Matt Cullen has had many nicknames over the years, from the clever “Dad,” to the simple “Cully”. But, as of July 10, he can add another moniker to his collection: “former NHL player.”
Cullen announced his retirement through a video on the Pittsburgh Penguins Twitter page, sparking congratulatory messages from teammates, friends, and fans who want to wish him good luck on the next chapter of his life.
Here are five things we’ll miss at the start of the 2019-20 season when Cullen doesn’t take the ice for the first time in 22 seasons.
The Cullen Family Affair
Cullen’s Penguins teammates are not the first, not even the most important, people to call him “Dad”. That honor goes to his three sons Brooks, 12, Wyatt, 10, and Joey, 9.
The Cullen boys have been just as much of a fixture in the Penguins organization in recent years as their father, showing up in the stands at games, popping into the locker room, and making guest appearances on Penguins social media and the behind-the-scenes show In the Room.
Cullen is thankful for the way his Penguins teams have embraced his family. In a farewell to hockey article entitled “A Hockey Life,” written by Cullen and published on the Penguins’ website, he said he treasures the times he spent with his family within the organization:
“[Seeing my sons with my teammates] was the coolest thing ever to watch. It was like the boys were part of the family. They’d come in the locker room after practice trying to avoid doing homework. They’d steal gum… Those are the memories I’ll treasure, probably more than anything. Just seeing them around the room every day. I know the boys will remember it forever.”
The End of the “Dad” Era
Being “the old guy” in the NHL can turn you into a hero, a joke, or sometimes both.
Gordie Howe, the oldest player ever to play in an NHL game at age 52 is regarded as not only one of the best players in league history but also a warrior for playing as long as he did. Jaromir Jagr, now 47, on the other hand, though not officially retired but no longer playing in the NHL, has often been told to give up the game, because he never again reached the pinnacle of his Cup-winning rookie and sophomore seasons with the Penguins.
At 42, rumors of Cullen’s retirement have been circulating for over five years, and even he thought his career was over in 2017 following the second of the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
In his essay, Cullen said that he had been in “a constant state of almost-retirement” for a few years, but making the move back to the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18 and playing one final season with the Penguins gave him clarity to know that retirement was truly the right decision.
“It was an emotional time, but I knew it was coming. It just felt right and I was really at peace with everything when it was over.”
After 21 seasons with eight different teams, including the Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators. Nashville Predators, Wild, and Penguins, and three Stanley Cup victories – two with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, and one with the Hurricanes in 2006 – it truly is the end of the “Dad” era.
At age 42, Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is now the oldest active player in the NHL.
Cullen’s Effort to Bring Faith to Hockey
Many people know that former Nashville Predators player Mike Fisher is committed to his Christian faith, publicized by his marriage to fellow Christian country singer Carrie Underwood, it might come as a surprise that Cullen, too, is passionate about his faith.
Matt and his wife, Bridget, met in church growing up, and after having children, they chose to make sure that faith was a priority in their lives.
Cullen has said that while the hockey community isn’t anti-religion, it’s not pro-religion either. In a 2018 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey, Cullen said that when he first joined the league, back in the late 90s, Christian players were viewed as “soft” and coaches would deliberately schedule team meetings and practices to interfere with church services or chapel hours, (from ‘Matt Cullen and his aggressive pursuit of longevity,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 8/10/18).
In a 2014 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Cullen said he felt that the culture around religion in hockey was beginning to change, and it only takes one leader to alter the mindset:
“There’s a lot of good people in hockey, but it’s a funny culture in that it’s awfully quiet [on] the spiritual side… I think that it’s changing a lot… It always starts at the top. If you have a leader within your organization and within your team he can help just make this a part of daily life in an organization, it’s for the best. And it’s been happening.”
Cullen has also said that trusting his faith and relying on prayer helped him play in the NHL as long as he did. In his “A Hockey Life” piece, he said:
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned in my 21 years and 1,500-plus games in the NHL is that you have to take a risk… I think you’re given certain opportunities in life and if you’re willing to take a risk and throw yourself in all the way then special things can happen. For me, that was the case. We leaned on our faith a lot and took leaps of faith. Thank God we took those chances and opportunities where He was sending us.”
Matt Meeting Milestones
The 2018-19 season brought Cullen a particularly prestigious milestone, surpassing the 1,500 games played marker on Mar. 5.
With that milestone, Cullen played more games than any other member of his 1996 draft class, and played the second-most games of any American-born player, behind Chris Chelios, who played 1,651 games in his career.
Cullen is also 19th on the list of all-time NHL games played with 1,516 games total. He surpassed Steve Yzerman for that spot in the final games of last season.
The Penguins won’t be without milestone seekers with core players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang still on the team, but it’s always more exciting to have a lot of players in the hunt for their next career accomplishment.
Cullen’s On-Ice Impact
While Cullen was never a 50-goal scorer – his career-high in single-season goals came in 2005-06 with the Hurricanes during their Stanley Cup-winning season. – nor a master in assists – his career high also came with Carolina in 2007-08 – his presence on the ice made a difference.
With so many years of experience, Cullen could read the ice, make plays, and mentor the younger, newer, and possibly more agile players on what to do, or what not to do, in certain situations.
Though he’ll probably never be known as one of the greats of the game, nor crack any lists like the NHL 100, he is content knowing his real job was always to help other players.
In his article, Cullen said:
“I just hope I had a positive impact with my teammates wherever I went. I tried to be the best teammate that I could be throughout my career, and be there for other people, try to be a good example.”
According to sources, Cullen’s time impacting teammates might not be over. DK Pittsburgh Sports reported that on June 30, Cullen met with Penguins CEO David Morehouse, general manager Jim Rutherford, and assistant general manager Bill Guerin, (from ‘Matt Cullen meets with upper management,’ DK Pittsburgh Sports – 7/1/19).
According to Dejan Kovacevic at DK Sports, although this meeting was held before Cullen announced his retirement, the level of management representation hinted that the meeting was about more than announcing his retirement and that the inclusion of Guerin might suggest Cullen taking a scouting or coaching role within the organization.
No official announcement on Cullen’s future with the Penguins has been made, beyond his retirement, but no one in Pittsburgh would complain if he stuck around off the ice for many years to come.
Christy is a proud Pittsburgh Penguins fan, and now a proud Pittsburgh Penguins writer for The Hockey Writers. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, with degrees in journalism and education. In her spare time, Christy enjoys listening to music, running her blog “Getting to Know Pittsburgh,” binge-watching TV shows, spending time with friends and family, and playing with her dog, Max.