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Cullen signs deal to return to Pittsburgh

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MOORHEAD -- Matt Cullen laughed when the question was asked of him Sunday. It’s something the former Moorhead High School standout and three-time Stanley Cup champion hasn’t had the answer to since he began playing hockey in his living room at the age of 2 in Virginia, Minn.

What’s it going to take for you to stop playing?

“I don’t know,” Cullen said with a laugh. “I’m just trying to take it one year at a time and take it for all it’s worth. I never would have expected to play this long or had these opportunities. I’ve been around some really good people in the game of hockey, and I’m really appreciative for everything that I’m getting here. I don’t know. I feel really blessed. I’m going to enjoy this year for all it’s worth and put my best hockey out there.”

Cullen, 41, will have to wait another NHL season to think about that question, as he signed a one-year, $650,000 contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins for his 21st NHL season. Cullen won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017 before playing last season with the Minnesota Wild.

Cullen ended last season as the oldest player in the NHL. This is the fourth consecutive summer Cullen has signed a one-year contract with questions of retirement following the end of each deal.

“Obviously, the last couple summers have been really short,” Cullen said. “You win the Cup and you have a week or two to make a decision. This was nice in a way this summer to have some down time to allow the body to heal up and rest up and to get a little space, separation from the season, and allow yourself to think clearly and let a decision come to you, as opposed to having to kind of force a decision in a short period of time.”

After the Wild lost in the first round of the playoffs this season, Cullen took a month completely away from the game before moving back to Moorhead. He began training a few weeks ago just in case an offer came.

“I was pleasantly surprised how my body has come along, and I’m feeling better and better every day,” Cullen said. “Truth be told the last half of last season I felt great and was really happy with my skating and everything. I guess when I saw that my body was starting to respond and feeling pretty good, if the right opportunity came up, we could take a good look at it.”

Cullen was close to retirement in the summer of 2016. Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford, who Cullen won a Stanley Cup with in 2006 in Carolina, contacted Cullen and he accepted a one-year deal for $800,000. Cullen knew nothing about the city of Pittsburgh. Two Stanley Cups later he calls Pittsburgh a second home.

“I was so pleasantly surprised with everything, how good the people were, what a great city it is and especially what a great sports town it is, how much they love their team,” Cullen said. “For me, in every aspect, it was the perfect fit. The people in the organization were so good to our family and obviously winning the two Cups in those two years, those are some unbelievable experiences that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life.

“You just develop a special bond with the city and an organization when you go through something like that. Just kind of fell in love with it, so when this kind of came up, we’re at a point in our lives where you just don’t get a lot of opportunities like this. You don’t get these opportunities and you only live once. It’ll be fun to go back and take another shot at it in a place that we love.”

Cullen had 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) with a plus-minus of minus-1 in 79 games in the regular season last season with the Wild. It was his worst plus-minus in the regular season since his 2011-12 season with the Wild. He added a goal and an assist in five playoff games.

Only 18 players in NHL history have played 1,500 or more regular season games. Cullen is currently at 1,445. He’s played 1,573 games for his career, won three Stanley Cups, scored 278 goals, and dished out 491 assists.

“It’s an organization that’s committed to going the extra mile to make sure that you’re doing everything you possibly can to give yourself a chance to win and they want to win now, which at my age is important,” Cullen said of the Penguins. “It’s a great place to play for a guy like me. I don’t have any time left. I want to try to win one more right now.”

Pittsburgh will play the Buffalo Sabres Nov. 19, 2018. It’ll be 17 days after Cullen turns 42. There’s a chance Cullen could play against Moorhead High School graduate Will Borgen, who graduated from Moorhead 20 years after Cullen.

“It’s funny when you say it. I hadn’t thought of it,” Cullen said. “I’ve known Will for awhile and skated with him quite a bit in the summer. It’s funny how time flies. It really is. I feel really blessed to have played this long and when you hear numbers like that about kids you helped coach in hockey school it’s kind of fun to see.”