Flyers Heroes of the Past: Dave Poulin
Wednesday, 11.22.2006 / 12:00 AM / News
The Philadelphia Flyers have been blessed with an exceptional array of leaders during the team's 40 seasons of existence. Bobby Clarke will forever be the ultimate Flyers captain, but the club has had a diverse range of players that have led by example, from Ed Van Impe and Gary Dornhoefer in the early days to Mel Bridgman and Brad Marsh in the early 1980s to Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins in more recent times.
Then, there is Dave Poulin. Widely regarded as the only Flyers captain who could rival Clarke as both a locker room leader and on-ice tone setter, Poulin had a galvanizing presence on the club.
"Dave made sure everyone felt like a member of the team. No one got special treatment, and everyone was there to do their job to reach the same goal, which was winning hockey games," says Flyers Assistant Coach Craig Berube, who played with Poulin both in Philadelphia (1986-87 to 1989-90) and Washington (1993-94 to 1994-95).
One of most cerebral players in the National Hockey League, the University of Notre Dame graduate possessed a winning combination of hockey sense and book smarts. As much as his physical ability, Poulin's mental discipline enabled him to succeed.
"It's important as an athlete to know your limits and play within yourself. However, it's best to play at the upper limits. Everyone has limitations – it's how far you push the top end of them that makes you distinctly different and successful," says Poulin.
Swapping Skates, Hitting the Books
David James Poulin was born to a middle class family in Timmins, Ontario, on December 17, 1958. As a child, Poulin was smaller than most of the other boys his age. Like many Canadian youths who go on to reach the NHL, he started skating early in life. One difference: young Dave was a figure skater, not a hockey player. Until the age of eight, Poulin was enrolled in a figure skating program.
That changed in 1967 when the family moved south to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario. Once the family settled into its new home and Dave got situated in his new school, he traded in his figure skates to join his first intramural youth hockey league. Already possessing excellent skating technique, he could out-skate most players his age but was so much smaller physically that he was cut in tryouts from several local traveling teams. As a teenager, Poulin eventually grew to an average height (as an adult, he stands about 5-foot-11) and his frail frame filled out.
Poulin was one of the top players on the Mississauga Reps, but drew no interest from any of the major junior hockey programs in Ontario. Instead, he played Junior B hockey for the Dixie Beehives. That suited Dave just fine.
Poulin's parents always stressed the importance of education above sports. An excellent student, Dave's goal was to get into a good college. A student-athlete in the truest sense of the term, Poulin hoped to earn an athletic scholarship to ease the tuition burden, not as a springboard to a professional career.
"We had a defenseman on our team who was very heavily recruited by the major college hockey schools. All the big schools came to see him. He also had a letter from the University of Notre Dame, which he wasn't interested in, so he gave it to me. Eventually, he opted to go to Michigan State," Poulin recalls.
Poulin gladly filled out the Notre Dame application. While Notre Dame was far better known for its legendary football program than for its hockey team, the university was the perfect fit for Poulin. It offered a challenging academic curriculum and prestige in the working world after graduation.
Poulin was delighted when he learned he had been accepted to Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship. He quickly cancelled the other school visits and committed to study and play in South Bend.
A Star in South Bend, a Stranger in Sweden
Poulin, who missed one-half of what would have been his NHL Entry Draft year with a bout of spinal meningitis, recovered sufficiently to become a college hockey standout for the Fighting Irish.
As a freshman during the 1978-79 season, he won Notre Dame's rookie of the year award on the strength of 28 goals and 59 points in 37 games. While the team was an also-ran in the WCHA, Poulin played every game as though the National Championship were at stake. Over the course of his college career, culminating with a 59-point senior year, Poulin averaged 1.42 points per game.
Even more impressive was that the business administration major kept up a strong grade point average (3.25) despite the demands of hockey practice. The grades were never pumped up through "soft" electives and lenient absentee exams. Poulin was expected to attend class every day and complete the same assignments as everyone else.
