Cullen feeling at home as he prepares for Wild seasonThe lock is tricky. It takes Matt Cullen a good two minutes to finagle the key.
By: Michael Russo / Star Tribune (Minneapolis) , INFORUM
The lock is tricky. It takes Matt Cullen a good two minutes to finagle the key.
Four-year-old Brooks, the oldest of Cullen’s three sons, is getting antsy, so the moment Dad finally pries that stubborn door open, Brooks bolts into Grandma’s house like his father on the forecheck.
“Dad, find a ball so we can play hockey,” Brooks screams eagerly while Dad begins the search for the increasingly evident gift Grandma’s 6-year-old rat terrier, Charlie, has left.
We’re inside the childhood home of Matt Cullen, the Minnesota native and longtime NHL vet who’s about to begin his career with his home-state Wild.
Cullen, 33, had just finished an excruciating morning in which he ran up and down the dike on Fargo’s side of the Red River two dozen times, skated with locals, including Brian (Ottawa Senators) and John Lee (University of Denver) and worked out with brother Mark (Florida Panthers property).
But Cullen was eager to show off the house that ballooned with memories. There are pictures everywhere of Terry and Nancy Cullen’s four kids – hockey-playing professionals Matt, Mark and Joe and sister Anne, a former All-America diver at Concordia (Moorhead) who now lives in the Twin Cities – and the grandchildren.
With a smile, Matt recalls story after story about what it was like growing up in the house, from playing football and building snow forts in the front yard to playing hockey in the back yard until all hours of night.
And then there’s the basement, which used to be unfinished and used as a playroom. Indoor hockey teams consisted of Matt and Mark vs. Joe and Terry, and the sore losers would have to make chocolate malts for the winners.
‘Oh Charlie, nasty!’
Matt has finally found the present Mom’s dog left, and it was perfectly placed at the entry of his childhood bedroom. Nancy has kept the room exactly the way it looked during Matt’s senior year of high school, and Matt invites us in for a trip down memory lane.
It’s easy to see immediately that hockey was Matt’s life growing up.
“Every time I come in here, I see something I forgot,” Matt said.
There are hockey trophies, plaques, pucks, sticks and skates. On the walls are posters of Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour and Pierre Turgeon. There are snippets of papers hanging everywhere with inspirational quotes and a framed picture over his bed that reads, “Determination today leads to success tomorrow.”
To its right is a mounted hockey stick with almost 40 hanging medals. “Brooksie thinks that’s about the coolest thing in the world,” Matt says.
Across the room is a framed picture of 1995 Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalists Wyatt Smith, Mark Parrish, Erik Rasmussen (the winner), Matt Cullen and Mike Anderson. Close by is a bulletin board filled to the brim with autographs, a picture of Fighting Saint Mike Antonovich, a Moorhead High flag, a Rink Ink feature on him, a credential from the 1996 draft when Anaheim selected him 35th overall, an Orange County Register article on him from the draft and the 1995 Pigsty Award for having the messiest locker on the Spuds.
“Oh, and that’s the window Bridge used to sneak in back in the day,” Matt said, giggling, referring to his high school sweetheart and now wife, Bridget. “Junior year. Chemistry class. We made candy canes together. The rest is history.”
The room is emblematic. It’s almost like Nancy’s been waiting for Matt to come home, “and he finally has.”
A youth spent at the rink
Born in Virginia, Minn., Cullen moved to Moorhead when he was 10. His dad coached hockey in Virginia for eight years before beginning an 11-year coaching career in Moorhead, where he taught elementary school and now owns an insulation company.
The influence was undeniable. All three boys developed into outstanding youth hockey players.
“He taught us everything about the game,” Matt said.
There’s even an old VHS instructional tape Terry made for children. Matt, 16 at the time, was his guinea pig.
“I take a lot of heat for it. I’m wearing some short shorts,” Matt said, laughing.
Terry mostly stressed fun.
“They’d take forever to get out of the locker room,” said Dennis Bushy, who runs the Moorhead Youth Hockey Arena and was bantam coach for all the Cullen brothers beginning with Matt in 1990. “The kids loved to sit in that locker room, and the parents used to sit and wait and wait and wait. Most of the parents would be ticked, but not Terry Cullen or Nancy Cullen.
