When you think about sports and Carolina's centre Matt Cullen, naturally, you think about hockey. But, like most elite athletes, Matt loves other sports as well. Nonetheless, it is hard to wrap your head around the fact that Cullen's second great athletic love is whiffle ball.
|Matt plays as competitively in hockey as he does in whiffle ball. The tournament was tight, but Cullen's Briefs outscored the Boxers to take the whiffle ball championship, and earn the right to parade around the field
with the Stanley Cup. (Walt Neubrand)
Born in Virginia, Minnesota and an alumnus of St. Cloud State, Matt spends his off-seasons in nearby Fargo, North Dakota. And it is in Fargo that we visit for a sensational whiffle ball tournament. Oh yeah, and a visit from the Stanley Cup!
Matt was more than a little anxious on Thursday, July 20. "Is the Cup on its way? Will it arrive in time for our whiffle ball tournament? I'd like to have the Cup here for the tournament if we possibly can. Has the Stanley Cup ever been to a whiffle ball tournament? Will this be the first one?"
It was an amazing tournament. Mark Parrish
hammered three homeruns for the Boxers but it
was Matt Cullen who took MVP honours. Truth
be told, because he negotiated to bring the
Stanley Cup to the whiffle ball tourney, he'd
have been the MVP anyway, but Cullen hit a
monstrous dinger and also made some
incredible defensive plays in right field,
including one where he reached over the fence
in fair territory to steal a surefire homer
from the Boxers. Matt and his Boxers (so to
speak) lost to the Briefs 19-17 who earned
the right to parade around the whiffle ball
field with the Stanley Cup. The Boxers cried
foul (literally they felt that a foul ball
had determined the game), however the Briefs
took the Cup followed by the Boxers, and led
into the house, where everyone took turns
sipping from the Stanley Cup.
It was an amazing tournament. Mark Parrish hammered three homeruns for the Boxers but it was Matt Cullen who took MVP honours. Truth be told, because he negotiated to bring the Stanley Cup to the whiffle ball tourney, he'd have been the MVP anyway, but Cullen hit a monstrous dinger and also made some incredible defensive plays in right field, including one where he reached over the fence in fair territory to steal a surefire homer from the Boxers. Matt and his Briefs (so to speak) defeated the Boxers 19-17 to earn the right to parade around the whiffle ball field with the Stanley Cup. The Boxers cried foul (literally - they felt that a foul ball had determined the game), but Matt stood firm, gripped the Cup and led the Briefs, followed by the Boxers, into the house, where everyone took turns sipping from the Stanley Cup.
|In a superbly confident case of foreshadowing, Matt Cullen had an alcove built above his fireplace, planning that someday it would be filled by the Stanley Cup. Matt proved to be quite a soothsayer, as hockey's most
cherished trophy not only found a spot in the Cullen living room, but fit perfectly in the designated space. (Walt Neubrand/HHOF)
When Matt was originally having the house built, he left an alcove above the fireplace for a specific reason. "That'll be perfect if I ever win the Cup," he said at the time. "I'll put it right in there." Sure enough, Matt lifted the trophy into the space and the Cup fit perfectly! A yellow spotlight dazzled as it bounced off the patina of Lord Stanley's Cup.
After spending a little longer sipping out of the Cup's bowl, the night came to an end with Matt Cullen and his wife Bridget taking the Stanley Cup to bed.
* * *
On the morning of Friday, July 21, Matt and the Cup were picked up by a Hummer limousine for the ride over to the Oxbow Golf and Country Club in Oxbow, North Dakota, where a golf tournament was set to tee off for Matt's charity, Cully's Kids.
Matt and Bridget set up Cullen's Children's Foundation in 2003, helping, among other things, children battling cancer. This was the second year for the golf tournament. On the way, after picking up Carolina teammate Andrew Ladd, Matt and Andrew laughed as they saw a sign perched just outside the golf course: 'Welcome to Oxbow, Stanley Cup. How about a peek?'
The Hummer pulled into the parking lot of the magnificent golf club. "I need my coffee," pleaded Matt, as he lifted the Stanley Cup out of the limo. "Where can I get a coffee?"
Matt didn't golf, instead making certain that each foursome had its picture taken with the Stanley Cup. Every once in awhile, Matt would lean over almost panic-stricken and query, "Any idea where I can get a coffee?"
Just after 10AM, a bus carrying a dozen children pulled into the Oxbow lot. The kids, all wearing orange t-shirts, filed off the purple and yellow vehicle accompanied by a family member. Matt and Bridget called out to each child by name as they stepped off the bus, and led them up the stairs to the clubhouse. Several of the kids are still undergoing treatment while a few others have beaten the brutal disease.