"The Notre Dame student-athlete experience is all about preparing people for what they are going to do when they are done with college," says Poulin. "If that's playing in the National Hockey League, great. If it's not, they're going to be prepared from a competitive standpoint, by learning from success and sometimes from failure."
Upon graduation, Poulin married his fiancée Kim, a graduate of St. Mary's College. He was also accepted into the prestigious management training program at Procter & Gamble. Ready to move on from hockey and begin life in the business world, Poulin received a phone call from Ted Sator that changed his life.
Sator, who worked as a power skating instructor for the Flyers and was the head coach of Rögle BK Ängelholm in Sweden, contacted Poulin on the advice of Michigan State University coach Ron Mason. Mason told Sator that of all the college players he'd seen, Poulin's combination of smooth skating and commitment to two-way hockey would be the best fit for the Swedish game, which emphasizes constant skating and smart positional play.
Poulin talked over the Rögle offer with Kim. They realized the opportunity to live abroad and for Dave to play a year of professional hockey could open up other avenues for him. Even if hockey didn't work out, plenty of high-profile employers would still want him back at home.
"My background put me in a position to have options in a business (pro hockey) where you don't get many choices. In effect, I chose to play hockey while knowing I could do other things, and that made playing hockey even more enjoyable. There's nothing more you can ask for than options," Poulin says.
Rögle BK was far from a high-profile club in Sweden. Swedish hockey is divided into various levels, with the highest level being Elitserien (the elite league). The next step down in that era was Division 1, followed by Division 2 and so on. At the time Sator brought Poulin to Ängelholm for the 1982-83 season, Rögle had recently earned a promotion from Division 2 to the Division 1 level. Later, the club would earn a spot in Elitserien before being relegated back to the minor league level.
Poulin was one of two non-Swedes on Rögle. Although most of his teammates spoke English with varying degrees of fluency, Sator expected Poulin to fit in with the Swedish culture around him, not vice versa. Poulin learned the basics of speaking Swedish.
"The only time Ted spoke English to me was when he was angry," says Poulin. "The rest of the time, he addressed me in Swedish."
Poulin, who was clearly talented enough to play for an Elitserien club, dominated his Division 1 opponents. In 32 games, he racked up 36 goals and 62 points. Poulin quickly earned his Swedish teammates' respect. But he still couldn't help but feel like an outsider at times – a foreign hired hand.
The Swedish players were polite to Poulin, but conversed in the locker room without including him in discussions and socialized away from the rink without inviting him. While Dave and Kim grew fond of the town of Ängelholm, they felt a little isolated. As a result, when Poulin later became the Flyers' captain, he went out of his way to make sure every player on the team, especially Europeans, felt welcomed and included in all off-ice team activities as well as on the ice.
A Spectacular Flyers Debut
The hockey season in Europe starts and ends earlier than the North American season in order to accommodate international tournaments. The 1982-83 season was still underway in the NHL and the American Hockey League when the Poulins decided to end their stint in Sweden and return to the States, where Dave had a job offer awaiting him in Chicago.
At Sator's strong recommendation, the Flyers' minor league affiliate, the Maine Mariners, asked Poulin if he would be interested in playing for the Mariners during the AHL stretch drive. Poulin agreed. On March 8, 1983, Poulin signed his first contract with the Flyers organization.
"It was just for a few more months. I had nothing to lose," Poulin says.
The player quickly justified the signing, scoring seven goals and averaging a point-per-game in 16 AHL tilts. In early April, destiny intervened again. With just two games left in the NHL regular season, the Flyers lost left winger Lindsay Carson to injury. Poulin earned a call-up to the Flyers, making his NHL debut on April 2, 1983.
Even if it proved to be his only night in the NHL, Poulin was thrilled to simply put on a Flyers uniform. What's more, he was able to so in front of his family and friends, because the game was played in Toronto. And he got to play on the same line as future Hall of Famer – and longtime Maple Leafs icon – Darryl Sittler and rising star Ilkka Sinisalo.
