Nothing beats Minnesota in the summertime. It's an added bonus if we can mix the summer warmth with a little bit of hockey fun, too.
Lucky for you, we at Minnesota Hockey Journal have found a way to do just that.
Throughout the summer, we'll be catching up with amateurs and pros alike to see what their offseason looks like, and what they get up to when they're not at the rink (spoiler alert, it's plenty of time on unfrozen and frozen water just like you).
This week: Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cullen (Moorhead/St. Cloud State University)
Minnesota Hockey Journal: First things first, welcome back to the State of Hockey! What went in to your decision to not only play another season in the NHL, but to do it back here at home?
Matt Cullen: We tried to take some time with it. I think, based on past experiences, we just tried to get some separation from everything that happened at the end of the season. When you go out with a win, there’s a lot of emotion, a lot that goes with it, so we just tried to kind of get away from everything and quiet down the background noise and just try to figure out ultimately what was best for our family.
No. 1 I had to decide if I was ready to play and go for anther season and everything that goes with that. The competitive drive was still there, and I was really pleased with how I felt in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs and Finals and I was really happy with how my body responded to a couple weeks off after the season, and it was a big reason I felt that I think I can play again.
Then we took some time to figure out what was best not just for me but for the family. it was not an easy decision. Obviously Minnesota is home and is a special place to me, but everything we've gone through in Pittsburgh the past two years has been pretty special. It’s a fantastic organization and the friendships you make along the way, it's not easy to say goodbye.
But I'm confident in the decision we’re making, and it’s the right thing for my family. At age 40, it's time to let the kids plant some roots and settle down at home because as you go through a long career, the kids give up a lot in order to allow you to play. At a certain point it becomes more important to be fair to them, too. it’s a great scenario that I can be able to play in the NHL and be home, too. [The Minnesota Wild] is an organization I'm really comfortable with and happy to be a part of.
MHJ: Speaking of successful and fun organizations, what has it been to be a part of the Pittsburgh Penguins the past two years -- and two Stanley Cup championships? How does it really hit the messaging of teamwork home for you?
Cullen: When you go through a playoff run or you go through a high level of hockey where you really learn how it important it is to have teammates and to trust your teammate and to lean on your teammates. In every season and in every playoff run, everything you go through you're going to have your ups and downs, and it's so important that you're going to have teammates that you can lean on and that you help each other out.
I think that when you look at our team [in Pittsburgh] that was one thing that really stood out. We had a lot of ups and downs in each of the last two seasons and I think as a group we held together and helped each other. There are times when you may be playing well and another teammate may be struggling, and that’s a great opportunity to be a teammate and come together as a group and say something to them or help them out. I think that’s something I've learned here a lot these last few years is the importance of being a good teammate and not thinking only about how you're playing but trying to help your teammates reach their top level.
"It’s a great scenario that I can be able to play in the NHL and be home, too. [The Minnesota Wild] is an organization I'm really comfortable with and happy to be a part of."
"I grew up around the rink a lot with my dad who was a high school hockey coach, so I love that idea of having the boys around the rink at games and after practices and getting to know the guys -- it's kind of cool, and I think they look at the locker room as a big group of uncles all just kind of hanging out so its pretty cool and an awesome experience."
MHJ: Along with teamwork, leadership is a big part of your game and a big part of success. Talk about that.
Cullen: I think people misunderstand leadership a lot. I think when people think about leadership, they think about the guy that’s standing up in the locker room yelling at everybody or telling everyone what to do. But I think the best leaders I've ever played with are the guys that put the team ahed of themselves. They're willing to get into an uncomfortable situation where you talk to somebody that’s struggling or ya know pull somebody aside tell them how important they are to the team, even when they're having a hard time.
Even if you're playing poorly, you go out of your way to help other people. I've always found that the guys that put others ahead of themselves are leaders. I think of a lot of guys I've played with throughout my career and those are the guys that made the biggest impact. You always have guys that speak their opinion, and that’s fine, that’s a different way of leading, but I always find the most effective way of leading is putting others ahead of yourself and trying to help the team in whatever way you can.
I think a good example of a quiet leader is Marc-Andre Fleury. Most people know his story from this year, but he lost his starting job to a younger kid [Matt Murray] who was a great goalie, and Marc is still a great goalie, but It was amazing to watch him through the season how he searched out players and tried to help guys and tried to pick them up while most players in his position would have felt sorry for themselves. Bret Hedican is another guy who I played with in Carolina years ago, and he was so good at being aware of what was going on in the locker room. If somebody need a lift, or if somebody needed to be told they're not playing well he would do that. I think it’s being aware of what’s going on around you and that can be more important.
MHJ: What was it like to raise the Cup over your head for a third time? Still as amazing as the first?
Cullen: The excitement never goes away, and that’s the best part of it. I'm 40 years old now and I've been trough a lot in the game, and I've found myself just as excited going into each and every game of the Playoffs this year as I did my first time through. Raising the Cup over my head this year felt just as good as it did the first time. There's nothing like it. Every experience is different, and every team is different, and you go through different paths to get there. I think when you learn to appreciate the path and the journey more than the outcome itself, it's so meaningful at the end.
MHJ: Do your three boys now assume that every June dad gets to be in a parade?
Cullen: [Laughs] They're kind of getting maybe a skewed view of how hockey works these last couple of years, but that’s been awesome. They had such a good experience. They got to know the team and the guys, and they're around the rink a lot. it makes it extra special and they love it.
I grew up around the rink a lot with my dad who was a high school hockey coach, so I love that idea of having the boys around the rink at games and after practices and getting to know the guys -- it's kind of cool, and I think they look at the locker room as a big group of uncles all just kind of hanging out so its pretty cool and an awesome experience.
MHJ: How exciting is it to bring your kids back home and to watch them grow and develop in Minnesota Hockey like you did?
Cullen: It did sort of come full circle now as I put my own kids in Minnesota Hockey, so it's kind of fun being on the other side of it.
Growing up in Minnesota in a hockey town, it doesn’t get any better for a kid that loves the game. I had the backyard rink and all that, and the youth hockey programs, playing in Virginia until I was 10 and moving to Moorhead and playing in Moorhead and going through the youth hockey ranks and up through high school; those are experience that I still hold very close to me.
There's no better way in my mind than to grow up and play Minnesota Hockey, and I absolutely love it. I've been in a lot of places and it's interesting, it makes you appreciate what we have in Minnesota more. I think people maybe don’t understand what a unique situation we have with hockey in Minnesota and it's just special. You grow up in your hometown and you stay with your same group of kids all the way up through high school, and you don't see that very many other places in the country, and I think that it's very special.
READ MORE FROM CULLEN IN OUR OCTOBER 2017 ISSUE OF MHJ