PITTSBURGH ― Even hockey players have bucket lists.
Well, at least Matt Cullen does, which could explain why the Pittsburgh Penguins center was smiling all weekend during the Stadium Series festivities. A born-and-bred Minnesotan, Cullen knows all about outdoor hockey.
However, that was only in his days back home, and not once had the 40-year-old played in an NHL outdoor game—until Saturday. And boy, did he make some memories.
“I've got to tell you, I don't know if I've had more fun playing hockey,” he said.
Cullen’s career spans all the way back to 1997 when he suited up for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He’d played 1,347 games and has scored 244 goals in time spent with the Ducks, Panthers, Hurricanes, Rangers, Senators, Wild, Predators and Pens. Yet, it was game No. 1,348 and goal No. 245 that would would stand up as his most memorable so far in his 19 seasons in the league.
In a 2-1 contest entering the final period, Cullen wrapped around the net, saw his initial shot denied by Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth but cashed in on his own rebound. It turns out that goal would hold up as the winner in Pittsburgh’s 4-2 victory over the Flyers at Heinz Field.
After scoring, it was clear just how important and meaningful this all was for him.
“I think you get serious about the game and prepare how you would normally, but when get here it's kind of hard to not have a smile on your face,” Cullen said. “It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. It's a bucket list thing for me. I've always wanted to do this. This was more than I expected and I found myself more excited than expected throughout the day.”
His head coach was one of many members of the organization who could feel the wave of emotions that lifted off his shoulders as Cullen celebrated his score.
“I don't think Cully takes any of that for granted,” said Mike Sullivan. “I think he really appreciates being a part of this team and everything this team has been able to accomplish over the past couple of years. I think he knows that most of his hockey is behind him so every opportunity like this, he cherishes.”
It’s no secret that Cullen is on the back end of his career. How many years he has left is still to be determined.
Heck, even his coach, who is only eight years older, pokes fun at Cullen’s age. Sullivan recalled the Penguins’ father-son trip a few weeks back and the running joke on that getaway.
“He might be closer to the dads’ ages than he is to some of the players’ ages,” Sullivan said with a smirk.
The third-oldest player in the league behind Jaromir Jagr (45) and Shane Doan (40), Cullen looked more like a 20-something than someone who could be a father to his 22-year-old teammates.
Perhaps the spectacle that is the Stadium Series gave him that added boost. As he put it, this was a bucket list thing for him, and who wouldn’t get a bit excited about crossing something off the list?
“It was such a fun night,” Cullen said. “It was a good game up and down the ice. I was just blown away by the atmosphere. It was pretty cool to see how many people stuck around in the cold temperatures. I'm just really happy to be a part of it.”
“For some of us we've played in three or four of these but for Cully, I think you have to take advantage of it and have fun out there,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “It was special to see him score.”
When asked about his celebration, Cullen said that that will be what he always remembers from this game. The crowd of black-and-yellow lined up along the end zone wall, the light flurry of snow and the stadium lighting, all of that were in his line of sight when he first looked up after watching the puck go in.
And with that, so went his bucket list as he finally got to live out his youth all over again.
“This is what we all grew up playing and where we all fell in love with the game,” Cullen said. “ It's so fun just to do this on a big stage.”