Poulin could not have hoped for more. But he got much more than he bargained for. On his first shift in the NHL, Poulin (playing left wing) accepted a pass from Sittler and beat Toronto goaltender Mike Palmateer to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead.
In the second period, with the Flyers playing shorthanded, goaltender Pelle Lindbergh got the puck to Sinisalo, who rushed up the ice trailed by Poulin. The Notre Dame grad scored again. The Flyers went on to win 6-3. Poulin was named third star of the night.
"Really, all I wanted to do was find a way to contribute something positive and help the Flyers win. You don't realistically expect to go out and excel right away. But sometimes if you work hard enough, good fortune smiles down on you," Poulin says in retrospect.
Little did he know it at the time, but the magical night in Toronto would be the start of a solid 724-game NHL career. The business world's loss was the Flyers' gain.
A New Leader Emerges
Poulin stayed with the big club for the regular season finale and the first round playoff matchup with the archrival New York Rangers. The Flyers, in the midst of making a nearly annual habit of falling flat against the Rangers early in the playoffs, were ousted.
One of the few bright spots for the Flyers was the play of Poulin, with one goal and four points in three games.
"He was our best forward. Dave took the body and never stopped working. He always was a selfless, dedicated, hard-working player," former Flyers coach and general manager Bob McCammon recalled in the book The Greatest Players and Moments of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Bobby Clarke, the epitome of the traits McCammon described, quickly took Poulin under his wing. Recognizing his own playing career was winding down, Clarke worked out with Poulin over the summer and told him he was the type of player who could someday carry the leadership torch for the Flyers. In addition to Clarke, Poulin points to Bill Barber, Brad Marsh, Mark Howe and Sittler as mentors who shaped his approach to the game.
Poulin arrived at training camp in 1983 in the best shape of any player on the team, easily earning a spot in the Flyers lineup. Shifting to center from left wing, he backboned a line with Brian Propp and Tim Kerr. Poulin scored seven goals in the Flyers' first seven games, going on to have one of the best rookie seasons in Flyers history. Poulin tallied 31 goals, posting 76 points in 71 games and taking care of business defensively to rack up a +31 rating. Poulin's 1983-84 season stood as the Flyers' rookie record for points until Mikael Renberg's debut season a decade later.
The Flyers once again suffered a first round playoff humiliation at the hands of the Capitals, hastening numerous changes over the summer of 1984. McCammon was fired as coach and GM, with fiery young Mike Keenan taking over behind the bench. Clarke retired as a player to accept the GM job. On the eve of the season, the Flyers traded Sittler to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for the promising Murray Craven.
Even though Poulin had barely a year of NHL experience, the Flyers' choice for new captain was obvious. The 25-year-old center was chosen to wear the "C" for the youngest team in the NHL.
"A lot of attention gets focused on the player with the 'C' on his uniform, but one person can't possibly lead alone. Winning teams have a strong leadership group. That's something we definitely had in Philadelphia. In addition to myself, players like Ron Sutter, Mark Howe and Brad Marsh had their finger on the pulse of the team and they all led by example. You know who else was an extremely underrated leader on our club? Murray Craven. He was a very smart hockey player," Poulin remembers.
One of Poulin's key roles as captain was to serve as a buffer between the players and the intensely critical Keenan. When necessary, Poulin was not afraid to support his teammates and stood up to Keenan in a respectful way. Poulin recognized that Keenan had a brilliant mind for the game and wanted his club to play the right way every night.
"Perfection is impossible to attain in this sport. But there are variables that are under your control, and that's what Mike Keenan constantly harped on. Never get beaten because the other team was more prepared than you, physically or mentally. There was no hiding from Mike. He figured each one of us out very quickly," Poulin said.
Under the new captain's leadership, the other Flyers fell in line. Poulin's mental toughness and focus were nothing short of remarkable.
"To be successful in this business, you need discipline," he explains. "A lot of my discipline was learned from the academic side of Notre Dame, and that carried over into what made me a disciplined player in the NHL."
