Matt Cullen wanted No. 7 at SCSU so here's why his No. 9 is going to be retired
Before he played in the second-most NHL games for an American player, the forward played two seasons at St. Cloud State. He will have his number retired on Saturday.
The last 10 seasons of his 21-year NHL career, Matt Cullen wore the No. 7, the same number he wore when he played for Moorhead High School.
Coming out of high school, Cullen was a highly recruited forward after helping the Spuds reach the Class AA state championship game each of his last two seasons. When he chose St. Cloud State, he wanted to wear No. 7.
The problem was, defenseman Andy Vicari had worn that number the previous season. The St. Cloud State coaching staff approached Vicari about changing his number to accommodate Cullen.
"They came to me and asked me if I would take a different number and if I wanted 77 — I said, 'No thanks,'" Vicari said. "Had I known how his career would end up, I would've given him 7 ... It's crazy.
"It was (assistant coach) Tom Serratore who said, 'We got this new recruit.' I said, 'Yeah, I know who he is.' He said, 'He really wants 7. What do you think, Vic? 27 or 77?' I said, 'No thanks, Tommy.' He's usually a pretty good sell guy. He didn't sell me very well."
After Vicari rejected changing numbers, Serratore went to Cullen to help him pick a number.
"I wore 9 as a young kid and my dad (Terry) wore 9 and it was always my favorite number, but Steve Dorsey (whose injuries in a 1983 game in Fergus Falls left him a quadriplegic) played hockey and went head-first into the boards and — he's a good friend and I see him at the rink all the time — they retired his number, so I had to be 7 in high school," Cullen said. "It's funny because this brings back memories. I do remember talking to the (SCSU) coaches and they were saying, 'Maybe 77 is possible' when we were talking about 7.
"It's funny that you say that, because now I remember it," Cullen said, laughing. "Then I'll be 9. It's funny now because Andy is the nicest human being on the planet. A stubborn little guy and had a lot of competitiveness to him. It's all good."
That No. 9 will be retired by St. Cloud State in a pregame ceremony on Saturday. The Huskies play Colorado College at 6 p.m. Doors will open at 4:30 p.m. with the ceremony beginning at 5 p.m.
Why he chose SCSU
St. Cloud State was a relative newcomer to NCAA Division I hockey when Cullen played for the Huskies. The program made the move up to Division I in 1987 and SCSU was 17-20-1 when Cullen was a senior in high school.
He was also strongly considering Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
"I was born up in Virginia, Minnesota, up on the Iron Range and I always wanted to be a Bulldog and my dad played fast-pitch softball with Brett Hull when he was with the Bulldogs," said Cullen, whose father was a high school coach. "I thought I would end up going there.
"But my experiences with St. Cloud ... it's just one of those things where it had the right feel for me. It made sense for me. That's just what happened. I'm really happy I picked where I picked. Tom Serratore recruited extremely hard and I loved the way he saw the game and his ideas on how he was going to get me to the next level. It was a young program and I knew there were some good players coming in there and it just felt like the right fit."
Cullen was being recruited at the same time as Mark Parrish, who had helped Bloomington Jefferson beat Moorhead for the 1994 state title. Parrish would go on to play 722 NHL games over 13 seasons.
In fact, Cullen and Parrish were on their official recruiting visits on the same day.
"I knew Mark a little bit and I disliked him because they beat us in the state hockey tournament, so I already had a real problem with him," Cullen said with a laugh. "He turned out to be a nice guy, which really sucked and I had to stop disliking him.
"We went on our official visit and I'll never forget it because it's just so funny ... We met with (head) coach (Craig) Dahl and he went first. He had his meeting and I was hanging around. He walks out of his visit in the office with Craig and said, 'Well, I just told them I'm coming here. I committed, so I'm going to go home. I've got a high school dance. You should really come here.'"
A special player
Vicari said that when Cullen got on campus, there were several signs that Cullen was a different level of player.
"I don't think official team dryland (training) had started," he said of Cullen, whose 1,516 NHL games are the second-most for an American. "Just Matt and I were doing a plyometrics workout and we're outside the rink and I'm winded and thinking, 'we're done.' And it was his warmup.
"I was in good shape, coming in for my second year and I'd had a good freshman year and gotten to play a lot. It was like, 'Oh my gosh, this guy is a freshman coming out of high school.'"
Part of why Cullen was able to play 60 or more NHL games in a season 17 times was because of the shape he was in. That was not something that started when he turned pro.
"I was always pretty motivated as a younger guy and I got into watching my nutrition at a pretty young age and I was into the training side of it," he said. "I always loved the game. There's nothing more that I'd rather be doing than watching hockey or talking hockey.
It was a great place for a young guy to become a better hockey player.
"St. Cloud was a great spot for me because I had everything that I needed at my disposal. We could be on the ice as much as we wanted and work on different things. I remember going on the ice with (goalie) Brian Leitza before and after practice working on breakaways and different things. You come out of high school and you don't have as much time to work on things. Now you're in college and you feel like you're a young man and can make your own decisions ... Those two years were just invaluable."
Another example of Cullen's work ethic came after the Huskies had lost 6-1 to North Dakota in the second game of a series after winning the first game.
