Former Spud remained humble, loyal to hometown Moorhead even after becoming longtime NHLer

MOORHEAD, Minn. - Elk River's Dan Hinote scored a goal 3 minutes and 32 seconds into the third period of the 1995 Minnesota Class 2A, Section 8 high school hockey championship game, giving the Elks a 4-2 lead over Moorhead. The game was being played before a crowd of more than 6,000 at the National Hockey Center at St. Cloud State, less than 40 miles from Elk River, and the arena was bedlam.

While the Elks celebrated and the Spuds tried to regroup, their season creeping toward an inglorious end short of the coveted state tournament, one player stood at center ice all alone. He'd skated there immediately after Hinote's goal to wait for the faceoff. Let's get this going, his actions said. Drop the puck. This game isn't anywhere near over.

"That's Cully," former teammate Ryan Frisch laughed during a phone conversation Wednesday, June 10. "Laser-focused, like always. A leader."

Cully, also known as Matt Cullen, was right. It took 23 seconds for the Spuds to answer with a goal of their own, with Cullen setting up Frisch for a score that made it 4-3 and opened a Moorhead deluge. The Spuds scored five unanswered goals and won 7-4 to advance to their fourth straight state tournament, where they lost in the title game (again) to Duluth East.

"Matt and I played 12 years together on the same line and we pretty much knew what the other guy was going to do, what we were thinking," Frisch said. "What I remember about that moment is how we regrouped after that Elk River goal. It wasn't a panic situation. We knew we had to pick it up, dig a little deeper, work a little harder. It wasn't like, 'Oh, no.' It kind of pissed us off, really. It was our senior year and if we lost that game our season and high school careers were done."

Frisch shared some thoughts Wednesday afternoon after the news broke, via online video posted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, that Cullen was retiring after 21 seasons and more than 1,600 games in the NHL. The 1995 Moorhead High School graduate, former St. Cloud State skater and veteran of eight NHL teams was wrapping up a remarkable playing career. He's a spry 42 years old, in better shape than most 22 year olds.

Of all the area athletes who've gone onto professional careers in the last 20 years, from Rick Helling to Carson Wentz, Cullen might be the most remarkable. When he started, Wayne Gretzky was still in the NHL. When he ended, there were players in the league who weren't yet born when Cullen debuted with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1997.

Is that where the Cully focus comes into play?

"It takes a lot of things to play that long. Focus and work ethic are a couple of things. The physical condition he's in is unbelievable. You have to be a great teammate with great character, teams want to have you around. And the skill, of course," said Frisch, who also played with Cullen at SCSU. "But I have to say, I've been around a lot of professional hockey players and Matt, without a doubt, has the smartest hockey mind I've ever seen. He's unbelievable. He understands the game mentally better than anybody else. He was always a step ahead, always out-thinking everybody else. And I think that has to be another reason why he was able to play so long. He just understood the game so well and was so smart."

Frisch tossed out this insight, too:

"Matt was in the league so long that the game has changed two or three times since he was a rookie. He kept adapting, so he's changed his game two or three different times," Frisch said. "When he started in the NHL he was like 215 pounds and was seen as kind of a slow skater, not highly skilled. The style was clutch-and-grab. Now it's a speed game and he's down to 200 pounds and he's known as a skater, a speed guy. He's changed his game as he's needed to. It's amazing."

Some things about Cullen have not changed. He was thoughtful, humble and approachable as a Spud, Huskie and young pro. He remains so as a middle-aged husband and father of three who's made millions playing in the NHL. The Cullens live in south Moorhead, his kids play youth hockey and Matt remains Matt. He remains a Spud.

Here's a hint as to Cullen's hometown accessibility: Many local media members had his cellphone number and directly texted him, which he would almost always answer in a timely fashion. It doesn't usually work that way with athletes once they reach the big leagues.

Yet, that's the way it's always been with Cullen.

Dave Kolpack covered the Spuds for The Forum during Cullen's high school and college career. After Cullen was drafted by the Mighty Ducks in 1996 and readied to make his NHL debut in 1997, the newspaper flew Kolpack to Anaheim to cover the big event.

"When I got there I called him and asked, 'Where should I meet you for an interview?' He says, 'No, that's OK. I'll just come to your hotel.' I tell him, 'You don't have to come to my hotel. I'll meet you wherever you want. It's not up to you to come to my hotel.' But he insisted on coming to the hotel, through all the southern California traffic and that mess," Kolpack said. "When I see him, he gives me a framed picture of himself in action. It says something like, 'Thanks for all your help on my way up.' And he signed his name. He's the real deal. There is nothing phony about the guy. I still have the picture, hanging in my office at home."

Cullen's style might have changed over all the years. The personality never did.