Behind the stellar goaltending of Lindbergh, the inexperienced 1984-85 Flyers surprised the entire NHL by running away with the Patrick Divison and shrugging off a host of key injuries to reach the Stanley Cup Finals against the star-studded Edmonton Oilers.
Poulin, who battled through a groin pull to post 30 goals and 74 points during the 1984-85 regular season, missed six of the team's first eight playoff matches after suffering a ligament tear in his left knee in the second game of the Flyers' three-game sweep of the Rangers. He missed the entire second round against the New York Islanders before returning for the Wales Conference Finals against the speedy Quebec Nordiques.
The Flyers settled for a split the first two games in Quebec, losing 2-1 in overtime in Game One before bouncing back to take Game Two by a 4-2 count. In the second game, Poulin suffered cracked ribs when he took a stick to the ribcage from Quebec's Mario Marois. Before going to the locker room, Poulin cradled a lead pass from linemate Craven and beat goaltender Mario Gosselin to give the team a 1-0 lead while shorthanded.
Poulin was unable to play in Games Three and Four back at the Spectrum. Lindbergh was sensational in goal the third game, enabling the injury-riddled team to win 4-2 despite the absences of Poulin, Tim Kerr and Brad McCrimmon. Quebec took the next tilt 5-3 to knot the series at two games apiece.
The captain returned, donning a flak jacket to protect his injured ribs. The Flyers were outplayed in much of Game Five, but Lindbergh (who suffered a knee injury in the game, but remained in net) preserved a 2-1 win. With a chance to clinch the series and avoid a seventh game, the grateful Flyers headed back to Philadelphia for Game Six on May 16, 1985.
The Flyers clung to a slim 1-0 lead after the first period, but found themselves in dire straights early in the second stanza. Minor penalties to forwards Joe Paterson and forward Brian Propp left Philadelphia at a five-on-three disadvantage. In one of the most dramatic moments in team history, Dave Poulin came to the rescue.
Poulin picked off a cross-ice pass by Marois in the defensive zone and raced off on a clean breakaway. The sold-out Spectrum crowd collectively rose to its feet, holding its breath as Poulin skated in on butterfly goaltender Gosselin.
"I knew I had a clean breakaway even before I got to the red line, which is way too much time to think about what you're going to do. All series long, we kept preaching to shoot high on Gosselin, so I was looking to shoot high all the way," Poulin recalls.
Poulin beat Gosselin cleanly over the glove and the Spectrum crowd went bonkers. The Flyers went on to dominate the rest of the game. Lindbergh took care of the rest as team won the game 3-0 and earned a trip to the Finals.
The Flyers, who had beaten Edmonton eight straight times at the Spectrum, took the opener by a 4-1 score. Poulin punctuated the win with a late-game empty net goal. In Game Two, Poulin played with the heart of a lion to earn third-star honors. But the Flyers couldn't erase a 2-1 deficit and an empty net goal by the Oilers in the final half-minute of play sealed a 3-1 win.
The Flyers lost Lindbergh for the remainder of the series in the next game, and the club went down to defeat 4-3. The Flyers came out with a vengeance early in Game Four, scoring in the first minute of play. But Poulin and the rest of the Flyers ran out of steam and had no legs left to skate with the Oilers. Edmonton won the game 5-3 and went on to blow out the Flyers 8-3 to win the 1985 Stanley Cup.
Tears and Triumph
The Flyers roared out of the gates early in the 1985-86 season and once again went on to easily win the Patrick Division. Poulin earned his first of three straight NHL All-Star selections. But the entire season, which ended in a huge upset loss to the Rangers in the first round, had a pall over it after Lindbergh died in a November automobile accident.
Poulin was grief-stricken by Lindbergh's loss, but he summoned his resolve to provide emotional support for the team while helping keep everyone focused on hockey at practice and on game nights. On the ice, he posted 27 goals and 69 points. More importantly, he provided emotional strength at a time he wasn't feeling very strong himself.
