Carolina Hurricanes

Healthy Cullen optimistic

Matt Cullen took the ice Monday at the RecZone, skating, working hard, once setting up Justin Williams for a goal, later taking a hit from Niclas Wallin along the boards.

For those who may have questions about Cullen, about his overall health or any lingering vision problems, the Carolina Hurricanes center had a quick answer.

"I feel good," he said after his first informal workout. "Everything feels good.

"I've been skating a lot this summer and haven't had any issues. I'm looking forward to feeling good and playing at 100 percent."

Last season was mostly nightmarish for the veteran forward. On the day after Christmas, in New York, Cullen was brutally blindsided by the Rangers' Colton Orr, hitting the ice face-first.

"It was right in front of the bench, and it was scary," the Canes' Ray Whitney said Monday. "I saw the whites of his eyes. I knew he was in a lot of trouble."

Cullen was knocked senseless. He said he was never told if he suffered a Grade 3 concussion -- "No one gave me any numbers," he said -- but the aftereffects were lasting, troubling.

Cullen could skate, could practice, could handle the puck, but his vision was impaired. He said he couldn't "see things on the ice normally" and had a hard time focusing from near to far.

"It was the first major injury I've ever had, so it was no fun, that's for sure," he said. "Concussions are pretty commonplace in our league now. I didn't enjoy it, but I didn't worry a lot.

"I just wanted it to take less time [to recover]. It seemed like it took forever. That was the most concerning part."

Cullen played soon after the injury but lasted one period. There were headaches and fatigue.

"Vision is a big part of everyone's game, seeing plays on the ice, but there's also everyday life," Whitney said. "As a player, you go home at the end of the day and you're a family man. He'd go home with headaches, not being able to get out of bed, not being able to focus on things.

"We felt for him, for sure."

And they badly missed him. Cullen, Canes coach Peter Laviolette said, is one of the team's most valuable players, able to fill several roles.

"Matt's a dynamic player for us when he's healthy," Laviolette said. "We rely on him for a lot of different reasons -- to be a big player down the middle at center, on the power play, he's killed some penalties, he can play point in the power play. He's a smart player defensively.

"He's also a great person to have in the locker room. He's one of those contagious guys. So when he's not there, we miss him."

By year's end, Cullen had missed a total of 23 games in what he called an "ongoing saga," suffering a second concussion March 12 in Chicago after a nasty hit near the boards.

"I felt everything was back to normal, and I was feeling really good before the one in Chicago," he said. "It was a real minor deal, but it wound up taking longer because it was the second time."

Cullen consulted with several physicians, including Mike Peters, the team's eye doctor, concussion expert Kevin Guskiewicz at UNC, and Cary neuro-optometrist Susan Durham. He also saw a specialist in Denver.

"I had good people taking care of me, so I never had a doubt I would feel good eventually," Cullen said.

Cullen did make it back for the last two games of the season, playing almost 18 minutes in the final game against Florida. The Panthers won 4-3, costing the Hurricanes a playoff berth and leaving some to question if Cullen -- and other veterans such as Whitney and Williams, who were coming off injuries -- should have been rushed back into the lineup.

"I don't know," Cullen said. "Hindsight is 20-20. If there's any chance you can play in a game like that, you're going to play. I felt like I could play and help.

"It was a tough game. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth all summer. But there's nothing we can do about it except look ahead."

Cullen, who spends the offseason in Fargo, N.D., said he would have been in Raleigh last week had his wife, Bridget, not given birth to a son. An integral part of Carolina's Stanley Cup run in 2006, he believes the Canes can again be a contender.

"I like the group we have," he said. "We've got some good additions. There's a feeling of optimism around here."