Dave Poulin never aspired to play in National Hockey League.
He played college hockey for the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a football school not exactly known for developing pro puckers. The crafty skilled center had planned to skate out of South Bend directly into the business world.
By his senior year he had already accepted a job in international sales with Proctor and Gamble.
But a phone call from Ted Sator, a Philadelphia Flyers scout who was coaching in the pro ranks in Sweden, changed the course of Poulin’s career and life.
Poulin joined Sator in Sweden for the 1982-83 season. At the end of that campaign, he returned to North American and joined the Maine Mariners, Philadelphia’s American Hockey League affiliate.
On April first, 1983, he was summoned to Broad Street.
“It was the best April Fool’s Day ever,” Poulin said.
“Ted challenged me to take my game to the next level, to lead the league in goal scoring that year and he pushed, pulled and cajoled me to do it. It was very personal between us, and he elevated me to a level I had never achieved.”
Poulin, who made an instant impression on the legendary Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler, appeared in three playoff games that season. Clarke was so impressed, he invited Poulin to spend the summer training with him. Poulin epitomized the 200-foot player and could have played in any era, given his unique skill set.
“Bobby and Darryl were two guys who really guided me through that first year.”
“Growing up a Leaf fan, Sittler was my favourite player. Clarkie was that player I loved to hate as a kid,” said Poulin. “It was Clarkie, who convinced me in the gym and in my mind, that I belonged in the NHL.”
Poulin points to his relationship with newly hired Head Coach Mike Keenan as being a catalyst for his early success.
“My second full year, Mike was named coach, and I was name Captain,” Poulin recalled. “As challenging and contentious as that relationship was, it worked very well for both of us. We were a young aggressive group, and he guided us to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in his first three years.”
After eight seasons as a Flyer, Poulin was shockingly traded to the Boston Bruins. Leaving Philadelphia was difficult for Poulin, and it didn’t help that the trade came out of the blue.
“It happened before the trade deadline, no rumours, no talk, just a one for one hockey deal.”
Poulin considered it a new challenge, one he was ready to attack head-on.
“It was exactly what I needed at that stage of my career,” he said.
When Poulin arrived in Boston, he entered a dressing room full of veteran presence and skill, led by Raymond Bourque and Cam Neely.
“They were a really strong group of guys in that room,” added Poulin.
“Mike Milbury let us go.”
“He trusted the locker room and we delivered.”
“Raymond and Cam were superstars at the time, yet very different. Cam’s intensity and fire were what drove him, while Raymond was the most complete player of anyone I had ever played with. He was the total package.”
Poulin had a significant impact on the Bruins, scoring 25 points in 32 regular-season games, and 13 more in 18 playoff tilts in 1990.
“My first three years we had great runs, losing to the Cup champions each year. We played 10 playoff rounds in 3 years, but I think the highlight was probably beating Montreal in each of those three years in the playoffs,” said Poulin.
Injuries would plague his time as a Bruin.
Poulin hurt his knee, suffered a broken jaw and required sports hernia surgery.
Unfortunately Poulin, never hoisted the Stanley Cup.
“As difficult as that was losing three Cups in the Finals in six seasons, you had to respect who they were,” said Poulin.
“The Flyers losses were to the Gretzky/Messier team, ’90 in Boston it seemed Messier was proving he could do it himself. The Oilers were loaded with Hall of Famer’s and in all three cases the best team won,” confessed Poulin.
The Timmins, Ontario native was considered at the time to be one of the best two-way centers in the game, Poulin now reflects on how special it was playing in that era against the likes of Gretzky and Lemieux.
“I now consider it a distinction and an honour, as history has decided they were two of the greatest to ever play the game.”
“ Head to head, I saw both in their absolute prime,” Poulin said.
“There were days driving to the rink where it wasn’t exactly comfortable knowing what you were going to face, but you knew even at the time they were special.”
Poulin finds it challenging to select his fondest memory from his NHL days, but being named captain so early with the Flyers still means a lot.
“I loved the role and relished the challenges that came with it.”
The transition out of the game for any player is difficult, but it took an entirely different complexion for Poulin.
“I had zero time to even consider transition, I really never thought about coaching when I played. Had Notre Dame not called, it’s unlikely I would have coached at all,” Poulin said.
“I accepted the Head Coach position at Notre Dame during the lockout portion of the 1994-95 season while in Washington. Two days after the season ended I was sitting at my desk on campus with the Budget and NCAA rulebook in front of me.”
Poulin would close out his career with the Washington Capitals, but boasts impressive career totals with 603 pts. in 853 NHL games.
Pretty good numbers from the would be international businessman.
Poulin has fulfilled countless roles in the game of hockey over his career, but the common thread throughout his playing, coaching, administrative and now broadcasting days is an unwavering passion for the game.
To this day Poulin credits Notre Dame for playing a critical role in his unpredictable path to the NHL and beyond.
“Notre Dame gave me a discipline and focus that I simply didn’t have.”
“It was a higher level.”
Dave Poulin’s inspirational journey in the game continues and is undoubtedly one of the best analysts in the game today.