Each of Cully's Kids sat with the Stanley Cup, Bridget and Matt, a cup of coffee in hand. The bowl of the Cup was already filled with Hawaiian Punch, and the children were thrilled when Matt pulled out a handful of straws. "Grab a straw, you guys," Matt smiled. "Let's see if we can empty the Stanley Cup!" Each kid stuck a straw into the historic trophy and sucked hard to get a mouthful of punch. Matt, meanwhile, looked for another cup of coffee.
Matt then packed the Cup away and had the limo take him, Bridget and his Dad to the Moorhead Youth Hockey Arena, arriving just past noon. Moorhead, located just over the Red River and state line in Minnesota, had 1,000 people waiting excitedly for the Cup and the Hurricanes' champion to arrive.
Matt slid the Stanley Cup onto the ice for a sensational aerial shot that included him, the Cup and each current player in the Moorhead Youth Hockey Association.
Matt then took the Stanley Cup to his childhood home in Moorhead. His Mom still lives there, and had a superb home-cooked meal ready for the troops - lasagna, salad and fruit. Bridget, Matt, his Dad and two brothers were greeted by his Mom Nancy, his grandmother and his sister Annie, a national diving champion. "Mom, do you have any coffee," asked Matt.
The Cup was then taken to Playmakers House of Rock, a local club. From 5 until 7, the Stanley Cup was displayed in the parking lot of the club, where close to 1,000 fans lined up to get pictures and autographs. "Matt, hold it up," hollered one guy. "I ran 300 miles uphill to get here!"
Matt laughed. "I almost believed you for a second, pal. Then I remembered there are no hills anywhere near here!!"
At 7, Matt took the Stanley Cup inside Playmakers. Before the party was set to begin, Matt winked. "Watch this, I'm going to punk Aaron Ward!"
"Hey, Wardo, it's Cully," he started, having dialed Aaron from his cellphone. "What's going on? You're at the Tigers game? Listen, I got a little problem here I've gotta talk to you about. The Stanley Cup can't come to your party. We were having a few laughs and the Cup got dropped." After pausing a second or two, with an incredulous Ward stating that he had to contact his wife to change their celebration arrangements, Matt continued. "I know it sucks and no, I'm not joking! The Hockey Hall of Fame has to ship it off to Montreal to get fixed. No, I'm NOT kidding. It's damaged, Aaron. I mean, it was an accident, but it's still damaged."
Cullen waited a second and inherently knew it was time to draw the prank to a close. "Busted! Wardo, I gotcha! You so believed me! I'm up 1-0!"
Aaron Ward, who was Cullen's teammate with the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, will be Matt's teammate with the New York Rangers in 2006-07. He had one statement to conclude the call. "Cullen, you're a lightweight! You'll get yours in New York. And one more thing," he chuckled. "Cully, you're dead!"
* * *
The party that evening was a rocking affair. A silent auction included a private box to a Minnesota Twins ballgame, a signed Bobby Orr jersey, miscellaneous other jerseys and sticks and the very first New York Rangers' jersey with 'CULLEN' on the back and the number 5 he'll wear in New York. "I wanted 8 but that number isn't available," explained Matt. "I like single digits and my agent suggested that I take 5, so that's what I'll be wearing." Matt explained how he was melancholy about leaving the Hurricanes but excited about the new opportunity with the Rangers. The Cullen Rangers' jersey, by the way, went for $3,000!
Like last year, Cullen hired The Zambonis to perform. The rock band from Connecticut performs all hockey-themed songs, including their most recognized track, 'I Wanna Drive the Zamboni.' But the band encountered inclement weather on the East Coast and had their flights cancelled, so while Matt hugged another cup of coffee, the band found three different flights to get to the show on time. And they did…with moments to spare. Wearing Hartford Whalers' jerseys, The Zambonis rocked Playmakers and made certain everyone in attendance had a memorable evening. Among those in the crowd were 'Canes teammate Mike Commodore, Patrick Eaves of the Ottawa Senators, and the New York Islanders' Jason Blake.
At 2AM, Matt and his wife Bridget, who is expecting their first child any day now, took the Stanley Cup and about 50 friends over to a local hotel where they had reserved the boardroom for late night pizza and beer. At 2:45, a cup of coffee in hand to keep him alert, Matt drove the Stanley Cup to Fargo International Airport, where it was destined for Detroit and a day with Aaron Ward.
"It was just unbelievable," beamed Matt, whose Cullen's Children's Foundation garnered close to $240,000 over the course of the weekend's events. "It went way better than I expected. I never would have anticipated things turning out the way they did! Thank you for helping make a difference!"
