Retiring Matt Cullen: Penguins Stanley Cup runs were ‘the best years’
Matt Cullen, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the oldest player to appear in a game for the team, announced his retirement Wednesday at the age of 42.
Cullen made the announcement in a video and essay posted on the team’s website.
“I will spend the rest of my life in awe of how blessed I’ve been,” Cullen said in the video. “It’s hard to believe that this is the end, but here I am.”
Cullen already had played 18 NHL seasons and won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 by the time he signed with the Penguins in 2015, but his time with the team was instrumental in creating his legacy.
The Penguins had gone six years without a championship. General manager Jim Rutherford, about a year into his tenure, was trying to reconfigure the roster into a title contender after a disappointing five-game first-round playoff exit against the New York Rangers.
The marquee move was a trade for Phil Kessel on July 1. The signing of Cullen on Aug. 6 was decidedly under the radar.
Cullen was mulling retirement when Rutherford called.
“I just pinch myself and think about how close it was to not happening,” Cullen wrote. “Those were probably the best years of my whole career and life with the Penguins. Going through all that with (sons Brooks, Wyatt and Joey and wife Bridget) and that group of players, the whole organization, everything was perfect. It was beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”
On the ice, Cullen was a reliable bottom-six center and ace penalty killer who chipped in 29 goals during the championship seasons. Off the ice, he was a respected veteran presence in the locker room.
“Matt was invaluable to us winning championships,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think his play speaks for itself in what he was able to do for us on the ice. We used him in so many situations. I moved him up and down the lineup depending on what the needs were for our team, and he embraced every challenge we gave him.
“As far as what he meant to our team off the ice, I can’t say enough about it. He’s just a great teammate. He’s a great person. We looked at Matt as an extension of our coaching staff, and he helped us in so many ways just keep our finger on the pulse of the team so that we could make the best decisions to try to help this team be successful. I have so much respect for Matt as a player and as a person.”
Even in retirement, Cullen’s legacy will continue to grow as the young forwards he guided with the Penguins see their careers play out.
“He helped us along so much,” winger Bryan Rust said. “He’s such a good guy on and off the ice plus the ability to play so long and have such a long career, it kind of shows you what type of pro he is.”
In his retirement announcement, Cullen wrote he remembered seeing Jake Guentzel play in the Minnesota state high school tournament. With the Penguins, he was a mentor to Guentzel.
“Just the guy he was, how long he’s been in the league, for a guy like me to come up and for him to kind of take me under his wing, I was pretty fortunate to have a guy like him,” Guentzel said. “He didn’t need to, but he went out of his way to help me out. I was pretty lucky.”
Following the back-to-back championships, Cullen played a year in his home state with the Minnesota Wild before returning to the Penguins last season to wrap up a 21-year NHL career.
He finished his career 19th on the NHL’s all-time games played list with 1,516. His final goal came March 31 against Carolina when he was 42 years, 149 days old.
“I felt like it was only right to retire in Pittsburgh with everything that the organization had given me and done for me,” Cullen wrote. “I’m so happy I came back and finished my last year in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t trade that last year for anything.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .