In the 1990s, Penguins forward Matt Cullen played in an American Hockey League All-Star Game. Even back then, he had a developed aptitude for and curiosity about the sport.
“I always like to look at what sticks guys are using,” Cullen recalled, and he stumbled upon one used by 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara. “I didn’t know who he was, and I was looking at all the sticks and then there was this one stick that was, like, a foot and a half taller than everybody else’s. I thought it was a joke. And then he walked by and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, the game is changing.’”
Cullen and Chara were picked in the same draft, in 1996, but Cullen is four months older. They are both 42, still playing in the NHL, which is quite a feat. They have adapted as the league has evolved.
Cullen, the oldest player in the league, has been selected as the Penguins’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL player who best embodies perseverance and sportsmanship. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote for the award. (Full disclosure, this writer is a PHWA member, and submitted Cullen as one of the three suggested names for the Penguins’ 2018-19 nominee.)
The overall winner, chosen from among each team’s nominee, will be announced in June at the NHL awards night in Las Vegas.
Cullen was honored by the Penguins recently for playing in his 1,500th NHL game. He has 285 goals, 729 points in an NHL career that dates to 1997-98 and has taken him to eight teams, a few of them twice.
This season, Cullen has six goals, 18 points in 66 games. He has played primarily on the fourth line, as a center and at wing, but he can move around at times as needed. He’s also a penalty-killer for the Penguins.
Many times, the award bleeds into a comeback award, but with Cullen, his longevity translates strongly to the perseverance aspect of the award.
“I guess perseverance, for me it applies to just playing for quite a while and being able to stick around in this league,” Cullen said. “I’m proud of the fact that I can still play and I’m still part of something special and at my age that I can play in this league.
“I think the biggest thing, honestly, is that I love to play the game. Everybody takes care of their nutrition and trains. I’ve done that throughout my career, but I really enjoy the competition. I love the battles and I love this time of the year. It’s worth working out and training and battling for.”
As for the sportsmanship aspect, it’s long been documented that Cullen is highly respected by his peers.
“To me I look at it more like being a good teammate,” he said. “I think that’s something I’ve always tried to do, is be a good teammate and go out of my way for other guys.”
During the pregame ceremony for his 1,500th game, cameras caught Penguins captain Sidney Crosby embracing the league’s most veteran player and saying, “Love you, man.”
Cullen also was nominated last year, as the Minnesota pick. Cullen spent two seasons with the Penguins, winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 before returning to the Wild and his home state.
He re-signed with the Penguins last summer.
Cullen downplayed his Masterton nomination.
“It’s an honor anytime you get nominated for any award in this league,” he said. “For sure, I’m honored. I don’t feel I’m very deserving of it. There’s a lot of guys that are really deserving.”
If he doesn’t win it this year, perhaps a third nomination would be a charm – if he decides to play another season. He is signed only through this season.
In fact, Chara recently signed an extension to return to the Boston Bruins next season. Cullen was asked if that put any pressure on him to come back next season and maintain his oldest-player designation. He offered an emphatic no.
He said he hasn’t made any decision about next season.
“I’m just going to enjoy it and see where we go here,” he said.