"Pelle's death shook every one of us to our core. It shattered the illusion of invincibility of athletes, especially young ones, often feel," says Poulin. "Playing hockey was cathartic for us, but it was very hard to carry on in the beginning."
Early in the spring of 1986, Dave and Kim Poulin learned Kim was pregnant with the couple's first children – twin girls. But tears of joy turned to despair when Kim suffered pregnancy complications and the babies were born extremely premature on October 2, 1986. Thankfully, Lindsay and Taylor Poulin survived and the girls went on to have healthy, happy childhoods.
Somehow, Dave managed to once again separate personal concerns from his job as a hockey player. He posted 70 points in 75 games and a phenomenal +47 rating in the regular season. In the playoffs, he helped lead the team back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"Everyone faces challenges and trying times, and facing them in the context of a hockey season just makes it a tougher test," says Poulin. "But in many ways you learn more from those times than when things go the way you want them to."
Poulin and the Flyers went into the first round of the playoffs eager for revenge against the Rangers. Philly knocked out the Blueshirts in six games, but Poulin, who scored twice in the series, paid a heavy price. In the clincher, he suffered cracked ribs, just as he had in 1985.
Poulin missed the first six games of the Flyers' seven-game war with the Islanders, but returned (once again wearing a flak jacket) to hustle up a pair of assists in the deciding tilt. He was then forced to the sidelines for the first five games of the Wales Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. Poulin dressed for the Game Five warmup but remained scratched from the lineup. Finally, with the Flyers leading the series three games to two, the captain rejoined the squad for Game Six at the Forum.
A fight broke out between the teams during the pregame warmup, further heightening the already sky-high emotion going into game. The Forum crowd loudly booed the Star Spangled Banner and then roared when Montreal struck for a goal in the first minute of the game. The Habs controlled the tempo early. But midway through the opening period, with the Flyers shorthanded, the injured captain came up huge.
The Flyers broke out on a 3-on-2 rush, with defenseman Doug Crossman carrying the puck. Montreal forward Bobby Smith overcommitted to Crossman on the backcheck, leaving Poulin open to receive the pass. Poulin then moved around desperate goaltender Brian Hayward and deposited the puck in the net to tie the game.
Montreal regained the lead late in the first period and extended the lead to 3-1 early in the second period before Philadelphia roared back with two goals in the second. A Rick Tocchet goal at the 7:11 mark of the third period gave the Flyers the lead. Poulin did yeoman work helping to protect the lead for Keenan's team. The Flyers won the game 3-2 and earned a return trip to play Edmonton in the Finals.
Poulin failed to register a point in the Finals, concentrating mostly on his defensive assignment against Wayne Gretzky. The Flyers stretched Edmonton the full seven games and even scored first in Game Seven, but ultimately the Oilers prevailed.
After the season, Poulin was honored with the Selke Trophy, representative of the best defensive forward in the NHL. Earlier in the season, he represented the NHL in the Rendezvous '87 series against the Soviet Union. While Poulin would gladly have traded the individual honors for the Stanley Cup, they were well-deserved accolades.
Hindsight is 20-20
In 1987-88, the Flyers had a tumultuous season. Many key players, particularly Tim Kerr, never fully recovered physically from the playoff wars of the previous season. Poulin was limited to 68 games (19 goals, 51 points, +17), but earned his third consecutive All-Star selection.
The players had enough of Keenan's ultra-abrasive style of coaching, although Poulin and the rest of the leadership group staved off an outright mutiny until after the season. The club went from 100 points to 85 (three points behind the division-winning Islanders).
In the playoffs, the Flyers were knocked out by the Washington Capitals in a seven-game first round series. Poulin wasn't the problem. The captain had 6 points and a +5 rating, contributing quality shift after quality shift.
Now approaching his 30th birthday, Poulin began the slow transition from NHL star to veteran mentor for the younger talent. While he continued to be a solid setup man and stellar defensive forward, Poulin's role as a goal scorer gradually decreased with each successive season.
"I really enjoyed that role of being a mentor, of making a difference for others," says Poulin.
