THN in Sochi: From Wickenheiser to Poulin, the torch is passed

Ken Campbell
Marie-Philip Poulin

SOCHI – Over the next little while, Marie-Philip Poulin might want to brush up on her Canadian hockey history, you know, acquaint herself a little better with the likes of Paul Henderson in 1972, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in 1987, John Slaney in 1991 and Sidney Crosby in 2010. Because on this wild, magical night in Russia, Marie-Philip Poulin of Beauceville, Que., took her rightful place beside them.

To recap: With four minutes left in the women’s gold medal game in the Sochi Olympics, Canada looks deader than road kill. It looks as though Team USA is finally, 16 years and three days after their gold medal in Nagano, going to take its rightful place at the top of the podium. Then a fluke goal off somebody’s knee, then the tying goal from Poulin, then a host of controversial penalties in overtime and Poulin having the puck on her stick with an open net.

It kind of makes you wonder whether the hockey gods are indeed from Lethbridge. Wherever they reside these days, there is little doubt they paid a visit to the whatever Quebec City hospital Poulin was born in on March 28, 1991. Forget about sprinkling moon dust in her hair of gold, they injected ice directly into her veins. That’s why forevermore Poulin will go down as one of the greatest clutch scorers to ever play the game for Canada. You might recall in Canada’s 2-0 win over USA in the gold medal game in 2010, it was Poulin who scored both goals.

“There’s something there with ‘Pou’,” said Canadian coach Kevin Dineen. “She doesn’t say a lot, but I always kind of catch her eyes and there’s something in her eyes that spells big-game player. She showed that in Vancouver and I think she put a major stamp on that today.”

We keep wondering when the torch is going to be passed from Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser to the likes of Poulin and Meghan Agosta, but their hands are hardly failing. Both veterans played key roles in the victory, with Hefford playing alongside Poulin and Wickenheiser both drawing a crucial penalty and winning the faceoff that led to the winning goal. But as far as Hefford is concerned, there should be no debate about which player is currently the best one on the planet.

“Marie-Philip Poulin is the best player in women’s hockey, hands down,” Hefford said. “To have her on your team, you know she’s going to come through in the big moment. She’s going to be around for a long time and she’s going to be captain of this team in the future for sure. This has been coming for a while. I don’t think she gets enough credit for how good she is and I think she showed the world tonight that she’s the best player in the world.”

That’s lofty praise, considering Poulin is just 22 years old and, you’d have to think, has at least two or three more Olympics ahead of her. On the flip side, Hefford and Wickenheiser might have played their last Games. Then again, maybe not. There was a time earlier this season when it looked as though Wickenheiser’s spot on the team was tenuous and when Dineen came in as coach, he gave the captaincy to Caroline Ouellette. But Wickenheiser, as all great players do, was tremendous in the biggest game of her career. Sometimes great players use these platforms to make grand proclamations like, say, “This is my last game.” But Wickenheiser won’t be doing that anytime soon. In fact, the 35-year-old hasn’t ruled out continuing to play and making a bid to try for her fifth gold medal in Pyeongchang in 2022.

“In the last few days I’ve talked to (Jaromir) Jagr and (Teemu) Selanne and they told me, ‘Don’t quit playing, keep playing,’ “ Wickenheiser said. “I see those guys at 42 or 43 and I think I can play if I decide to…but I don’t make $6 million a year.”

Perhaps not, but if she melts down all her baubles, she might have that much in gold bullion. And that was the currency she and her teammates used when they were down 2-0 with less than four minutes to go. It was suggested to Wickenheiser that, with the experience of the Canadian players, the moment was not too big for them, but was for the Americans.

“Yup,” she said. “I think that’s probably a fair statement.”

So on a night when (probably) the torch was passed from Wickenheiser to Poulin, it was probably fitting that this game would be so difficult for the veteran. After all, these things never seem to get easier as the years go by.

“The hardest win ever,” Wickenheiser said, “and probably the most satisfying.”