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Stanley Cup champion Cullen returns home, sees part of Sanford Children's Hospital built with $1 million donation

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Matt Cullen looks around the Cully's Kids Cabin in the new Sanford Children's Hospital for the first time Monday, June 19, 2017, in the new Sanford Medical Center Fargo that will be opening for patients in July. Two large photos on the wall show Cullen hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2006 and 2016. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 5
Matt and Bridget Cullen look around the Cully's Kids Cabin in the new Sanford Children's Hospital for the first time Monday, June 19, 2017, in the new Sanford Medical Center Fargo that will be opening for patients in July. Two large photos on the wall show Cullen hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2006 and 2016. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 5
Dave Wallis / The Forum4 / 5
Matt and Bridget Cullen react to seeing the Cully's Kids Cabin in the new Sanford Children's Hospital for the first time Monday, June 19, 2017, in the new Sanford Medical Center Fargo that will be opening for patients in July. Dave Wallis / The Forum5 / 5

FARGO—Like the many children who will one day enter, Matt and Bridget Cullen walked in Cully's Kids Cabin at the new Sanford Children's Hospital on Monday, June 19, with wide eyes. Bridget's immediately filled with tears.

"Can you believe it?" the former Moorhead hockey standout and Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins center said, while holding his wife's hand.

Bridget and Matt started the Cullen Children's Foundation in 2003 with the hopes of raising $50,000. When the two got married in 2004 they asked for people to donate money to the foundation instead of giving them wedding presents.

On Monday, the two walked into a 3,000-square foot area in the Sanford Children's Hospital that was built thanks to a $1 million donation from their foundation.

"Just to see it finally completed just puts into perspective all the hard work that goes into it and everything we've done. Just the difference that we're going to make, it's pretty cool," Bridget said. "When you're just looking at drawings you don't really realize the space, and now to be in it I can picture kids in here, and I can picture them having fun and not thinking about what they're going through."

There's Pac-Man, Xbox and PlayStation 4, couches and chairs. There were toys for all ages, a kitchen, flat-screen TVs, a chandelier of hockey sticks signed by various NHL players, and the floor of the lounge portion was painted like an air hockey table.

"Playing is not just something kids do, it's something that's inside of them and very healing, so being able to have a safe space where they can be a kid is important," Sanford pediatric hospitalist Dr. Chris Tiongson said. "Having a space like this for not only little kids, but big kids and teenagers is going to be an amazing addition. Just like laughter, there's actually some science behind how playing helps heal kids. Kids being able to play and have fun, especially being able to interact with their siblings, is just going to speed things up."

Two pictures of Matt raising the Stanley Cup filled a wall in the lounge. But this was about more than hockey.

"The whole goal is to help kids that are here for pretty tough stuff," Matt said. "We just hope that we can help them enjoy the time that they have with their families when they're in a spot they don't ideally want to be. It's a beautiful hospital, but nobody wants to be here. It's nice to provide a place where they can get away, be with their families, be a kid. No kid should go through what a lot of these kids should go through. It's really nice to be able to help provide a space where they can be kids and forget about what they're fighting for a little while."

For Father's Day, Matt, Bridget and their three sons drove home to Moorhead from Pittsburgh. They celebrated with Matt's dad and former Moorhead hockey coach, Terry. Terry cooked some walleye he had caught with his son, Mark, and a couple of Mark's boys. Terry was in Cully's Kids Cabin on Monday to see it all. He got choked up as he started thinking about the kids who would use it, while at the same time had pride the Cullen name would be attached to it.

"This is just who he is," Terry said about Matt. "He's so selfless."

On Sunday, for Father's Day, Matt was with his dad and his three sons. On Monday, he was in something he helped build for other sons and daughters.

"There's a lot more to life than hockey. It's easy to forget that when you're so immersed in it," Matt said. "These are the things that are truly important. You play the game of hockey and you love it and you put everything you have into it, but at the end of the day, this is the stuff that lasts the longest, and it's about using your platform to make a difference in the lives of others. This is one of those things we can be proud of for a long time, and I hope that the kids that are here and the families that are here enjoy it."

Surrounded by two giant pictures of the peak of his NHL career, Matt answered yet another retirement question. He was in a room that showed what he could help accomplish off the ice.

"I'm planning on most likely being finished, but I got to just kind of take a deep breath and get away from everything, so we're going to get away here," Matt said. "It's just a decision you can only make one time. It's got a lot of finality to it. Obviously, the game of hockey has been a huge part of my life for quite a long time. I love the game. We'll take a little bit of time, take a deep breath, just make sure of everything. If it comes up that it's the right thing to do to play another year we'll do that. For now, I'm just going to take a little bit of time and think it through."

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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