Q&A: Marie-Philip Poulin on U.S. rivalry, comparisons to Crosby, equality

Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin waves the crowd after scoring the game-winning goal to defeat the United States in overtime in gold medal women's hockey final at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Marie-Philip Poulin isn’t your typical athlete. At the age of four she ditched figure skating because she wanted to play hockey like her brothers. Fast forward 22 years and she is now arguably the most gifted offensive hockey player Canada has ever developed, no matter the sex.

So it is no coincidence on the eve of suiting up for her country once again, Poulin is thinking about gender equality and not just scoring equalizing and game-winning goals, as she has done at the last two Olympics.

Canada’s women’s hockey exhibition game against the United States in Quebec City on Sunday, Oct. 22 is the first of a pre-Olympic series that features six contests between the rivals.

The two countries will also play on Oct. 25 in Boston, Dec. 3 in St. Paul, Minn., Dec. 5 in Winnipeg and Dec. 15 in San Jose, Calif., before finishing on Dec. 17 in Edmonton.

Canada has won four straight Olympic gold medals in women’s hockey, and the Americans have won seven of the last eight world championships.

Twenty-eight Canadian women have been centralized in Calgary preparing for the Winter Olympics. Twenty-three American women are in camp in Tampa Bay, Fla.

In many ways because of the resources and dedication, women’s hockey has become a two-nation sport. So much so that its future place in the Olympics could be jeopardized if more parity and interest from the rest of the world doesn’t become apparent.

As she gets set for another competition with the U.S. in her home province of Quebec, I spoke to the Beauceville native about the Canada-U.S. rivalry, health of women’s hockey, equity in sport and the comparison of her to Sidney Crosby.

SN: How would you describe international competition versus the United States?

Poulin: It’s crazy. Every time we play each other it gets bigger every time. For as long as I’ve watched women’s hockey, U.S.-Canada has always been the big rivalry. I’ve actually seen it at the Olympics when I watched my first Olympic Games in 2002 and being there and playing in it you can see it gets bigger every time. Playing the USA has even more meaning.

Sunday is going to be pretty exciting. First game of six against them. It’s our first time playing since the world championships. Lots of emotion especially because we lost the last worlds. I think every time you play them there are a lot of battles every time you get out there so it’s going to be pretty exciting. We know every time we play them the bar is raised.

SN: Is the dominance of the United States and Canada good or bad for the sport of women’s hockey?

Poulin: I think it’s good. If we slow down we know they are coming after us. It helps the other countries as well to get better. You can see at the last world championships, Finland is getting better. The other countries are getting more support. If we keep getting better every other country is going to follow. Obviously, we saw it at the last worlds we lost against Finland. Trust me, they are getting better.

SN: What has been the biggest factor in Canada’s sustained success?

Poulin: We have the chance to have so many pioneers in our sport. When you watch back we had Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Cassie Campbell, those girls paved the way. They taught us how to train, how to be on the ice. We have the resources with Hockey Canada. We have nice facilities. You can tell that other countries are trying to do the same as well.

SN: Who inspired you as a young player?

Poulin: I had the chance to look up to Caroline Ouellet. I watched and wanted to be like her. I had the chance to get to know her on a personal level. She’s one of my good friends now so it’s pretty special. I watched her on TV and now I can text her and call her any time I want. She’s been the leader on the team for a long time so obviously I learned a lot as a hockey player and person as well. She’s really helped me throughout my career.

SN: What does it feel like now that you are the current face of the program young players look up to?

Poulin: It’s pretty rewarding. It is something that makes me want to be better every day when I know there are little girls looking up to me. Sometimes, I have to look around to see if they are actually looking at me to make sure it’s me. [laughing] Being part of a team that makes women’s hockey grow is pretty special. Being able to be those role models for little girls and little boys is pretty important.

SN: You are often referenced as the “female Sidney Crosby.” How does that make you feel?

Poulin: I’m not too sure how I feel about it. I get really shy.

SN: Why do you think you’re compared to a male athlete?

Poulin: It’s always funny because when I hear that, we never hear of Serena Williams being called “the Roger Federer of tennis.” Serena Williams is the best in her sport. One of the best in all of women’s sport. Federer is the best in his sport and one of the best in men’s sport.

We as women train the same, we are just not as strong. But when we are on the ice we play with finesse. We make good plays. There is not as much contact, there is not a bunch of body checking but we have to make it known that women’s sport is as good as men’s sport in their own ways. That’s one thing we’ve got to realize.

SN: How would you characterize the coverage of women’s hockey in Canada?

Poulin: It is ahead of other countries but there is room for improvement. We want to raise the bar so we can get paid more. So, it can be seen as our work like it is for the men. We need to get the help from the media and get help from sponsors.

SN: Do you think about how your life would be different if your chromosomes were different and you were a male athlete?

Poulin: It would be different. Other than an Olympic year we are playing in the CWHL. All my teammates have full day jobs. At night, they play hockey then they go back to work the next day. If we had the chance to focus on hockey it would be even better. We train because we love the sport. We think about it sometimes that the equity in the sport is not the same.

SN: You have a brand partnership with Tide, have sponsorship opportunities become more available for women?

Poulin: Having the chance to have a sponsored partnership with Tide, that’s what we want. We’ve got to keep going in that direction. Tide I think noticed some women doing well and they wanted to help out. We have to work on the side to live so having those deals really helps and helps us grow the sport. It is rewarding when someone recognizes what you do and take pride in.

SN: What impact do you think the NHL players not participating in the Olympics will have on your coverage?

Poulin: The spotlight might be shared around the sports. It will be pretty fun in that sense. We always want the professional men there. It is always special to be around them. Not just us but some of the sports that we don’t see as much like bobsled, luge, skeleton. People will have that window to learn about other sports.

SN: The Olympics are quickly approaching. Have you allowed yourself to think about what it would be like to bring gold home?

Poulin: It’s always in the back of our heads. We train for that. That’s what we are focused on when we are in Calgary. No matter if it is practices, games or training it’s always in the back of our head. Whether it is one more rep or anything that gets hard, we always think about that final game. There is not one day I don’t think about it.

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