MOORHEAD — After 1,500 games in the NHL — and three Stanley Cups — the thought of relegating his skates, sticks and pucks to a hook in his garage here has yet to solidify for Matt Cullen and his wife, Bridget.
“We both thought he would announce his retirement and we’d go back to living normally, but I was sad for a good week,” Bridget admits. “I thought, ‘This is my life. This is what we do,’ and we got pretty good at doing it. So, it’s weird. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
“I don’t know a lot other than hockey. I’ve got 42 years invested in the game,” says Matt separately, admitting he’s looking forward to watching his three sons play hockey for the same Moorhead High Spuds team that launched his career.
“When you’re older, the training takes more time, and it sucks time from family,” he says. “Now I can go to baseball with the boys, and I’m looking forward to winter, being more involved in day-to-day life and going fishing or hunting in the summer.”
For over four decades, the game has outwardly defined the entire Cullen crew, yet there’s something even older, and deeper, at the bottom of it all: faith and family. While Matt credits his dad with working hard and ensuring his family regularly attended Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Moorhead growing up, his mother was the spiritual leader.
“Every morning, she’d be up reading her Bible, spending some alone time with God,” he says. “That rubbed off on me. I’m a grown man now, but she still talks to me about how the dad needs to be involved in the kids’ faith. I’m lucky she’s so strong and led me down that path.”
His youngest brother, Joe, also remembers her gathering the four kids with their Bibles and notebooks and having them highlight important verses.
“I still have my notebook,” Joe says. These simple moments indelibly drew the Cullens together. “Our relationships, with all our siblings, have only grown stronger through the years,” Joe says, adding that he and Matt grew “tighter” as their hockey careers advanced.
Joe now works as a hockey director and coach at a private school in Minneapolis. Their middle brother, Mark, had his own long career in the game. “It’s been such a blessing to have a big brother like Matt, not only to look up to but rely on,” Joe says. “He’s been through pretty much everything one can in a hockey career, including injuries. The same with Mark.”
Joe calls their sibling setup unusual.
“It was a rare thing to be able to be doing the same line of work,” he says, adding, “I don’t think any of us would’ve made it this far if not for being such a solid group, a core group of brothers and best friends.”
Matt also nods to Bridget, calling her “the rock” in their marriage. “She’s so grounded in her faith and what’s important. I’ve learned more from her than she’s learned from me.”
The two go back to their teen years, first dating while taking chemistry together at Moorhead High School and attending the same church. But for a time during college, Matt says, his faith life took a dive.
“I signed with Anaheim. It was a big change for me, and an interesting time. I was a young guy trying to make my way in the league with a lot of older guys I looked up to,” he says. “I was trying to fit in, and sometimes that doesn’t follow faith in the best way. I wrestled with a lot of things.”
But when Bridget came out to visit, “everything kind of cleared up,” Matt says. “It was so much easier to find my priorities and the right path.”
She’s continued to help him stay steady. “We’ve gone through a lot of moves and made some major decisions, but it’s been so comforting when I’m gone, knowing she’s at home and the boys are taken care of,” he says. “She’s just — and I think most people agree — she’s pretty unique and special.”
Being in professional sports, he continues, the ego can dominate. “She’s the first one to tell me, ‘You’re not that special. Remember, I knew you in high school,’” he says, laughing.
Friendships formed along the way became another fortifying force.
“Once the game’s behind you, it’s behind you,” Matt says, “but the friendships, I’ll carry those the rest of my life.”
Certainly, this remarkable but demand-filled life has not been without strain. When they were called away to Nashville late in his career, Matt says, they struggled leaving Minnesota. “We couldn’t understand why this was happening, but it ended up being two of the best years of our lives.”
It was then that they really began to relinquish their own wills, he says. “When we stopped making decisions on our own and started trusting more in God’s plan, that’s when things worked out best for us.”
“It’s cool to look back and see God’s hand in everything, even when it wasn’t easy,” Bridget says. “So many times, (Matt) could have been done and finished, and it would have been fine, but it wasn’t the way God wanted it to be, so now we’re just fully trusting.”
Matt says he’s grateful for the extra years because it allowed him to share the game more intimately with his sons being older and more appreciative, including his third Stanley Cup win, his second with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“They were so invested in it. We had a little board that had the standings on it that we moved up and down (to mark wins and losses),” he says. “Sharing my career with them and seeing it through their eyes really rekindled my excitement about the game. “
Now, they’re looking forward to things like taking a skiing vacation, says Bridget, impossible before due to injury risks. She also plans to develop her new venture, Be True, creating organic lip balm and other skin care products.
“Matt’s been helping me. We’ve even tried all this stuff on his teammates,” Bridget says, chuckling.
Joe, who calls Matt “a big teddy bear,” hopes the community will give his oldest brother needed breathing room.
“He wants to watch his kids (play sports) and help them,” he says. “I hope he gets enough space and freedom to live like any of us.”
Certainly, some demands will diminish. Not everyone appreciates the mental strength it takes to survive as a family in professional sports, Bridget says.
“I don’t have a personal chef, or a nanny… but I’ve persevered, and kept everyone fed and healthy. And now I just feel like, if someone told me we had to move tomorrow, I could, and I know that’s all God,” she says.
Her grandma, now 99, instilled this deep faith in her around age 5 during visits to her grandparents’ home in Barnesville, Minn. Bridget and her sister would go with her to church three times a week.
“She would pack her purse with cinnamon disks and butterscotch candies to keep us quiet, and we would go light the candles before Mass,” she says, admitting she didn’t fully appreciate it then. “Sometimes I got a little off track, especially in college. I thought I knew everything. It’s funny how you end up coming back to the way you knew.”
Despite some unknowns in this new retirement, the Cullens plan to refocus on Cully’s Kids, the nonprofit they founded for disadvantaged children. The Bible verse, “To whom much is given, much will be required” from Luke 12:48, guides their efforts, Matt says.
“Having kids of your own, then seeing what some of these kids have gone through, it’s nice to have a vehicle to be able to give back. Our faith drives us to try to make a difference, to be a light for people going through hard times,” he says.
Toward the end of his retirement video, Matt sums up his feelings during this tender time of gratitude and reflection, concluding: “I will spend the rest of my life in awe of how blessed I’ve been.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 9, 2019.]