Forgotten Carolina Hurricanes – Matt Cullen

Most players drafted into the NHL dream of making a career with one team, but for most, that isn’t the case. When fans think of long-time Carolina Hurricanes players, they think of Cam Ward, Eric Staal, Glen Wesley, and Rod Brind’Amour. The latter two had their numbers retired by the franchise, and all of these players had brief stints with other franchises in their careers, even if it was for one season. 

These four watched many players come and go over the years; some stayed for several seasons while others wore the red sweater for a short time. In this series, we look back at those players whose short stint with the club may have been forgotten.

As suggested by one of our readers, our fourth installment of Forgotten Carolina Hurricanes focuses on a player who won the Stanley Cup with the team in 2006, spent one season away, and returned to spend three more seasons with the Hurricanes. That being the one and only three-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Cullen. 

Forgotten Carolina Hurricanes Matt Cullen
Matt Cullen (The Hockey Writers)

Matthew David Cullen was born on Nov. 2, 1976, in Virginia, Minnesota, and by the time he was two, he was already skating in his backyard rink. It was something he and his family got to do every year until he was in high school. This was thanks in large part to a father who was also his high school coach at Moorhead High School. 

Cullen’s childhood victories were an early sign of what was to come later in his career. As a PeeWee, his team was the first Moorhead youth team to ever win a state tournament. When he was a Bantam, his team won the state tournament and placed fourth in the National Bantam Tournament. Even into high school, his Moorhead High School team, coached by his father, went to the state tournament all three years he played, getting third place once and second place twice. 

His skills on the ice made him a Mr. Hockey finalist in 1995, and he was voted on as Player of the Year by the Associated Press after scoring a whopping 47 goals and 42 assists in just 28 games. After high school, Cullen attended St. Cloud State University and had a strong 1995-96 season. In 39 games that season, he scored 12 goals and 29 assists, getting him named a WCHA All-Rookie team and catching the eye of the NHL and the Anaheim Ducks

NHL Beginnings 

Cullen was drafted 35th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 1996 Entry Draft. He spent one last season at St. Cloud State, getting named a 1996 WCHA All-Star, before turning professional. After his sophomore year of college, he joined the now-defunct Baltimore Bandits for the end of their regular season and three playoff games. The following 1997-98 season, he started with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, who had become the Ducks affiliate after the Bandits ceased operations. Cullen spent eighteen games with them before getting called up to Anaheim. In his first NHL season, he managed six goals and 21 assists. 

Matt Cullen Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Matt Cullen, Anaheim Mighty Ducks (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

The 1998-99 season saw Cullen only spending three games in the AHL. And it would be his last minor league experience for the rest of his career, as he would go on to spend the next five seasons in Anaheim. During his time with the Ducks, he played in two World Championships. Two more World Championships came after he was traded to the Florida Panthers for Sandis Ozolinsh and Lance Ward. In 2004, while playing with the Panthers, Cullen would win the Bronze Medal with Team USA in the World Championship. 

The 2004-05 season brought the NHL lockout and saw Cullen, like many players, going overseas to play. He was one of a handful, including future teammate Craig Adams, to play in the Italian Hockey League – Serie A. He played 18 playoff games with SG Cortina, which served as a warmup for what was coming his way the next season. 

Stanley Cup: Take 1 

After the lockout, Cullen joined the Carolina Hurricanes and would cement himself in NHL History. It would also go on to be his best NHL season. In 78 regular-season games, Cullen had 25 goals and 24 assists. Throughout the 25 games that led the Hurricanes to the Final, Cullen had four goals and 14 assists. With his help, the Hurricanes lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time in the history of the Whalers-Hurricanes franchise.

In the offseason, Cullen became an unrestricted free agent and signed with New York Rangers, but his tenure with the Rangers would only last one season. On July 17, 2007, the Rangers traded Cullen back to Carolina for Andrew Hutchinson, and this time, he would stay with the Hurricanes.

Matt Cullen Carolina Hurricanes
Matt Cullen, Carolina Hurricanes (Carolina Hurricanes Media Archives)

During the 2008-09 season, Cullen saw his second-best NHL season, where he scored 22 goals and 21 assists. This led into the playoffs, where Carolina made it to the Eastern Conference Final. Along the way, Cullen had three goals and three assists, but the Hurricanes would fall to his future team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

On Feb. 12, 2007, the Hurricanes traded Cullen to the Ottawa Senators for Alexandre Picard and a second-round pick. His time with the Senators would be even shorter than his time with the Rangers, staying only for the remainder of that season. The next season, he signed with his home state’s Minnesota Wild, where he spent the next three seasons. 

Stanley Cup: Takes 2 and 3 

Salary cap constraints kept Cullen from re-signing with the Wild, but he decided to stay with his Western Conference roots and sign with the Nashville Predators. After his two years with the Predators, he initially signed a one-year deal during the 2015-16 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a decision that would change his life. In his first season with the Penguins, the team would go on to win their first Stanley Cup since they had knocked the Hurricanes out of contention in 2009. Once again, Cullen had gotten his name etched on the treasured Cup. 

Matt Cullen, NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Cullen (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the 2016-17 season, the Penguins would go on to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup, a feat that had not been achieved since the Detroit Red Wings had done it in 1997 and 1998. After that cup, Cullen returned to the Minnesota Wild, wanting to be closer to home.  

“The hockey wasn’t a good fit, to be real honest,” Cullen said, though he liked the organization and the home life — he finished things off with a final season with the Penguins. “I was just so happy to have sort of a second chance at finishing my career in a way, and to finish it where I really should finish it, in Pittsburgh,” he said.

At the end of the 2018-19 season, the 41-year-old Cullen decided it was time for him to retire from the game and take a break from the hockey world. During his time in the NHL, he had played in 1,516 NHL games and scored 266 goals and 465 assists. He is one of only 21 players to play in over 1,500 games, but out of those, he is the only one to have never been named an All-Star. 

Cullen’s Retirement 

The decision to stay away from hockey didn’t last long. In August 2019, the Penguins used his 21-year NHL career to their advantage and brought him into their player development staff. It is a role he still holds today. 

Related: Matt Cullen: 5 Things We’ll Miss

When he’s not helping develop players with the Penguins, the Cullen family is focusing on their nonprofit, Cully’s Kids, which helps disadvantaged children receive healthcare. The Bible verse, “To whom much is given, much will be required” from Luke 12:48, guides their efforts, Matt says. Their current initiative, ProjectGRACE looks to help kids suffering from an illness or disability who need something extra. 

Throughout his career, his faith has always been an important part of his life. It was a central focus in his family home and was what introduced him to his wife Bridget when the two were still in high school. She has managed to keep him grounded throughout his career. Together, the couple has three kids, who are taking after their father when it comes to hockey. 

In his 21 years playing professional hockey, Cullen achieved a rare feat for modern NHL players in hitting the 1,500-game benchmark and getting three Stanley Cups championships under his belt. His career will not be soon forgotten, nor will his initiatives to help children in need. 

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