The best athlete nicknames that aren’t simply fun-loving absurdity are the ones that serve to augment a particular skill that the athlete possess, elevating it into the stuff of legend. “The Glove” for Gary Payton’s defense. “The Sultan of Swat” for Babe Ruth’s power. “‘Mean’ Joe Greene” for Joe Greene’s … meanness. These traits are further etched into the history of their respective sports because they come attached to such memorable phrases.
Marie-Philip Poulin, captain of the Canadian women’s hockey team, has her own such nickname, “Captain Clutch,” which was gained through her performances at her first two Olympics. In 2010, at home in Vancouver, an 18-year-old Poulin scored both goals to beat the United States 2-0 and earn Canada the gold. In 2014, she scored with less than a minute to go in regulation to send the gold-medal game into overtime, then banished the U.S. once again to silver with the tournament-ending winner.
These heroics alone are sufficient for immortality. But after a somewhat quieter stretch for team and individual, wherein the Americans finally gained the upper hand in the sport-defining rivalry, Poulin returned Canada to the top of the podium at the 2021 World Championships with yet another dramatic overtime goal in the final game. And seemingly inevitably, she was there in the final at the 2022 Olympics, scoring Canada’s last two goals in their 3-2 victory.
At this point, with an international career that outdoes any other, calling Poulin “Captain Clutch” just feels redundant, like when they add those extra titles onto British royalty. Poulin’s name alone is synonymous with enormously important, decade-defining goals on huge stages. And if her apparent at-will ability to manufacture wins for Canada over the U.S. had somehow faded from memory after the most recent Olympic closing ceremonies, she showed up again with a reminder on Saturday.
The exhibition played in Pittsburgh between the two global powers in women’s hockey was far from the most crucial game of Poulin’s career, with an overall chill that befitted what was more an all-star showcase than an Olympic clash. But its relatively calm vibe did nothing to stop her from ending it with a special cruelty. Each side traded goals back and forth, with the U.S. tying after Canada grabbed leads, to send the game to OT at 2-2. Then, in 3-on-3 play, Poulin worked her magic.
Taking the puck at the top of her offensive zone, she moved to her right, made a half spin move at the circle to lose her defender Kendall Coyne, brought the puck down to the red line, and then used her poor angle to her advantage by banking a shot off Megan Keller’s skate and into the net. You could call it a bit of luck, I suppose, but the combination of skating brilliance and calm under pressure make this, to me, a case of Poulin creating her own luck. This is just what she does, all of the time.
Notable about this game, more than the outcome, was the reporting that surrounded it, as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association seems to be moving closer toward a legit league, with the backing of some NHL teams and corporate sponsors. Women’s hockey on this continent is essentially split at the moment into two factions: the Premier Hockey Federation, which superficially looks more like a proper league but lacks the sport’s best players, and the PWHPA, which objects to the state of the PHF’s finances and infrastructure but has so far been limited in its ability to do more than tour through various hockey cities.
Forcing fans to choose between watching the game’s top talents and following a consistently branded team set in one city is obviously an unsustainable situation, and it’s one that hopefully (and finally) comes to an end soon. Along with all the other women who have made their names at the high-level international tournaments, Poulin deserves a pro team that she can call home, where she can score meaningful goals against identifiable opponents instead of PWHPA touring outfits named after sponsors, and do so while being treated in the way a great hockey player deserves. And maybe—just maybe—she’ll end up in a place where some Americans can cheer for her after years of being terrified by her.