NASHVILLE – If it were up to Ron Hainsey, Matt Cullen or Chris Kunitz would have been the Pittsburgh Penguins players to receive the Stanley Cup after captain Sidney Crosby.
But in a sentimental moment during the Penguins’ Cup celebration Sunday night, it was Cullen, who won his third and possibly last title, passing the trophy off to Hainsey, the 36-year-old defensemen who won it for the first time in his playoff debut.
“It was pretty cool to see a guy who’s been through a lot,” Cullen said after Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 6. “He’s played for a long time. Seeing him lift it is really nice to see. He played a huge role for us. He was great, so I was really happy to see that.”
It was a season of firsts for Hainsey. Following a February trade from the Carolina Hurricanes, his very first game with the Penguins was the Stadium Series match-up against the Philadelphia Flyers at Heinz Field. Two months later, after 907 career NHL games, he got to feel what playoff hockey was like.
Now, a wild ride of a season for Hainsey ends with a celebration.
“It felt great. It was unexpected,” Hainsey said. “We won so late, feel like it all kind of went by in a blur the last couple of minutes. Certainly moments here the whole night that we’ll never forget.”
Cullen is likely capping off a career that’s spanned 20 years and 1,366 NHL games. He put off retirement for two summers to sign and then re-sign to play for Jim Rutherford, his general manager with the Carolina Hurricanes where he won his first Cup in 2006. That decision has paid off now with two additional championships added to his resume.
“I love the game and I thank God every day for the opportunity to play in this league for so long,” Cullen said. “It’s a blessing. I just consider myself really blessed to be here.”
The 40-year-old Cullen had over a dozen friends and family inside Bridgestone Arena to share the moment with. He already had two rings for two of his sons, Brooks and Wyatt. Now he can complete the set for his youngest son Joey.
“It’s what it’s all about. I just can’t believe that it worked out this way,” Cullen said. “But I’m so appreciative. It’s such a humbling experience to be real honest with you. I never expected to have this opportunity and to have it work out like this. I’m really thankful to everybody. It’s just nice to be a part of this.”
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