Upon entering the Moorhead Youth Hockey Arena, it's obvious the town has produced terrific hockey players.
One of the shrines high on the opposite wall honors National Hockey League veteran Matt Cullen, a 1995 graduate of Moorhead High School who went on to win a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and is currently playing for the Minnesota Wild.
It's a scene repeated in many arenas across the state, as communities celebrate their kids who have gone on to bigger and better things. But there is a difference in Cullen's case. His local presence isn’t limited to a dusty plaque and framed jersey.
The 33-year-old Cullen, who still has a home in the area and works out at the same youth rink during the summer, is plenty visible across the hockey-crazed Northwestern Minnesota town.
"Matt's been living in the community and contributing to the community. He’s very visible, besides all that he's donated," said current Moorhead coach Dave Morinville, citing the Cully for Kids Foundation that provides financial resources to organizations that support children's healthcare needs, emphasizing cancer.
Cullen continues to give back to Moorhead in other ways, as well.
On June 22, he stepped to the podium in his hometown for the annual Hockey Day Minnesota announcement. As Moorhead was honored as the host city, Cullen and his family promised a large financial commitment to help build the outdoor rinks for the boys' high school double-header featuring Moorhead vs. Hill-Murray and Wayzata vs. Roseau.
A week later, Cullen -- who spent the first 12 years of his NHL career in Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, Ottawa and New York -- came home. On July 1, the Wild signed the crafty center to a three-year free agent contract, cementing his status as arguably the most popular player ever to come out of Moorhead.
"I couldn't be happier with my decision to come here," stated Cullen, who said his three sons are perhaps even more excited.
It's a mutual admiration between Cullen and the town he grew up in. Moorhead embraced its talented young hockey player, the son of legendary Spuds' varsity coach Terry Cullen, from the moment the family arrived in town when Matt was a squirt.
Cullen returned the favor, leading the Spuds to three straight state tournaments from 1993-95 – finishing second twice and third once in that span. In his senior season, Cullen scored an amazing 47 goals and 89 points – school records that still stand -- and was named the AP Player of the Year and a Mr. Hockey finalist.
Morinville calls Cullen one of the program's original "Big Three" that also included Jason Blake and 1994 Mr. Hockey finalist Ryan Kraft, each of whom went on to play in the NHL. They catapulted Moorhead into the superpowers of high school hockey in the early 1990s, a place the Spuds continue to hold.
He also set another trend that has continued in Moorhead to this day – top Spuds players sticking around through their senior seasons.
"There was always the USHL option and that was something that a lot of guys were doing, but for me it wasn't really a decision," Cullen recently said of his choice to stay in Moorhead.
"We had a good team and we had a very good program in Moorhead. It was one of those things that I was happy where I was at and I was developing as a player. In my mind, I was really happy to be on the high school team. We had been to the state tournament two years prior and I wanted to come back and try to win it.
"And as a high school senior, it's your time to be the man. You're the go-to guy. I think it's important in every players development that you allow yourself to be the main man, the go-to guy and the guy that's' on the ice all the time and counted on in big situations. Don't rush things. If you keep rushing and trying to get to the next level before you're ready, you never get that feeling. Sometimes you just settle into a level of mediocrity. You're a middle man and you're on the second or third line and you never get to that go-to situation when you have to perform under pressure."
Cullen certainly rose to the occasion in his final years with the Spuds. Yet despite his scoring prowess in high school, he wasn't automatically considered a sure-fire NHL player.
"From a scouting standpoint, at the time the biggest question was his skating," said Morinville, who was an NHL scout during Cullen's high school days. "Everyone knew he had the head and the hands, but the question was would his skating be sufficient enough."
Morinville has rarely seen a player put in the hard work Cullen did to mold himself into an NHL player, relentlessly working on his skating and other skills until the Anaheim Ducks took him in the second round of the 1996 draft. Cullen continues to put in that effort every off-season in Moorhead at the youth arena, honing his skills.
"That tells you the dedication and focus he took to make himself a better player," Morinville said. "It shows the kids in our community, 'hey, that could be me.' It gives kids in this area the hope and desire because they can see what he’s done to make himself a better player."
While some argued that his development would have been stunted by staying in high school, Cullen saw it a different way. He knew he had to work on his skating and he felt another year in high school was the way to do it.
"If you're a dedicated kid, which I was, high school sports gives you a lot of time to work on your game," Cullen said. "You didn't have a crazy schedule of games, but you have plenty of ice time to work on your skills. You have plenty of opportunity to get better as a player in high school. It isn't just (more) games that gets you better."
Cullen, who in his first season with the Wild is currently third in scoring with 17 points in 22 games, is certainly living proof.