How hockey great Marie-Philip Poulin keeps coming up clutch when it matters most

Over more than a decade with the Canadian national women's hockey team, captain Marie-Philip Poulin developed a knack for scoring the biggest goals. How does she do it?

Composure, creativity, delusion, opportunity all key traits of Canada's captain

Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin, left, is congratulated by teammates Jocelyne Larocque (3) and Blayre Turnbull after scoring in OT against the U.S. in an exhibition game in December. Poulin is no stranger to scoring game-winners. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press)

At Marie-Philip Poulin's first national team centralization camp in 2009, ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, her place on the final roster wasn't assured.

Peter Jensen, the team's sports psychologist, pulled her aside and told her as much. Poulin was shocked. But Jensen, who formed a bond with Poulin thanks to his French-language ability, had a plan: ignore the coaches and their rigid structures.

"You're a goal scorer," Jensen told Poulin. "You're a creative person. They've got to see that. You may make the odd mistake, but so what? You can score goals."

And score goals Poulin did. She was responsible for the only two markers in Canada's 2-0 gold-medal victory in Vancouver. She scored the golden goal in overtime at the Sochi 2014 tournament. More recently, she added another OT winner at the 2021 world championships, plus two more in the pre-Olympic exhibition series against the U.S.

WATCH | Poulin clinches 2021 world championship gold in OT:

Poulin scores beautiful OT winner to clinch Canada gold at the worlds

11 months ago
Duration 2:22
Marie-Philip Poulin scored a fantastic goal to give Canada the 3-2 win and their first gold medal at the worlds since 2012.

In all, Poulin has scored 35 goals over 59 Olympics and world championship games for Team Canada since her 2009 debut. That includes five of Canada's seven goals across the past three Olympic championship games, and four of five in the two victories.

"It's a bit of an out of body experience," Poulin said of her OT winners. "You just want to find the closest teammate and celebrate with them, realizing you've achieved our ultimate goal. It's very surreal."

Through a mix of composure, creativity, delusion and opportunity, Poulin has come up clutch over and over again.

Composure

Now 30, Poulin is set to play in her fourth Olympics in Beijing, in search of her third gold medal. She's captained Team Canada since 2015, leading with a quiet, confident demeanour.

Jensen worked with the Canadian women's hockey team across the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics. He later moved on to Canada Basketball, where he now works with the men's program.

He said Poulin's confidence is comparable to Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Steve Yzerman.

"It's more of a Canadian style of confidence to be truthful, eh? They're not loud. They're not boisterous. They know who they are and they know what they can do, and they've proven it."

Jensen insists that Poulin is the best hockey player in the world, full stop, "unless you can show me a male who has scored four of the team's five goals in two gold medal-winning hockey games."

Creativity

Even as the pressure rises, Poulin said her game plan never changes. She advises her younger teammates to do the same.

"I decide to see pressure as a privilege and not something that is paralyzing. I want to contribute. I want to win and be out there in big moments," said Poulin, who spoke to CBC Sports as a partner of Cadillac Fairview.

Of course, not everyone can simply forget the size of the moment. Some sticks get squeezed a little tighter, but not Poulin's.

WATCH | Poulin leads on and off the ice:

Marie-Philip Poulin is golden on and off the ice as Canada’s captain

7 months ago
Duration 2:51
When it really matters, you want Marie-Philip Poulin to have the puck on her stick. The Canadian women’s hockey captain is known for being clutch under pressure, but for her teammates, it’s her golden character that makes her shine.

Jensen said the Beauceville, Que., native just plays hockey.

"I mean that in the playful sense of the word. She loves it. She loves the game. And it comes through. And so when other people are tightening up, it just creates more space for her."

Added Poulin: "You take a deep breath and stick to your game plan. It's key because if you get away from your game and start doubting yourself, that's when you make mistakes that can cost you."

Delusion

There's also the element of belief. Take the 2014 gold-medal game, for example. Canada fell behind 2-0 against the U.S. early in the third period, and the score stayed that way for most of the frame.

As time ticked down, so did Canada's shot at gold. Near the end of the game, the Americans hit the post on a shot attempt at the Canadians' empty net.

The clutch mindset, according to Jensen, is keeping your focus on victory, however dim the chances may be.

"Is it delusional? Well, it works one times out of 10 or 20. So I guess it is delusional, but it's still good enough. It's what you need at the moment. It's the only thing you have going for you," he said.

Opportunity

Then there's the frequency of Poulin's heroics.

CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo discovered that her hat trick of championship winners is more than any other athlete, at least in major North American sports, can claim.

WATCH | Poulin's trio of winners is the stuff of legends:

Marie-Philip Poulin's golden goal hat trick puts her into uncharted territory

11 months ago
Duration 2:31
Where does Poulin's achievement rank in the world of sports? Rob Pizzo breaks it down.

In Sochi, Canada's Brianne Jenner scored with just over three minutes remaining before Poulin tied the game with 55 seconds left on the clock.

With the game well into overtime, the Canadians were granted a powerplay. Defenceman Laura Fortino faked a shot from the blue line before sliding the puck to an open Poulin on the flank. Poulin buried it.

"People know Poulin now. If you've got a choice — I'm going to shoot or Poulin's going to shoot the puck, and she's open — I'm going to get the puck to Poulin," Jensen said. 

For Jensen, the Olympics — a single-elimination, once-every-four-years tournament — are the most pressurized environment in which he's ever been.

WATCH | Breaking down Canada's Beijing roster:

Reactions to Hockey Canada’s Olympic women’s team announcement

7 months ago
Duration 5:55
CBC Sports’ Jacqueline Doorey is joined by CBC’s Olympic hockey reporter Kenzie Lalonde to break down the announcement of the Canadian Olympic women’s hockey roster and what to expect from the women’s hockey tournament at Beijing 2022.

And the Beijing Games may kick that up a notch as Canada looks to take back gold from the U.S.

"It would mean the world. Canada holds hockey players to a high standard," Poulin said.

Still, the weight of a country should be no stress for Poulin.

"When it's really hard, she can do it and you can count on it. And that's pretty remarkable when you think about it. When you think of what she's done in tough moments, wow," Jensen said.

"She's clutch."

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