"We just didn't play well and we were sitting in the locker room, grumpy and everyone else is heading out and it's just Matt and I and a couple other guys," Vicari said. "I asked our trainer, 'Hey, can you grab the pucks?' He said, 'Sure, what are you doing?' I said, 'I'm just going to go shoot some pucks and take some extra shots.'
"Cully looked over at me and said, 'what?' I said I'm going out and he said, 'I'll go.' We're out there and it's a Saturday night and we're tired because North Dakota is phenomenal and always physical. We went out there and shot some pucks and my body started cramping and I said, 'All right, I've got to go.' He stayed out there and I don't know how long he stayed. I was showered and gone and he was still out there shooting pucks. He just had an elite mindset to everything he did."
It's still the best play I've ever seen ... he flipped his stick blade down and the puck is coming and he ramped it over both those guys and skated around them.
As for Cullen's skill on the ice, there is a moment that is burned into Vicari's memory. The Huskies were playing against Colorado College and the Tigers won the WCHA regular season title in 1995-96.
"It's still the best play I've ever seen — a 4-on-4 and I'm a defenseman and I'm coming up behind him," Vicari said of Cullen. "He's coming up the right side and a pass comes across our blue line and both 'D' are closing on him. He's a lefty and he flipped his stick blade down and the puck is coming and he ramped it over both those guys and skated around them.
"So he's catching a pass full speed, coming up ice full speed and his touch with the puck — literally flicked it over their heads by ramping his stick and went in on a breakaway and scored. It was a 2-on-0 and I was chasing him. I was the only guy behind him. He had his work ethic and he had elite skill and ability .... these are special people who can even think of those things, let alone execute them in a game at full speed. He was a freshman against Colorado College, the best team in the nation."
What he's doing now
Cullen finally retired from the NHL in 2019 after playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins and lives in Moorhead with his family. He's been working for the Penguins in player development, is a minority of the Fargo Force and has been coaching the hockey teams of his three boys.
His oldest son, Brooks, is a sophomore on the Moorhead High School team. His son, Wyatt, is a first-year bantam (14-and-under) and his son, Joey, is a second-year peewee (12-and-under). So what has it been like to coach his sons?
"I've learned how much I don't know about the game of hockey. They're pretty confident in telling me what they know and what I don't know," Cullen said with a laugh. "You're always learning.
"But it's good and I've enjoyed it, more than I expected to. Coaching kids is so fun and it's kind of showed me a different side of the game that, when you play professionally, you kind of lose track of how fun it is. Trying to figure out ways to teach kids ideas and become better players — we're fortunate in Moorhead right now to have a good group of kids, some really high-end players. That makes it fun. I've enjoyed it way more than I thought I would."
Cullen has also tightened his ties with St. Cloud State since retiring. He makes it to a few games during the season and also will make trips down during the offseason to talk with the Huskies.
"It's one of those things that I wish I had more time for and I'm going to try to create more time for down the road because I think the world of (coach) Brett (Larson)," Cullen said. "Seeing the job he's done and I've gotten to know him as a person. I don't know if there's a better human being and a more quality guy that you could ask to run your program than Brett.
"I've enjoyed that a ton. Seeing the culture he's helped build there, the quality of kids — I just really enjoy going down there. Some super, high-end kids — character, quality wise and as players. I always tell my wife (Bridget) that I have no other skills in this world other than hockey, so it's fun to share it with these guys and the one thing I do have is a lot of experience. I really enjoy sharing that with kids."
Cullen said he has heard from a number of former teammates, many of whom plan to be in attendance for the ceremony on Saturday. His family will also be there, except for Brooks, who has a game against Grand Rapids on Saturday.
Cullen said "it's a big honor for me" when he was asked about having his number retired. Being back at the Brooks Center also stirs up memories of his college career.
He was never cocky. He was never arrogant. Confident in his abilities, but as humble as the day is long.
"The relationships is the first thing because you build some awesome relationships that I still have with me — the biggest piece is the relationships," Cullen said. "I think of the full house and playing in front of the crowd at St. Cloud State as a young guy coming out of high school. Things that stick with you forever are playing some of the bigger rivalries — playing the Gophers at home was always one of those things that was a crazy experience.
"It was a great place for a young guy to become a better hockey player. Playing with your close friends was just an awesome experience ... I don't know if I'd have gotten to the NHL as soon as I did if I'd not gone to St. Cloud. It was a great fit for me. The people that were there, the coaching staff was awesome. I just have nothing but great things to say about being there."
And his former teammates also could not be happier for him.
"I'm just grateful that we all, as fans, get to share in some of his cool moments whether it's scoring his first goal at St. Cloud State or his first NHL goal," said Vicari, who was SCSU's captain in 1997-98. "Had you not seen him play, you never would have known he was as crazy skilled as he was. He never acted that way.
"He was never cocky. He was never arrogant. Confident in his abilities, but as humble as the day is long."
Cullen's number will be the second retired by St. Cloud State. The other number that has been retired is 24, which was worn by Bret Hedican from 1988-91.
Players who have worn No. 9 at SCSU (Division I era)
- Todd Kennedy (1988-92)
- Matt Cullen (1995-97)
- Brandon Sampair (1997-2001)
- Greg Tom (2002-03)
- Bille Luger (2003-04)
- Sean Garrity (2004-07)
- Garrett Roe (2007-11)
- Joey Benik (2012-16)
- Ryan Papa (2016-17)
- Spencer Meier (2018-23)