She is 22, and drew comparisons to Sidney Crosby even before she scored both of Canada’s goals in the women’s gold-medal final win at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
But Marie-Philip Poulin has always been that way – precocious to a fault and able to score big goals with the game on the line. At 16, she won a Clarkson Cup with the Montreal Stars, and was so dominant playing a limited schedule she was runner-up for the CWHL’s MVP award.
She was the leading scorer on the national under-18 and U-22 teams, and at Boston University, she set the school’s single-season point-scoring record as a freshman.
If she played men’s hockey, Poulin would be at roughly the same stage of her career as Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. Hall and Seguin are two young NHL players, with promising upsides, who occasionally showing flashes of that ability and in the meantime, are being paid millions as they make the transition to greatness.
But women’s hockey is different. About the only time it ever collides with the NHL is during an Olympic year – and Poulin will be just as integral to the success of the Canadian women’s gold-medal hopes at the 2014 Games as Crosby and Jonathan Toews will be on the men’s side.
Poulin is like so many of her teammates – full of charm and backbone, and she’s needed both this year, given her Olympic preparation hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, thanks to a high ankle sprain suffered in an exhibition game in September.
Ever since, she’s spent more time outside the lineup than in it and is hoping to get back playing before the end of month, which should be enough time to get up to speed for the Sochi Games in February.
“It’s been a tough year for sure – not being able to go on the ice as much as I want and not playing hockey as much as I want,” Poulin said in an interview. “It’s my love. It’s my passion and being on the sidelines for a couple of months, it’s been hard.
“I thought I was ready to come back last month, but I tweaked it again. So it’s been tough, but that’s part of the game and I think it’s another thing to help me work on my mental and psychological [side of the game].”
Even though she was part of the gold-medal winning team four years ago, Poulin remains one of the youngest players on the national team, just nine months older than Mélodie Daoust, who, at 21, is the youngest player remaining with the team, which is down to 24 players. Only 21 can go to the Olympics.
One of the problems this year has been the rash of injuries to key players, which left the team with a short bench at different times in its exhibition schedule and has complicated the evaluation process.
“I’ve done three of these [Olympics] before and I’ve never experienced the same amount of injuries or adversity,” said Melody Davidson, general manager of the national women’s team programs. “It’s affected setting up the chemistry of our power play. It’s affected our line combinations – all those sorts of things. But it is part of the game and [Poulin] is moving forward.
“We’ll definitely have her back in the new year. Whether we’ll have her back earlier than that, only the rehab and the time she puts into that, will tell us that.”
Poulin has a chance to be one of the sport’s all-time greats, but deflects a question about her individual potential by noting “hockey is a team sport. For me, being on the national team and having a chance to play with Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette, I think playing with all those players makes you want to be a better player as well as a better person. That’s a big thing for me. They’re great leaders and that’s how I want to be. I think that’s a great model for me – just follow them and, hopefully, win the gold medal.”
In the aftermath of Canada’s 2010 Olympic victory, there was some talk women’s hockey might be eliminated from future Games because of the disparity between the haves (Canada and 2010 silver medalist United States) and the have-nots (all the rest). But there have been some promising results of late, according to Poulin, to demonstrate the world is catching up.
It is a Catch-22 situation – the Canadian women (who also won gold in 2002 and 2006) need the competition to improve in order to preserve their sport in the Olympics, but they still want to land on top.
“It was hard to hear that after Vancouver – that maybe women’s hockey was going to get out of the Olympics,” Poulin said. “For sure, it was scary when you hear that because it’s been your passion since you were 5 – that it’s your dream to be part of the Olympics. If your sport is out of the Olympics, that would be hard thing.
“I think right now, women’s hockey is growing. The last Four Nations [tournament], Finland beat the U.S. and we had trouble against Sweden. Russia won bronze at the last worlds, so I think there’s a lot of improvement.”
Poulin said she remembers watching the 2002 Olympic final (Canada 3, United States 2) on television with her parents and deciding that’s what she wanted to do. Eight years later, she was celebrating a gold medal with some of those same players. Now, a handful of them are trying to do it again.
“It’s unbelievable when I think back – that I have a chance to play with some of those girls. Kim St-Pierre, Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford – those are great players that showed us the way. They made us dream – and having the chance to play with them is quite the honour for sure.”
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