Hockey players born between October and, say, March or April get used to spending their birthday playing or practicing, maybe traveling. Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen has had more birthdays than anyone else currently playing in the NHL, and Friday he gets a special gift: a day off.
It apparently just worked out that way with the team’s schedule amid a busy stretch of games. It’s not like the traditional gift for a 42nd birthday is a pass not to come in to work.
Which is OK. Cullen still gets a charge out of practicing and playing, which is a big reason he’s still playing.
But Friday “Dad” gets a chance to just be that for perhaps a family celebration. No old-age gifts or peeking over his shoulder for signs of a prank from his teammates.
“He probably doesn’t want a big party or anything,” team captain Sidney Crosby said, steering several hockey stick lengths clear of any talk of shenanigans.
Cullen can’t remember how many times over the past two decades or more that he’s had a day off for his birthday. That doesn’t mean the memory is going. Cullen is still sharp, fit. He didn’t get to be the oldest player in the league by accident.
Primarily a fourth-liner who can play center or wing, Cullen lately has been part of a “SCHutdown line” with Riley Sheahan and Patrik Hornqvist. He accepts the yin and the yang of keeping up.
“Not every day is a great day,” he said. “Some days you feel better than others. Some days you don’t feel like practicing, but I think ultimately if you still love it – and I find I still love coming to the rink, I still love the game – you’re willing to put the work in. I think if I wasn’t, if I didn’t love it, if I didn’t enjoy it, love the competition, I wouldn’t do it.”
He nearly didn’t continue playing. After he won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins (his eighth team) in 2016 and 2017, he seriously considered retirement. Then he signed with his home-state Minnesota Wild for last season. He again contemplated walking away over the summer. But…
“I love that feeling after a win in the locker room with the guys after you accomplish something,” he said. “I think that’s kind of the feeling that keeps you coming back, being part of a group working toward something special. Just getting out there and competing. This is the only thing I’ve ever dreamed of doing. I’m lucky enough to be able to do it. It’s fun.”
Cullen has a goal and two assists in 11 games heading into a home game Saturday against Toronto. While a couple of Penguins forwards have been in and out of the lineup, he has not reached a point where there are questions about his inclusion.
He is not unique as an NHL player whose career has stretched beyond age 40, but it’s hardly common. Or easy.
Early in Cullen’s career, one of his teammates in Anaheim Teemu Selanne, the Hall of Fame winger who retired in 2004 at age 44. Cullen is also keenly aware of the careers of several, uh, super-cronies, guys such as Jaromir Jagr, Chris Chelios and all-time great Gordie Howe who not only played past 40 but were productive.
“I think I’ve always appreciated what those guys have done,” Cullen said. “It’s fun to watch them throughout their careers, their ability to play at a high level and maintain that. I guess I have a new appreciation for it, going through it myself. I think I appreciate that obviously those guys put a lot of effort into maintaining their conditioning and keeping their body the way they want it.
“To be able to play in this league, it’s not easy. It’s a fast league. So I guess if anything over the years I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for how much these other guys have put into maintaining that level of play.”
So the big question: It’s still early in the season, but what might Cullen be doing a year from now on his 43rd birthday? He isn’t willing to unwrap any plans.
“Oh, gosh, that’s a long way off,” he said. “I’m really just taking it day by day at a time right now. I put a lot of thought into it in the summer when it’s the offseason, but for now it’s strictly focus on hockey and enjoy it and take care of (decisions) in the summer.”