Wild's Cullen getting better with age

HELSINKI, FINLAND — Most hockey players peak in their mid-to-late 20s, beginning the downward cycle in their 30s.

But after years of taking peripheral roles and blending into the background on previous teams, Matt Cullen is ready to take the next step in his career at age 33.

He might have a few gray hairs sprinkled into the brown, but Cullen looks faster, and better, than ever. He's been arguably the Wild's best forward in training camp. And as the Minnesota native begins his Wild career on Thursday against the team that saved his career, the Carolina Hurricanes, Cullen is looking to take a far greater role than at any time during 12 previous NHL seasons.

"I feel like I'm as good a player as I've ever been. I feel like this is my best hockey right now," Cullen said. "I feel a little bit like I'm entitled to it because I've worked so hard at it.

"Right now, I'm ready to take it to the next level."


There's no doubt in Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford's mind that he will. Rutherford has the utmost respect for Cullen, twice he acquired Cullen in his career.

"And I would have signed him again if we were in a position to sign him to the [three-year, $10.5 million] contract Minnesota signed him to," said Rutherford, whose team has had to slash payroll this season while it searches for a new minority owner.

Cullen has hit the 40-point mark seven times but has never topped 50. Wild coach Todd Richards says, "To me it looks like there's more than 40 there."

Rutherford agrees, saying, "because of his experience, because of his determination and because he's such a gifted skater, his career year could still be ahead of him."

Cullen's career started wonderfully in Anaheim, where at times he centered superstars Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. But after being traded to Florida in 2003, he suffered through injuries and endured the disappointment of missing out on Anaheim's run to the Stanley Cup Finals a few months later.

To make matters worse, Florida had four coaches in a year and a half. One of them, Panthers coach Mike Keenan, never took to Cullen, putting him at one point on what was dubbed the all-doghouse line with Kristian Huselius and Valeri Bure.

"Yeah, he hated us," Cullen said, laughing.

Cullen was miserable and said he started doubting himself as a player. Ironically, the 2004-05 lockout couldn't have come at a better time.


"I go to Italy, led the league in scoring, played in Cortina, which is in the Alps on the Austrian border," he said. "Great food, great wine, great coffee, great mountain air. It was like going from the bottom to the top in a year. I learned to love hockey again."

Then Rutherford signed him in Carolina. Cullen joined an incredible locker room full of character guys such as Rod Brind'Amour, Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley, Ray Whitney and Aaron Ward. The Hurricanes shocked the NHL, soaring to the Stanley Cup.

"I learned the value of having leadership and veteran experience," Cullen said. "I didn't really buy into it that much when I was younger. But you go into a locker room like Carolina, and there's a guy like Hedi.

"Bret Hedican never wore a letter on his jersey. But I don't know if, maybe aside from Brind'Amour, I've ever played with a better leader. ... I learned the power of that, and I feel I'm ready to be that guy here in Minnesota."

And that's exactly what the Wild wants from Cullen. GM Chuck Fletcher signed him not just to fill the Wild's No. 2 center hole, but to add a proven winner with experience who can speak up in the locker room, light a spark under teammates and help guide youngsters such as Casey Wellman.

What To Read Next
Get Local