“Terry used to always say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that locker talk.’ “
Terry says most rewarding is that after almost every game (his son Joe plays in Italy), “all three boys still want to talk hockey with me.”
Matt Cullen led Moorhead’s bantam team to its first state championship, then helped lead the Spuds to three consecutive state tournament appearances before heading to St. Cloud State.
“I just knew by his passion that he had a real shot,” Bushy said of Cullen. “Before we practiced, we used to play forwards vs. the defensemen and coaches. Matt used to love that game because there was a lot of traffic.
“He’d have to be very good with his stick. He’d always be right in the mix, right by the puck – all the time. So many players today are waiting for somebody to pass it to them. I always go over to them and say, ‘You want to play after high school, maybe it’d be a good idea to get over where the puck is and work on your stickhandling. Matt Cullen used to do that all the time.’ “
Asked how many times he’s used Matt Cullen’s name in a teaching moment, Bushy said, “Too many to count, and I’m not the only coach.”
An upgrade at center
There’s genuine excitement in Fargo-Moorhead this fall because one of their own will play for the Wild. “There’s going be a lot more outstate kids from Moorhead coming to Minneapolis to watch the Wild,” Bushy said.
After not coming to the Wild via free agency in 2005, Cullen made no secret this go-round that he felt ready, after 12 seasons and five NHL teams, to handle the pressure of playing at home.
The Wild, in dire need of an upgrade at center, pounced, signing the strong-skating, two-way pivot to a three-year, $10.5 million contract. During a tense July 1 day at his Fargo home, Cullen, his wife, parents and brothers shared the experience as more than half the league gauged his interest.
“It just worked out absolutely perfect,” Cullen said.
Asked what changed between 2005 and 2010, Cullen said: “This time, it’s just right. When you go through enough experiences in your career, you understand what makes you tick more. You learn so much about yourself. This is where I want to be.
“But I don’t think of it as the end of the road, ‘Cool, I signed in Minnesota.’ I’m working harder now than I’ve ever worked. I want to do well. I want to help bring a (Stanley) Cup here. I don’t want to just play and just be here. I know no matter where I’m at, if we’re not winning, it’s no fun regardless.”
Giving back, in a big way
The Fargo-Moorhead area has a special place in Cullen’s heart, and he gives back often, in money and time.
During the summers, he’s always at the rink working with kids, he donated the money to build the outdoor rink that was integral in Moorhead being named the official site of the Feb. 12 “Hockey Day Minnesota” and he brought the Stanley Cup home after winning it with Carolina in 2006.
“He brought the cup to the rink, and after taking pictures with all the youth players, he spent the rest of the day taking individual photos with all 500 kids here. He then paid for every 8x10 picture,” Bushy said.
Matt and Bridget, who played basketball at Mankato State and got her masters in human service administration at Bradley, began the Cullen Children Foundation (Cully’s Kids) five years ago after two significant events.
In 2003, when brother Mark was a Wild prospect, doctors discovered a cancerous mole on his back. It had spread to his lymph nodes.
“Luckily they were able to catch it just in time, but it was a pretty scary time,” Matt said.
Then, during the lockout, Cullen played hockey in Cortina, where he led the Italian League in scoring. He met a boy named Jacopo, who had a brain tumor. Matt and Bridget spent a lot of time with Jacopo, who skated often with Matt and slept in his jersey.
He died in 2008.
The foundation has raised almost $1.6 million for children’s health care in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“I know how fortunate I am, and to do this is more important than anything I do on the ice,” Cullen said. “It’s fun to be able to give back because everybody here has done so much for me and given me so much.”
Nancy says this attitude epitomizes the good Minnesota boy she raised.
“He’s a regular, down-to-earth guy, which is part of what makes him so lovable and kind,” Nancy said. “He might be a professional hockey player, but when he walks in the house, he still takes out the garbage and does the dishes and cuts the weeds.”
And picks up Charlie’s gifts with a tissue.