Hockey Dad

The dog was pooping all over the floor. That’s how nervous it was in my house before Game 7 against Tampa. My three little boys were freaking out. They could barely handle it. I guess the dog knew something was wrong.

My sons are six, seven and nine, and they are the biggest hockey fans in the world. You really have no idea. I’d say 45 minutes out of every hour of the day, they’re down in the basement playing “shootout” with their mini sticks.

On a normal game day, I’ll wake up around 7 a.m. and my boys will already be on the couch watching NHL on the Fly. Every morning, without fail. They’re little experts. I’ll make some bacon and sit down with my cup of coffee while they give me a rundown of what happened in the NHL last night — “Dad, this guy made a terrible turnover. You just can’t make that play.”

It’s hilarious.

Actually, I should go back. The night before is the best. That’s when we do our stretching. My whole career, I’ve always done a little stretching routine before bed to keep things loose. So my boys picked up on this and they won’t let it go. Even if I get home after they’re already in bed, they’ll say, “Dad, we didn’t stretch!”

So you’ve got the four Cullen men all in their underwear, doing lunges, talking about where I should shoot on the goalie tomorrow.

Before I left for the playoff games, they kept saying, “Dad, the guys gotta work really hard tonight, O.K.?”

I’m like, “Yep, O.K. I’ll make sure.”

When I get to the rink, Phil Kessel is always asking me, “What are the boys saying? What’s the analysis?”

I’ll tell him all about their scouting report and he’ll just be dying laughing. He gets such a kick out of it.

So you can just imagine what it was like before Game 7. They probably watched more tape on Tampa than I did. I was trying to take out the trash or something when my middle boy, Wyatt, comes up to me all concerned like, “Dad, where you gonna shoot on this Vasilevskiy guy? He’s been really hot. You gotta shoot blocker side. That’s what we think.”

I think I was the least nervous member of my family.

This ride has been so much fun. And it’s amazing to think that it might not have happened at all.

Last year at this time, I thought I was probably done. I was in Nashville. Chicago had just knocked us out of the playoffs in Game 6. It was a pretty emotional day. I remember finding a quiet spot in the locker room after the game, sitting there with my good friend Mike Fisher, and just reflecting back on a long career.

It was kind of like, “Well … it was a good run.”

I mean, you never want it to end. But I was realistic. I was 38 years old. My kids were growing up fast. They were getting to the age when it’s not fair to pull them out of school and move to yet another city.

So my family went back home to North Dakota last summer thinking that was probably it. The end can be a little scary. My wife and I tried to keep an open mind. We prayed a lot on it.

I remember one day she said, “Well, maybe if something really cool comes up.”

A few days later, I got a call from Jim Rutherford, the general manager of the Penguins. Jim and I won a Cup together in 2006 when he was the GM of the Hurricanes. He’s one of the most honest guys in hockey. Jim was really up front about what they were looking for: Fourth line center. Somebody who can help be a leader in the locker room. Somebody who can move up and down the lineup when there’s injuries.

Jim said, “You still got the fire?”

I thought about it for maybe two seconds.

It was a no brainer. I saw how serious Jim was about winning a Stanley Cup by trading for Kessel that summer. Then couple that with the fact that it’s a great hockey town and I can have my boys be in the locker room with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? It was a pretty easy decision.

About 25 minutes later, we had a deal done.

The easy part was telling my kids “Hey, we have to move again, but guess what? I’m going to play with Sid and Geno.”

The more difficult thing was figuring out the nitty-gritty of how we were going to deal with their schooling and everything. It’s tougher on the wives than the players. People don’t understand how much logistics goes into every move, especially at the end of a career when kids are more grown up.

Luckily, the Penguins had just built an $80 million practice facility with an organic kitchen, computer rooms, a family lounge, everything you could want — it’s amazing. It’s more of a family atmosphere.

We decided it wasn’t worth it to put my kids in school because it was only going to be one year. We didn’t want them making friends and then tearing them away again. So we thought it would make more sense to hire a teacher to homeschool them.

Trevor Daley was in the same situation when he got traded here from Chicago. So his little boy and my three boys do their school work at the facility twice a week. They’re like a little wolf pack roaming around the place. At recess, they get to skate or just run around the rink. It’s like a dream for a little kid.

Funny story — earlier this season, they were running around the locker room, and their teacher says, “Hey boys, do you know who that is over there?”

They all look over and see this older gentleman in a nice sweater and glasses standing there. Nope, they don’t recognize him.

My sons says, “Who? The tall guy?”

“Yeah,” the teacher says. “That’s Mario Lemieux.”

They about lost it.

Wyatt points over like, “Mario?!?!”

They obviously knew Mario from YouTube and book reports and stuff, but they didn’t recognize him at first. They were so pumped. They went over and got a picture with him and everything. My middle boy could barely handle it. Check him out at the bottom of the picture. 

This year has really brought everything full circle for me. My dad was a high school hockey coach in northern Minnesota, and I spent my childhood in his locker rooms. I’m dating myself here, but we didn’t really get many NHL games on TV back then. For me, the high school players were my idols, even though they used to stuff me in a locker from time to time.

I never even considered playing in the NHL. I dreamed of playing for my high school team. At the time, it was the Virginia Blue Devils. Then we moved when I was 10 and it was all about the Moorhead Spuds (the mascot is a giant smiling potato — pretty awesome).

When the team went out to play the game, my two brothers and I would stay behind in the locker room and play mini hockey with the team doctor. I vividly remember ripping up game-day programs to make confetti to shower the players when they won.

Hockey is all I’ve ever known. I can’t teach my kids how to hammer a nail or build a treehouse. This is the only thing I can really give them. It has honestly been more fun than I ever could have hoped for when Jim called me last summer.

We have this little standings board on a wall at our house. It’s got mini goalie helmets, and you move the helmets up and down based on the standings. So every morning at breakfast, one of the boys would say, “Dad, gimme your phone. I want to look up the new standings.”

Then they’d go adjust the helmets.

Well, early in the season, we hit a rough patch. My two youngest boys looked at the standings over breakfast and they had tears in their eyes.

“Dad … We’re … We’re out of the playoffs.”

They had to move the mini Penguins helmet out of playoff contention. Oh my gosh. They were stunned. That was a hard day.

I said, “Guys, it’s game 30. We’ll be back.”

There’s only two helmets left on the board now.

I don’t know how they’ll handle the finals. They’ve gotten more superstitious as the playoffs have gone on. They have to wear the exact same outfit to every game.

We all ride back home together after the game, and that’s when it’s really funny. These boys are tough critics. After Game 4 against Washington, we’re riding home and I’m feeling great. I scored a breakaway goal. We won in overtime in dramatic fashion.

But I also hit the crossbar earlier in the game. Big mistake.

First thing Wyatt says to me when I get in the car: “Dad, how did you miss that one? You have to score on that. That was a big chance, Dad.”

No high-five. No hug. He was not impressed. Just shaking his head, “How’d you miss that?”

They’re not going to be satisfied until I bring home a Stanley Cup. I’ll see what I can do.