Matt Cullen stood on the ice in Nashville after the Pittsburgh Penguins 2017 Stanley Cup championship and sounded like a man content with his career and ready to retire. A summer of reflection and family pushed him to go forward one more time, though he did so with his hometown team, the Minnesota Wild. That decision didn’t work for him or the Penguins and so Cullen gave it one more go with the Penguins last season.
The Penguins didn’t win the Stanley Cup but after more than 1500 career NHL games and a career which included three Stanley Cups, Cullen announced his retirement via video essay on the Penguins Twitter account.
“I had moments where I thought I was done,” Cullen said in his vlog. But it wasn’t until today that was official.
Cullen won back to back Stanley Cups as the Penguins bedrock fourth line center in 2016 and 2017. He was also part of the glue which held the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes together.
Cullen, 42, played 1516 NHL games, scored 731 points including 266 goals and played for eight different teams. His first NHL games was in 1998, which was three years before the Penguins most recent first-round draft pick, Sam Poulin was born.
Cullen had multiple stints with three different teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, Penguins and Minnesota Wild. In a testament to his veteran leadership, he earned the name, “Dad” in the Penguins locker room.
“Now, there’s only one more part of the story left to write: The end,” Cullen said. “…It’s easy to be aware of all of the firsts, but the moments that are impossible to be aware of are the lasts; the last road trip, the last meal with the boys, the last win, the last time the crowd cheered for me, the last game, the last shift, the last time taking off my jersey.”
The Penguins were swept in Round One by the New York Islanders, so a few of those lasts will likely be forgettable, but will not be is the leadership and mentoring. And the Stanley Cup wins.
“What I feel most when I look back on my career is gratefulness. I’m in awe of everyone who’s made my dreams possible over all of these years,” Cullen praised. “Everything I’ve gotten to experience in the NHL surpasses anything I’ve ever dreamed.”
It is a cliche to say a team would not have won a Stanley Cup without certain players but without the leadership of Cullen, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins turnaround in 2016 from dysfunctional and frustrated to winners. Even late this season, Pittsburgh Hockey Now watched as Cullen mentored veteran players like Bryan Rust.
“Just keep going,” Cullen told Rust. “Stay patient.”
Younger players beamed when they spoke of Cullen. Zach Aston-Reese smiled and shook his head before offering mountains of praise for Cullen, “He’s always talking.”
And Aston-Reese ribbed the nearby Cullen, too. “He gets so mad when he misses a scoring chance,” he smiled.
Even at 42-years-old and 20 years between is first game and his last, Cullen was a leader but rarely accepted credit or adulation. He was the first to spread the credit and one of the players able to hold the Penguins stars available.
Head coach Mike Sullivan frequently called Cullen, “an extension of the coaching staff.”
And a fine career from a blue-collar leader who helped pull the Penguins together has concluded. And everyone is better from “Dad’s presence.”
It was a career well played. Fare thee well, Matt Cullen.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 10, 2019