Going Wild: Moorhead's Matt Cullen suits up with hometown team for the first time
The dream lingered for as long as Matt Cullen can remember. The 33-year-old veteran NHL center from Moorhead grew up with hopes of slipping on the green and gold sweater of his home-state Minnesota North Stars.
He played out the scenarios countless times while playing hockey in the backyard as a kid with younger brothers Mark and Joe.
Except, in the vision, Cullen was almost always pretending to be North Stars star forward Neal Broten of Roseau, Minn. Mark and Joe, also professional hockey players, would take the roles of Dave Gagner, Brian Bellows, the young star, Mike Modano, or whoever was hot for the North Stars at the time.
Why put your own name on the back of the jersey? It was just a dream after all. How often do dreams really come true?
Wednesday was one of those days.
Cullen, who has had NHL stops in Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, New York and Ottawa in a 12-year career, finally stepped onto the ice at the Xcel Energy Center as a member of his hometown Minnesota Wild in an exhibition game against St. Louis. The Blues won 5-1 before a crowd of 16,219.
He's swapped the green and gold of the North Stars for the green, red and gold of the Wild, but the dream was realized, nonetheless.
"It's just one of those things that's once in a lifetime," said Cullen, who signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with Minnesota in the offseason. "You just have to appreciate it. Truthfully, being a part of the organization that you kind of grew up wanting to be a part of: To me, that is a big deal. It's the first game wearing that sweater, and that's pretty cool. It's step one towards the first season.
"To get to put the jersey on for the first time is pretty exciting."
Wild training camp started just a few days ago, but memories of previous experiences in St. Paul come flooding back each time he makes the 15-minute drive to the Xcel Energy Center from his new winter home a few miles north of downtown St. Paul.
Cullen, who lives in West Fargo during the offseason, helped Moorhead High School to back-to-back Minnesota Class 2A championship games in 1994 and 1995 at the St. Paul Civic Center. The Xcel was built on the same land the Civic occupied before it was demolished in 1998.
And the first time Cullen skated at the Xcel Energy Center as a visiting NHL player with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2000, he said he was so nervous and excited for the game, "I could barely keep my skates on."
"Any time I come down here I obviously think back to that a little bit," Cullen said.
He's building new memories in St. Paul now with wife, Bridget, and sons, Brooks, 4, Wyatt, 2, and Joey, 5 months.
For the kids, this is a chance to see Dad on a more regular basis during the long NHL season. There is also more time to spend with grandpa and grandma in Moorhead. No more long packing sessions for flights out of town.
Matt, Bridget and the kids are staying in St. Paul for the entire season. That's 41 regular-season chances to watch Matt play at home in each of the next three seasons.
Six members of Cullen's family showed up to watch him skate for the Wild for the first time, including Bridget and Matt's sister, Annie, a former Division III national diving champion at Concordia who now lives in the Twin Cities.
"It's perfect," Bridget said before making her way to her seat Wednesday. "This is just exciting because I haven't seen him in a Wild jersey, yet. This is going to be so cool. Hopefully, the fans like the way he plays. It's kind of surreal right now. But it's awesome, too, because I think Minnesota wanted that. They wanted a guy born here."
Penciled in as Minnesota's second-line center, Cullen hit the ice for his first shift with 19 minutes, 18 seconds to play in the first period. He started his Wild career by winning a faceoff following teammate Martin Havlat's goal 42 seconds into the game that made the score 1-0.
Cullen played 20 minutes, 17 seconds in a game that featured many of the Wild's top players. It was a new look for a team that last year played prospects and young players for much of the exhibition season.
Cullen was on the ice for three of the Blues' five goals, two with the Wild a man down. He was named the game's No. 3 star.
After the game, Cullen was dripping with sweat as he fielded questions at his locker. He was disappointed at the outcome, but confident the team will improve as the exhibition season progresses.
"It was not what any of us had hoped for," said Cullen, whose team opens the regular season Oct. 7 against Carolina in Helsinki, Finland. "We know there are a lot of things we need to work on. ... But it was fun. It's everything I hoped it would be. It's one of those things we need to keep in perspective. We lost a preseason game here, so we'll be fine. It was just fun to get out there in the sweater and play the game. Now that it is out of the way, I can just get down to business and try to win some more games."