They call her Captain Clutch.
And it’s easy to see why: Marie-Philip Poulin has delivered big-game goals for Team Canada’s women’s hockey team in an astonishing string of Olympic and world championship matches. Now the 30-year-old team captain is heading to her fourth Olympics, in Beijing, where she aims to deliver again – by taking back the gold medal from the Americans and by leveraging the Olympic spotlight to bolster the profile of professional women’s hockey.
One way she’s done that is by carrying the Canadian flag into the opening ceremony, alongside five-time Olympian Charles Hamelin. She was the third female hockey player to serve as a Canadian flag bearer, after Hockey Hall of Famers Danielle Goyette and Hayley Wickenheiser.
For all her accolades, Poulin remains humble, squirming uncomfortably when asked what makes her so steady in the biggest moments, or when reminded that the nickname Captain Clutch has really caught on, thanks to her ability to perform under pressure. In a wide-ranging phone interview before flying to Beijing, Poulin nimbly avoids talking about her own talents, each time expertly swerving the focus to the things her teammates do to get her the puck.
She reaches further back into her hockey life though, to explain the roots of her burning determination to score, to win and to succeed. That began in the seasons she spent playing with boys from age five to 15, and the things she heard around the rink in her home town of Beauceville, Que., those days.
“I was by myself and I knew I had to prove myself from practices to games,” Poulin said. “You hear parents saying ‘she’s taking the spot of a guy who could make it.’ You hear that often. I am pretty stubborn and when I want something, I want it. Obviously I wanted to prove people wrong.”
She’d practice against her brother on the ice, or in the basement of their home. She’d scatter family shoes like pylons on her driveway, put on her rollerblades, and snake around them while stickhandling an orange ball.
“I knew I had to prove myself every day,” she said. “There’s moments where you come out of the rink and you hear little whispers like ‘okay, she’s not that bad, she’s all right.’ "
By 16, the French-speaking player had moved from her small town to Montreal, and was starring with Canada’s U-18 team and playing alongside current and former Olympians in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. She played in 16 games for Montreal’s CWHL team in the 2007-08 season and had a team-leading 22 goals, making her a runaway choice for the Rookie of the Year award.
“It was clear at that point that she already was really good, and that in very short order she was going to be at a national team level,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, also a CWHL player then and a Canadian teammate of Poulin’s from 2009 to 2014.
Poulin caught on with the senior national team by 2009, and made her first Olympic team for 2010. She worked to improve her English along with her hockey, and went on to star at Boston University.
She has produced goals in the gold-medal games of every Olympics since.
In Canada’s dramatic come-from-behind win at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it was Poulin’s goal that tied the game with less than a minute left in regulation. By then Canada’s best player, in her familiar No. 29 jersey, also scored the overtime winner. At the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, she struck in the second period of a game eventually lost to the Americans.
The 2018 Games had been her first Olympics with the captaincy, which she took over in 2015. She took the loss hard. It wasn’t until this past September in Calgary that Poulin won her first major tournament while wearing the ‘C’. Fittingly, she scored the game-winner in sudden-death overtime to beat the U.S. in the final of the women’s world hockey championship.
“For her to be able to elevate her game in that moment, when there’s the most stress, the most intensity, the most eyeballs watching,” Hefford said. “It just adds to the legend.”
Alternate captain Brianne Jenner earned the assist. As she flew up the right wing with the puck, Jenner saw Poulin’s number just ahead to her left, keeping smart pace. She hit Poulin with a precise pass, the captain absorbed it in stride, and rifled it just over the glove of U.S goalie Nicole Hensley, off the top bar and in.
“When you see 29 open, you just got to put it on her stick,” said Jenner as the two sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a postgame virtual news conference. “And she does the rest.”
It snapped a long dominant streak for the United States at the world championship, and gave the Canadian women their first gold medal at the event since 2012.
“She’d been the captain for a number of years and Canada had not won the Worlds and won the Olympics, and I think it weighed on her as a leader,” said Hefford, who today consults the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, where Poulin stars for the Montreal club.
“She’s the face of women’s hockey, the total package. She certainly is going to be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest female hockey player of all time.”
Canada won four of its six pre-Olympic exhibition games against the United States in recent months, two of them on Poulin goals in overtime.
“Her peripheral vision is unbelievable – it’s like she has eyes all around her head and her tracking and timing are incredible,” says Danièle Sauvageau, Canada’s 2002 Olympic coach who now trains Poulin and other top women in Montreal. “She plays for others,” says Sauvageau, comparing her to Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin. “She’ll go in the corner, play physical, she’ll block shots. Sometimes you want to say ‘don’t go there’, but she’s not going to stop. The best teams have a glue person, and she’s a glue person that people want to follow.”
Leading any team before and during these Beijing Olympics is a serious challenge, as participants are sealed inside a strict bubble and must obey rigid COVID protocols to avoid a positive test that could land them in isolation or rule them out of play.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful,” Poulin said.
As she and Hamelin spoke to media this week at Canada’s flag bearer announcement – decked in identical Lululemon team gear from head to toe – she harkened back to her first Games, and walking in behind another veteran female Olympic medalist.
“It just reminds me my first Olympic in Vancouver walking in behind Clara Hughes and seeing her with that smile and adding the pride of carrying that flag. It was unbelievable,” Poulin said.
Poulin is one of Canada’s most promoted athletes at the Beijing Games.
She’s appeared in ads for everything from Bauer to SkipTheDishes and Tim Hortons’ hockey cards. Barbie has a Marie-Philip Poulin doll. She’s also in an EA Sports campaign alongside USA star Hilary Knight to promote the video game NHL 22, which for the first time allows gamers to play with women’s national teams.
She said she was uplifted by the momentum behind Canada’s female athletes as they won medals at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. She gathered with teammates in Calgary to watch the soccer team capture gold.
“The more that people can see women’s sport, the more that they value us,” Poulin said. “And the more little girls will be able to dream it, and want to do it.”
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