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Boys hockey state player of the year Ridgefield’s Cullinana leader by example

May 5, 2019

It wasn’t fated from the day Nick Cullinan was born. It took two days.

Bobby Cullinan, his oldest brother, had a house league game that day, didn’t want to miss it. So Nick Cullinan made his debut at the Winter Garden in Ridgefield, he said, at two days old.

“I’ve literally been there my entire life,” said Cullinan, GameTimeCT’s boys hockey player of the year after a standout senior season at Ridgefield. “It’s been a wild ride at the Winter Garden.”

Nick had been actually skating at the rink since he was 2 or 3, starting in the Learn to Skate program (”you’re always learning to skate,” he said). He started playing hockey at around 6, watched his brothers play there right up through their years at Wilton.

The family moved from Wilton to Ridgefield in time for Nick Cullinan’s freshman year. That worked out all right for both him the Tigers, who have won the past three FCIAC championships and the 2017 state title, with Cullinan a key contributor.

To take a freshman at a varsity program like Ridgefield, he’d either be a special player or fill the right spot, coach Shaun Gallagher said. And with Cullinan, it was a bit of both.

A year later, Cullinan, classmate Will Forrest and senior Jack Stafford were a big part of the Tigers’ first Division I championship. They each scored a goal in the final, Cullinan opening the scoring in a 6-2 win over Northwest Catholic.

“His parents raised him really well. He’s not going to go along with the crowd: If he thinks it’s not right, he’s not going to do it,” Gallagher said. “It’s really cool to watch a kid his age be that strong in his stances. I guess you’d call that leadership.”

Classmate and all-state goalie Sean Gordon called Cullinan a natural leader.

“Especially for hard work, whether it’s lifting, in practice, in games, he’s always going to be one to fire people up,” Gordon said, “motivate people to push themselves, no matter how tired they are.”

Matt Walker stepped in for Stafford the next year on the right wing, Cullinan on the left, Forrest in the middle. They were a strong line again as juniors and the state’s best trio as seniors.

This, in a sport where the best (and some who aren’t) often leave early for prep schools or junior programs. He will wind up at Taft next year, but not before playing four years for the Tigers, and playing first base for the school’s baseball team, among the top teams in the state.

“My heart was at Ridgefield,” Cullinan said.

“A bunch of people thought it was a good idea (to go elsewhere), but I made a commitment freshman year. I pretty much promised Coach Gallagher I’d be there four years. I wanted to see it to the end.”

Cullinan scored 38 goals and added 28 assists for Ridgefield this year.

“For Nick, it’s always been a matter of improving that footspeed, and he did,” Gallagher said. “For me, that was the big difference between the first three years and this season.”

The Tigers won their first 22 games (beating eventual state champion Fairfield Prep twice in the regular season) before Xavier upset them in overtime in the Division I semifinals.

“Being senior year, you’ll never really get over that,” Cullinan said.

“We gave it everything we had for 23 games. If you told me, ‘in 23 games you play in the season ... there’d be one bad game,’ I’d have taken it. It happened to come at the worst possible time. That’s high school sports for you. Not many people can say they won three conference championships and a state title.”

The Tigers will miss Cullinan’s passion for the game next year, and the infectious joy he has been bringing to the Winter Garden since Day 2.

“We’re going to see how much he’s meant to our team when he’s not there,” Gallagher said. “To replace his scoring, his leadership, his impact on the program, it’s going to be a tall task.

“The good news is the young guys .. have been around him. A guy like Nick helps continue that level of work ethic and seriousness.”

mfornabaio@ctpost.com