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Published April 05 2012

Life as a Cullen: Hockey pro’s wife stays grounded by giving back

FARGO - Despite her tendency to shy away from the limelight, Bridget Cullen knows that good can result from being “out there,” even if only in short bursts.

For that reason, she’s willing to change things up once in a while. She added a few curls to her straight, golden hair, applied a little lip gloss and donned one of her husband’s hockey jerseys for her photo shoot at The Forum.

Still, she couldn’t help but fidget with the jersey. “What should I do with all this?” she asks, revealing the fabric extending well beyond her petite frame.

And then, after striking a few poses on request, she anxiously asks, “Is that it? Are we done?”

Not five minutes later, the jersey comes off and ponytail goes in. “This is what I’m used to,” Bridget explains, visibly more relaxed now that she’s offstage once again.

One might think being the wife of a well-known athlete would produce a different result – an air of privilege at least. But not so for Mrs. Matt Cullen, who stays near to the earth even while making the most of the world she’s entered as part of the Minnesota Wild hockey entourage.

Her mother, Renae Setter of Moorhead, says Bridget’s propensity toward keeping things real goes back to her childhood. Back then her sister, Nicole, oldest of four girls, assumed the role of fashion queen, prompting the second-oldest, Bridget, to go her own, opposite way.

“She wore sweatpants all through junior high when everyone else was trying to be cutesy,” Renae says. Bridget was often forced to raid her sister’s closet for dress-up events.

But now, sitting comfortably in a simple, short-sleeved shirt and jeans, Bridget sparkles, both from the diamond cross that hangs gracefully around her neck, and from what’s going on inside as she tells the love story of her life.

The sparks first began to pop in chemistry class at Moorhead High School in the early-1990s, initially more out of mutual curiosity, one star athlete to another. “He’d say, ‘Who is this girl who’s always in The Forum?” she says. “He was in there, too, for hockey, so it was like, ‘Oh, you’re that girl who plays basketball.’ ”

One day they ended up sitting near each other, though separated by an aisle. When the instructor asked the class to find a partner, instead of turning toward his buddies, Matt reached out across the aisle.

“He just put his hand out for like a high-5 but lower, so I put my hand out there, too, and it just stayed there, for a little too long; it was weird,” Bridget says, blushing. “After that we started dating.”

It was a relationship that worked, in part because their athletic pursuits left little time for obsessing on each other.

Their respective independence and drive also led them to different universities, where they each pursued sports and enjoyed successful college careers.

Always, their romance would reignite during summer breaks at home, only to wane again when school resumed.

Matt eventually moved to California for hockey, and Bridget, to Illinois to seek her master’s degree in nonprofit administration. With no stated intentions from Matt regarding a future together, she decided it was time to forge ahead with her life.

But then she went home for a friend’s wedding and, during the visit, attended Mass at her hometown parish, St. Joseph’s Church in Moorhead. She had no idea Matt was there, too.

“We were sitting in two completely different places, and the way the lines were moving to go to Communion, it was like something in a storybook,” she says. “My line was so slow and his was so fast, and all of a sudden … we were walking down the aisle together.”

At that point, Matt nudged her, and though she tried to avoid his glance, she says, it was futile. “I knew then that I’d always love him.”

Stepping on the rink

In June 2004, Bridget and Matt exchanged vows. Three years later they welcomed their first son, Brooks, now 5, into their lives, followed by Wyatt, 3, and Joey, almost 2.

Like any other family, Bridget says, they do their best to fit many pieces together, with some days more successful than others.

“In-season it’s nuts because basically everything revolves around Matt’s schedule,” Bridget says. Game days are especially rigorous and begin with a morning skate, followed by a required nap, a quick family check-in, then off again to the game; a pattern that repeats more than 80 times each season.

“I’m constantly working with a sitter so I can run the older two boys to their hockey practices and preschool,” Bridget says. “It’s go-go-go.”

Sunday is the one exception – church day that also carries the hope of a sit-down meal together, or maybe an afternoon hockey game.

It’s no surprise the smaller Cullen boys are already giving the ice a try, especially given Matt’s background. With a back-yard hockey rink put in by his father, and a mother always ready with hot chocolate, it was the ideal set-up for a future professional hockey player, Bridget says, though they’d never insist their boys follow in Matt’s footsteps.

Like in the old days of summertime romance, the Cullens come home every off-season to find their grounding. “We can live out of a bag, the two of us, we’re so used to going,” Bridget says. “The kids have been moved around a lot, but they know that wherever we are, they’ll be happy.”

Cully’s Kids

In large part because of this seasonal trek home, the idea to have something to focus on in the off-season eventually became a topic of conversation.

“Matt was getting traded, signing new deals, going everywhere, and I was thinking, ‘What can we do that’s our own; something we’re both passionate about?’ ” Bridget says.

With her background in nonprofit work, and Matt’s public visibility, they wondered if an effort aimed at helping others could be the answer.

Then in 2003, a suspicious mole was found on the back of Matt’s younger brother, Mark. It was malignant melanoma, and even though the mole was removed and the cancer contained, the ordeal helped them decide how to proceed.

A year later, the Cullen Children’s Foundation, or “Cully’s Kids,” – a nonprofit venture to support health care needs of children with an emphasis on cancer – was born.

Its main source of funding comes from the annual Cully’s Kids Celebrity Weekend, a local event. Money raised goes to young cancer patients brought into funding consideration through an application process.

Bridget says the board of directors is like an extended family that came together with seemingly minimal effort, each member bringing specific and unique talents needed to start such a cause.

Staying grounded

Along with the nonprofit work, Bridget considers faith a key stabilizer in her life as a busy mother, though it can be elusive at times. “Last year I was a mess, and I kept thinking, what is missing?” Bridget says. “And then I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I had a baby.’ ”

Bridget realized she was starved for spiritual food. She found a church that included preschool with Bible lessons for the boys and became involved in several Bible studies.

One of them involves Skyping with her sister-in-law in Italy.

“She’s been living a hermit world on a farm over in Italy, with her two kids and Matt’s brother Joe. And I’m in Minneapolis with stuff going on all the time,” Bridget says. “For one hour once a week it’s just the two of us talking about how we can be better people, and that’s such a good thing.”

Bridget’s also discovered an application that delivers a daily devotional to her cellphone. It may be a small step, she says, but gets the day started right.

Though she finds her greatest purpose in being a supportive wife, Bridget says, she knows we can never invest everything of ourselves in someone else and come out ahead.

“People ask all the time, ‘Where would you be without Matt?’ And I think, honestly, I would be fine. Instead it’s, ‘Where would I be without God?’ ” she says. “I would hope that if something horrific happened, I would go right to God. I’ve learned my lesson … that you can’t do it on your own, you’re not running your own ship.”

Matt offers a similar visual when speaking on faith. “He’s told me, and I think it’s great, that when he talks to God, he says, ‘I’m going to just try to get out of the way. You steer me, and I’m just going to try to not screw it up.’ ”

She treasures their friendship and says she loves talking with him about the things that matter most to him. “We have such a good relationship, but I can’t say it’s because of anything I’ve done,” she says. “I know Matt would say, too, that it was all God, in our case, flat out.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Roxane Salonen at (701) 241-5587