CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — It could have been the final time Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen chatted with the media as a member of the Penguins or an NHL player. Cullen has flirted with walking away for five years running but the allure of the game has brought him back and a couple of Stanley Cups with the Penguins solidified his place with the organization.
Tuesday, the Penguins season and likely Cullen’s career ended with the Round One loss to the New York Islanders. Though Cullen expressly didn’t commit to retiring and said he felt better than he has in years.
The players call the 42-year-old Cullen “Dad.” He is one of two players still playing at what is an advanced age for any professional athlete, though doesn’t seem so old to this writer who has far more gray hairs and carries a few more pounds than Cullen.
Tributes flowed earlier this season when Cullen surpassed 1500 career NHL games. He only played three seasons and 225 games with the Penguins but quickly left an indelible mark. His leadership combined with then-new head coach Mike Sullivan helped to float the sinking Penguins ship.
Now Cullen is likely at the end of the road. Unlike past seasons, Cullen’s family remained back home in Minnesota and his precocious sons who hacked away at Ron Hainsey’s jeans until they were jean shorts in the 2017 championship parade were not running around the locker room this season.
“It’s a big decision for me and my family. In the whole scheme of things, it’s not a big deal but for us, it’s a big deal,” Cullen said. “We’ll just give it it’s due time and put a little thought and time into it. We’ll figure something out here before too long.”
And that was it. In 2016, Cullen didn’t need much of the summer to return to defend the Penguins Stanley Cup. In 2017 however, he used much of the summer before deciding to play closer to home with the Minnesota Wild. His second stint lasted just one season and certainly didn’t scratch the itch as he quickly returned the Penguins last summer for one more run.
Except this run lasted just four games into Round One.
“It’s disappointing. That’s the biggest thing. We all put a lot into it, we all care,” Cullen said of the Penguins swift exit. “We didn’t have our best series and they did. And so here we are.”
Here is likely the end of 1516 NHL games, three Stanley Cups (two with Pittsburgh and one with Carolina), 216 goals and 21 seasons on NHL ice. Cullen has made an impact on the organization and teammates, too.
“How to be a pro,” Penguins forward Bryan Rust quickly answered regarding things Cullen has taught him. “How to be a good genuine guy and teammate.”
High praise. Every athlete who loves what they do plays one year too long but Cullen’s 20 points (7g, 13a) were on par with recent norms. He also left the door open for another run at 43-years-old, even as he foreshadowed retirement in his coming decision. Sidney Crosby also praised Cullen in the highest order.
“I think he’s just such a pro in the way he approached every day. The way he led by example. They way he treated guys,” Crosby said. “He can still play.”
Retirement accolades even as players and Cullen hint he could keep playing. Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios retired in 2010 at the spry age of 48.
“If anything, I’m really thankful I was able to enjoy playing here down the stretch because I’ve felt as good as I’ve felt in a long time,” Cullen said. “As you get older you just hope you feel good enough to allow yourself to play and be effective. I was really happy with how my body felt.”
Cullen also admitted he took some time after the final game to soak in the situation of what could have been his final game. At least as a player. Cullen said it was too soon to consider what might lay ahead after his career and the organization has not yet approached him with an alternative to playing.
Given the immense respect, the coaches and GM Jim Rutherford has for Cullen, that doesn’t seem so far fetched. And while Cullen may physically want to play one more year, the Penguins do have 24-year-old Teddy Blueger waiting in the wings.
Cullen has said he planned to retire after this season. Of course, he’s said that before, too. One thing is for sure, the Penguins and Cullen have made a mark on each other, and Cullen’s family. Cullen smiled when asked about his young boys, now aged 9, 10, and 12.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys and a better organization to be around for me and my kids. They’ll wear black and gold for the rest of their lives, I’ll tell you that.”