Wild keeping Cullen young in 20th season
RALEIGH, N.C. — Matt Cullen breathed a sign of relief when Jaromir Jagr signed a one-year deal with the Calgary Flames on Oct. 4. That meant the seemingly immortal Jagr, 45, remains the NHL's oldest player.
Otherwise, it's Cullen, 40.
"I was pretty happy about that," Cullen said with a smile.
Make no mistake, though, Cullen is the old man of the Wild locker room. He's six years older than Mikko Koivu, the team's second-oldest player, and rookie Joel Eriksson Ek, 20, was 10 months old when Cullen made his NHL debut with the Anaheim Ducks.
"I'm pretty sure it's been like that wherever I've gone for the last six or seven years," Cullen said. "I've been the oldest guy for awhile now. It's all good. I enjoy it."
Cullen was the oldest player on the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the past two seasons. He has pretty much contemplated retirement every offseason for the past five years, only to have the the sport pull him back into its irresistible orbit.
It was the same story about four months ago after the Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators to capture their second straight Stanley Cup.
"I was pretty sure that I was done," Cullen said. "When we were on the ice celebrating, I was pretty sure that was it."
Cullen, however, started feeling better physically at a much faster rate than he expected. About midway through the offseason, he was ready to get back into the gym — and after that it was only a matter of time before he was ready to get back on the ice.
He signed a one-year deal with Minnesota on Aug. 16.
"I consider myself fortunate to feel as good as I do," Cullen said, crediting his nutrition for keeping him so fresh. "My body has held up, so it allows me to keep playing. I've learned to adapt what I do every offseason because the body is always changing. As I get older, I have to be a little bit smarter with what I do."
When he finally knew he was going to come back, Cullen chose the Wild over the Penguins. While he considered it one of the toughest decisions of his life, Cullen said he couldn't pass up the chance raise his sons — Brooks, Wyatt, and Joey — in his home state.
"This was a cool opportunity that presented itself," said Cullen, a native of Virginia, Minnesota. "I think the thing that excites me the most is giving the boys the Minnesota experience whether it's the outdoor rinks or going to high school hockey games or going to college hockey games. Those things that come with being home in Minnesota are pretty unique, and last time we were here, the kids were kind of young. I look forward to being able to go through all that with the kids."
Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle have credited Cullen with helping them start their career on the right foot during his three-year stint with the Wild from 2010-13.
"He was one of the first guys to kind of take me under his wing a little bit and show me the ropes and give me some advice that, even though it was very simple, it's stuff that I still look at today," Zucker said. "He was just a good sounding board for me at that time."
"We were talking the other day about how I have kids now, and before I was a kid myself coming into the NHL," Zucker added. "It's kind of funny how that works. It's nice to have him back, especially with two more Stanley Cups."
That experience is going to speak for itself on the ice.
"It really gives us great depth," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He's a guy that stabilizes our fourth line."
Asked if he thought he'd be filling that role at 40 years old, Cullen shook his head.
"Never," Cullen said. "You never, ever consider playing this long. I consider it a blessing. I'm happy to be here. It's a great life."
And while he is still subtly reminded of his age from time to time — he doesn't know the words to "Everyday We Lit" by YFN Lucci, the song the Wild blare in the locker room after wins — Cullen is perfectly fine with it.
"Those guys keep me young," he said. "It's a fun place to be. And my kids are starting to listen to some of that stuff, so I'm starting to pick it up at home a little bit so I can keep up with these guys."
"Not many guys get the opportunity to finish their career at home," Cullen added. "To be able to come here at this point, and come to a team that we believe is close to doing something special, I can't think of a better way to close out my career."
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.