Under new Flyers Head Coach Paul Holmgren, the 1988-89 Flyers posted a .500 record in the regular season (36-36-8) and fell to fourth place in the Patrick Division, barely slipping into the playoffs. Poulin, who battled through a concussion and separated shoulder, was limited to 69 games and 35 points.
But the club came together when it really mattered. In what proved to be the final Philadelphia hurrah for Dave Poulin and the forward nucleus of the Keenan-era clubs, the Flyers made a run to the Conference Finals, before bowing out to Montreal in six games. Poulin had six goals and 11 points during the playoff run, including the winning goal in the third period of Game Five against Montreal.
The next season, 1989-90, was one of the bleakest in Flyers history. The team posted its first losing record since 1971-72 and missed the playoffs. Unfortunately, Dave Poulin ended up being one of the main casualties, although he ultimately benefited with a fresh start. First, the Flyers opted to give the captaincy to Ron Sutter in December of 1989. The next month, the Flyers traded Poulin to the Boston Bruins, in an ill-fated deal that sent Ken Linseman back to the Flyers. The loss of the captaincy and the trade stung Poulin.
"I don't know if bitter was ever the right word. I was disappointed. I wore that uniform proudly, and I was honored to be captain. I think a lot of my success has to come from the fact that I was proud and took things personally. That's the only way I can be successful. I lived the game in Philadelphia as well as playing it there," Poulin said in Gene Hart's book, Score.
The Bruins benefited immediately from the addition of Poulin (as well as longtime Flyers star Brian Propp). Boston reached the 1989-90 Stanley Cup Finals before losing in five games to Edmonton. As always, Poulin was a playoff warrior, scoring eight goals and 13 points. On August 9, 1990, the Poulins welcomed their third child, daughter Kylie.
The next year, the Bruins won the Adams Division, although Poulin was limited to 31 games. Poulin remained with the Bruins as an assistant captain until the end of the 1992-93 season. In 1993, he was honored with the King Clancy Trophy for his tireless work for charitable, community and educational causes. Poulin finished out his career with two seasons with the Washington Capitals, retiring at the end of the lockout shortened 1994-95 season.
Returning to his Roots
Dave Poulin never fully gave up his business ambitions during his playing days. During the lockout season, he worked in brokerage and considered making it a full-time career. But hockey – and the University of Notre Dame – still burned too deeply in his heart to give up the game.
Poulin gladly accepted an offer to become the head coach at his alma mater, a post he held for 10 seasons. As coach, Poulin stressed the same values he holds dear: preparation, discipline, respect, using education as the foundation to develop life options and making a commitment to self-growth and self-respect.
The Fighting Irish were never Frozen Four championship material, but that wasn't Poulin's main goal as coach, anyway. When recruiting, he looked as much for character players as for skill, and NHL clubs took notice.
Nineteen of Poulin's players have been selected in the NHL Draft, including 15 that he and his staff have recruited since returning to the Irish in 1995. One of his undrafted charges, Wilmington native Mark Eaton, has seen NHL action for the Flyers, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins. During the 2005-06 season, five of his former players saw NHL action.
"The biggest thing I've tried to pass on is the ability to do more – to get yourself into areas you didn't think you could get into," says Poulin "I want to develop the off-ice character of the players: mind strength, community awareness, a concern for the less fortunate."
In 2005, Poulin stepped out from behind the bench to take on a new challenge at Notre Dame: an assistant athletic director in development role. Dave and Kim's 20-year-old twin daughters Lindsay and Taylor attend Notre Dame. Daughter Kylie is now 16.
Poulin, who does a little scouting for the Anaheim Ducks to keep up with the NHL game, recently attended a Flyers-Penguins game at the Wachovia Center. A host of media, former teammates and opponents flocked over to see one of the classiest players ever to wear an NHL uniform.
Poulin's long-time Flyers and Bruins teammate Brian Propp said it best. "You couldn't ask for a better leader than Dave Poulin. He set an example, on and off the ice, for everyone to follow. It was an honor to be his teammate and to know him as a person."