* * *
The Stanley Cup arrived in Detroit in the morning on Saturday, July 22, met by the Hurricanes' defenseman, Aaron Ward. "Cullen had me going, I have to tell ya," he started. "We had all these plans made for the Cup, and all I could think about was that I had to get to my wife so we could change the arrangements." After a pregnant pause, Ward added, "He'll get his. Oh yeah, revenge is a bitch!"
|Aaron Ward took the Stanley Cup to C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital, located at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Here, Ward poses with Kyle Chamberlain from Tucson, Arizona, both mutual admirers of the Stanley Cup.(Walt Neubrand/HHOF)
Aaron drove the Cup to his home in Bloomfield Hills, a lovely suburb of Detroit and just across the river from his birthplace of Windsor, Ontario. The first order of business was heading to a professional photography studio, where Aaron, his wife Kelly, toddling son Liam and newborn Libby had family pictures taken.
Then, it was back to the family home for a backyard barbecue. Not a trick was missed hamburgers and hotdogs were grilled, macaroni and cheese was there for others and an ice cream truck sat in the driveway, ready to hand out freezing treats on a sizzling hot day. An inflatable castle designed for jumping kept the children occupied all afternoon (between bites of ice cream).
At 4:30, Aaron visited the kids at C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital, located at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Taking the Stanley Cup from room to room, Ward would greet each young patient with, "Hi there! How's it going? Do you think you have room for the Stanley Cup on your bed?" No one, as you might imagine, was unable to find room for Lord Stanley's Cup.
Each child got a pennant and an autographed team Stanley Cup poster. "There's my ugly mug, right there," he'd say, pointing out his picture, complete with playoff beard. Each child would stare at the photo, then look up at Aaron, quickly breaking into a monstrous grin. It was all most in the room could do to keep the tears from tumbling down their cheeks.
For two hours, Ward lugged the Stanley Cup into each room. Katelyn, Kyle and all the young patients waited their turn to meet the hockey hero. One little boy of 4, who had been flown in from Kansas, was especially shy when Aaron visited his room. Ward spent a fair bit of time with the youngster, kibitzing and teasing. After Aaron left to visit other children, he turned around at one point, only to discover the young lad tagging along behind him, pulling his IV pole as he went.
|At his Bloomfield Hills home, Aaron had friends and family practise their Stanley Cup hoist. Aaron got the real deal; the kids, miniatures won while Ward was with Detroit. (Walt Neubrand/HHOF)
"I just find it so redeeming to bring the Stanley Cup here," Ward explained. "The kids are so appreciative of the visit." It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Aaron Ward was Carolina's nominee for the King Clancy Trophy, going to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice, and who has made a noteworthy contribution to his community.
* * *
After leaving the hospital, Ward took the Stanley Cup to nearby Novi for a visit to Tequila Rain. An area of the club had been closed off to the public, allowing Aaron and 100 guests to enjoy a private party. Wearing wristbands to designate that they were to be recipients of an open bar, the guests enjoyed shishkebob, vegetable dumplings and jumbo shrimp (isn't that an oxymoron?!?)
After 10PM, much of the area was opened so that the public could get a look at the Stanley Cup. Stanchions were erected so that Aaron's guests could still enjoy a private area.
At 1AM, a limousine took Aaron and the Cup back to his house. "I'm going to sleep with the Stanley Cup," he told his friends. "I slept with it in 1997 when we won it in Detroit and the next year, we won the Cup again. This time, if I sleep with the Cup, maybe the Rangers will win it next year!" Aaron signed a two-year deal with the Rangers after becoming a free agent following the Stanley Cup championship. "Aaron is another proven winner joining our lineup, having won three Stanley Cup championships," stated his new GM, Glen Sather. "He brings leadership and experience to our team and adds a competitive edge to our defensive corps."
|By the end of the summer, Aaron will be be sporting bling, bling, bling --
three Stanley Cup championship rings: 1997, 1998 and 2006. (Walt Neubrand/HHOF)
As the sun rose on a Sunday morning, Aaron and Kelly gave Baby Libby a bubble bath in the bowl of the Stanley Cup. Then, Aaron and Kelly and the kids joined his mother and her parents at Gest Omelettes in the Newberry Square Shopping Plaza in Commerce Township. Back at the house, more photographs were taken, including Aaron with the actual Stanley Cup as well as the miniature Cups won as a member of the Detroit Red Wings' championship squads of 1997 and 1998. Aaron also wore his two Stanley Cup rings, and tried to figure out which finger should sport the latest, won as a member of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes!
* * *
On Tuesday, the Stanley Cup Journal reveals how the rest of the time was spent in the Detroit area, including visits to the Karmanos family and to Chad LaRose. See ya!
* * *
Like Aaron Ward, Kevin Shea is a native of Windsor, Ontario. Unlike Ward, he has never slept
with hockey's legendary Cup, although one night, he did sleep in his cup, but he'd rather not talk about it.