Matt Cullen acknowledges the crowd at PPG Paints Arena January 25, 2018 (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)
PITTSBURGH — NHL players return to the building of their former team all the time. For Wild winger Matt Cullen, this was different.
Cullen is 41 and has played for eight clubs, two of them — including the Wild — twice.
Returning to PPG Paints Arena for Thursday’s game against the Penguins ranked right up there, judging from the fact that Pittsburgh news outlets began writing about it days ago and from the deafening reception Cullen got when the Penguins showed a video tribute during the game’s first timeout.
“It’s really special coming back here,” Cullen, who won Stanley Cups in each of the past two seasons in Pittsburgh, said before the game. “The last two years were extraordinary years. We made some great friendships and absolutely loved being here. It’s fun being back. It was an awesome experience for us here. We just loved our time here. It’s great to see the guys, everybody at the rink.”
It’s a two-way street, as Cullen became something of a cult figure and the closest thing to the Penguins’ conscience in his two seasons here. His 29 goals and 63 points in the regular season, plus six goals and 15 points in the playoffs, were just one part of his two-season contribution.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan was so effusive talking about Cullen on Thursday that it was impossible to tell that he already had done so nearly every day this week.
“Matt was invaluable for us winning championships,” Sullivan said. “He’s a great teammate. I think his play speaks for itself, 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. 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 him. He’s just a great teammate, a great person. We looked at Matt as an extension of our coaching staff, and he helped us in so many ways. He helped us keep our finger on the pulse of this team.”
Cullen got together with some of his former teammates Wednesday night for dinner.
Cullen’s family became part of Pittsburgh’s fabric, so much so that he had to fend off his three sons’ pleas to make the trip here just as stridently as he might battle to keep the puck away from a defenseman.
“The boys fought hard,” he said. “I half expected to see Joey when I opened my bag up. Until the last minute, they were trying to get on the plane. We couldn’t do it. It was just busy and we couldn’t make it work. The boys wanted to come. Holy cow, they fought hard.”