and very intelligent person and he was able to kind of put it all together.
"When he first started, he was more a bigger, grinding player in 1997 and '98 and then, as the game changed to skill and speed, he adjusted. He lost weight and got faster. I don't know if there's another player who changed his game two or three different times and stayed relevant in the NHL."
There was nothing in the video about the nearly $5 million the Cullen Children's Foundation has raised for children's healthcare needs or the Cully's Kids Cabin at Sanford Children's Hospital in Fargo built thanks to $1 million from the foundation. There was nothing of the $8 million renovations to the Moorhead Youth Hockey Arena, which will be renamed Cullen Hockey Center, with Cullen serving as the lead donor.
To Moorhead, Cullen is so much more than any highlight reel could capture.
"He's the perfect ambassador to point to for a coach," Moorhead head boys hockey coach Jon Ammerman said.
Ammerman was 10 years old when he would go watch Cullen play in high school. What wasn't on the video was Cullen coming back to work with the youth hockey players of Moorhead.
"When you're 10 years old, going to the Spuds game, those are your heroes," Ammerman said. "Those are the kids you look up to and want to be like. He's also the guy we would train with in the summer and we would see his work ethic. You see the behind-the-scenes work. He checks all the boxes for somebody that you want as an ambassador for your program."
What wasn't on the video was how many times Cullen thought of retiring. This was the fifth straight offseason in which Cullen was a free agent.
"Which time?" Cullen's dad, Terry Cullen, joked when asked what his reaction was when Cullen brought up retirement.
It was a dinner in 2014 between Cullen and his dad when it truly seemed over. Cullen was playing for Nashville and the season wasn't going well. Nashville ended up making the playoffs and Cullen got a taste of the postseason. Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford, who Cullen won a Stanley Cup with in 2006 in Carolina, offered a one-year deal for $800,000. Cullen won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins, signed another one-year deal with them and won another Stanley Cup.
He played for the Wild in 2018 and the Penguins in 2019, both of which ended in first-round exits in the playoffs.
Terry said this was the first offseason his son did not have hesitation in his voice when talking about retirement.
"I'm fully at peace with everything.," Matt Cullen said. "I just felt like it was time. I hadn't had that feeling before to this extent."
Most importantly to Cullen, what was not in the retirement video was the time away from his wife and three sons. He says it's time for his sons, who are 12, 10 and 9 years old, to experience the childhood he experienced in Moorhead.
"It's their turn to be Spuds and grow up the way I grew up and give them the childhood I had and play Moorhead hockey and do all those things," Cullen said. "I'm excited to give back to them now."
The ice will never be far from Cullen. He began playing hockey in his living room in Virginia, Minn., at 2 years old. He was skating with his sons on Tuesday, the day before his retirement from the NHL was announced. He plans to help with Moorhead youth hockey, though he has no real plans to coach high school.
He's already adjusted to a new nutritional regimen as well. He had pizza and ice cream a few times this summer with his boys.
Cullen enjoyed seeing the highlights in the retirement video put out by the Pittsburgh Penguins. But his story is not over. The video ended with him walking away.
For Moorhead, he was walking back home.
"I could not have ever dreamt up something this great, coming out of Moorhead and having the career I had," Matt Cullen said. "I couldn't imagine even asking for something like that. It's been so great, more than anything I could have hoped for. I'm so happy with everything. I have zero regrets."