Cullen talks Wild improvement, career mentors in sit-down with NHL.com

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Matt Cullen is in a good place.

The 45-year-old, who scored 731 points (266 goals, 465 assists) in 1,516 NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins has worked in player development for the Penguins the past three seasons. It’s helped him find the best of both worlds.

“I do love being involved in the game and I’m learning that through this. I enjoy my time in Pittsburgh and it gives me a nice balance,” Cullen said prior to the Wild playing the St. Louis Blues at the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis on Saturday.

“My last couple of years in the NHL I always felt like I was missing out. My kids were home playing hockey and I felt like I was missing out. I don’t feel like I’m missing out anymore. I get all that [time with my kids] and I still get to stay involved in the game, which I love, so it’s been a good fit, and it’s probably more just working toward finding a potential long-term plan in the game, because I love it.”

NHL.com caught up with the Minnesota native to ask him about his long NHL career, the Wild this season and what he watches in his spare time.

What do you think of the Wild so far this season? 

“It’s so impressive. We watch a lot of hockey in my house, so we see the Wild, of course. It’s so cool to see, it’s kind of a revitalization of the whole organization. It’s been a little bit of a long time coming, I think, which is so cool to see. I’ve gotten to know some of the coaches, some of the players, still. [Wild general manager] Billy Guerin, of course, coming in from Pittsburgh, has had a huge impact. He’s just done a great job of kind of saying, ‘This is my idea, this is my vision,’ and he’s going to stick with it.

“[Coach] Dean [Evason] has done a great job. I think he’s a no-nonsense guy and just tells it like it is. From my experience in the game, when you have a coach who is just very direct, and you know exactly where you stand, there’s no tricks, nothing other than, ‘Here’s what I expect from you and here’s what we need.’ Players respond to that, and it seems this group has really responded, which is cool. When you get an infusion of young guys, of course with [forward] Kirill Kaprizov coming in and playing the way he has, and [forward] Kevin Fiala‘s a great hockey player, they have a really nice foundation.”

Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon said earlier this season that you were a big influence early in his career. How important was mentoring young guys?

“It’s cool to hear because I think back on my career and I think I never would’ve been able to play as long as I have without the mentors I was fortunate to be around. Paul Kariya, Rod Brind’Amour, Bret Hedican, guys like this went out of their way to help me out and teach me things. I think it’s one of those things as a player, you always try to pass that along. At the time [Spurgeon] looked like he was 12, and he still hasn’t aged at all. He’s a young kid, great human being and awesome hockey player, and I just loved spending time with him.”

Speaking of Brind’Amour, how has he segued into coaching so seamlessly? 

“Authenticity is a word that comes to mind with Rob. He is what he is. I think that authenticity, people respond to that, players respond to that. He’s not trying to be a different coach than he is in person. He’s just staying true to who he is. His work ethic, I see him skating with the guys and I’m like, I would not be doing that. But he can, you know? I absolutely love Rod. He’s as good as they come, and he was a fantastic leader.”

Why has your former teammate, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, been so good for so long? 

“Aside from all of the talent he has, and his skill set, and the fact that he just really works at his game as hard as anybody I’ve been around, I think his joy and love of the game, that’s what draws people to him, but I think it also keeps him going. If you don’t love the game, you’re not going to pour your heart and soul into it as long as he has. And that’s a tough position. You’re on an island, you’re the only one back there. His love of the game comes out every time he’s on the ice. I love being around him, his teammates love being around him. He was a great teammate, one of the best I’ve ever had. And I sat next to him in the locker room, so I’m taking credit for a lot.”

Were you in Pittsburgh last month working with forward Evgeni Malkin? 

“A little bit. I mostly work with the centermen, face-offs, and different ideas with some of the younger guys. But ‘Geno’ is starting to get back from a [knee] injury. They’re good friends of mine and we’ve been through a lot together, so it’s so fun to go back out there, and I love Pittsburgh. [Forward] Jake Guentzel‘s coming back from an injury too, so fun to get out with those guys.”

You’re one of 21 players to play more than 1,500 games. How did you reach such rarified air? 

“I sure don’t feel like I belong on those lists when I see some of the names on them, but I guess it was probably a couple of things. I loved the game, No. 1, which I grew up [playing] on the outdoor rinks here, which is why [the Winter Classic] is such a fun thing for me to see. I’m just a rink rat type of guy. The other thing that probably helped me a lot is I got turned on to nutrition and training probably earlier than most people. Paul Kariya was way, way, way ahead of his time. When I came into the League, we’d get into an opposing team’s city, most of the guys would go out, go to dinner or whatever. He would take me to the gym and we’d work out and then we’d go to dinner after that. It was like he just did everything, and now that’s not maybe as uncommon, right? Guys are way more into their fitness and their diets.

“Being able to skate, too. The game got a lot faster and quicker, so I had to continue to work on keeping my foot speed so I could play the game at the right pace. I knew that the mental side of the game would come through experience, and then just being blessed with good opportunity. I was lucky to get to some good places at critical times. We were at Carolina when we won the Cup (in 2005-06) and getting to Pittsburgh just kind of reinfused a lot of life in my career. And having kids. My boys love the game of hockey, so I was in my 30s and saw the excitement in their eyes when they got to go to an NHL game or a playoff game and were doing the standings every day.”

Who was someone you were nervous to meet the first time? 

“I guess the two when I went to Anaheim that jump to mind are Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. When I first walked in and got to meet those two, I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is the NHL.’ That was a big one. Mario [Lemieux] in Pittsburgh. I was older in my career, been around for a long time, but I was really nervous to meet Mario. He just has a presence about him.” 

What are you binge watching right now? 

“I’m watching the Tom Brady series, ‘Man in the Arena.’ It’s awesome, I love that. Super cool. It’s almost based off the Last Dance-type thing, it’s Tom Brady going through his career, hour-long specials. I’m really into that.”

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