‘Little details in the game make a big difference’: Marie-Philip Poulin discusses how skills coaching will make the Montreal Canadiens better

Canada’s top athlete has a unique perspective on coaching strategy as she continues to dominate as a player.

Marie-Philip Poulin has always pushed women’s hockey forward, pushing the idea of what is possible to new heights. Last week, she did so again. Poulin won the Northern Star Award, given annually to the Canadian athlete of the year. She was the first women’s hockey player to win the award, and the first hockey player — man or woman — to win the award since Carey Price in 2015.

Winning the award forced Poulin to do something she doesn’t like to do: talk about herself, but even while doing that, the new part-time skills development consultant for the Montreal Canadiens, Canadian national team captain, and PWHPA scoring leader and all-star, managed to deflect some of the credit, as she is known to do.

“It’s very special. It’s quite the honour,” she said last weekend at the PWHPA All-Star weekend. “I didn’t know it was going to happen. Obviously I’m not there by myself. My teammates have been there since Day 1 and that’s why when I got the call, right away I was like ‘how the Hell am I going to connect with all my teammates that made this possible...’”

Poulin knew that she was being brought forward as a nominee for the award, but it was still a complete shock when she got the call confirming that she had won.

The award capped off a very busy year. Not only did she win a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in February, she also won World Championship gold in September, and in between took a job with the Montreal Canadiens, where she will focus on development of the team’s young players. Even while continuing to train as a player, she has made appearances at NHL and AHL practices.

“This year has been quite busy,” she said. “In the summer, I went to the camps and you learn a lot and you watch the game with a different eye which was very interesting. I really enjoyed it. You hear the guys talk about hockey, how they see the game, what are the skills they are looking for. Those are the things I watch and it sticks in my head. When I have the chance to try it on the ice on my own, obviously I’m going to do it. It’s fun and it’s been a great experience. It’s a learning experience. I’m learning about the guys, I’m learning about the game. I’m part-time right now but I’m looking forward to maybe having a bigger role.”

It doesn’t take long to see that Director of Hockey Development Adam Nicholas is passionate about what he does. Poulin didn’t know Nicholas beforehand but it didn’t take her long to appreciate how he thinks about the game.

“Obviously you can see his passion right away,” she said. “You can see the way he sees the game and the skills he teaches the guys... It’s so important. It seems basic but the stickwork, the shots, and the angle, they are all important and now the game is so fast, all those little skills are important. The way he shows video and shows them on the ice it’s always fun.”

While skills coaching is relatively new to the Canadiens organization, it’s not a new concept to hockey at the top level. Some people wonder about the value of focusing on skills, but some of the best players in the game use it, and even someone like Poulin — who is undoubtedly one of the most skilled hockey players on the planet — has benefitted from it. Her history with it allows her to explain why it’s important.

“From a skills standpoint, I think it’s little details in the game that make a big difference,” she said. “In the corner, you’re stuck, maybe you can do a quick tight turn, but having that stick work, being able to protect the puck, those are the little things that are so important and obviously when you look at the big picture it’s not the x’s and o’s that ensure you’re going somewhere but those little stick details when there are big moments, those are going to matter. It’s very important to have a mix of team system and practicing skills.”

It’s rare when you can see practice being put into action, but just a few days after speaking to Poulin, the Canadiens hosted the Calgary Flames. Juraj Slafkovský made one of the best plays of his NHL career to date, setting up Josh Anderson’s tying goal.

In that clip, you see the things that Poulin points out. A quick tight turn, protecting the puck, and little stick details. If that wasn’t enough, Patrick Friolet of RDS took a video last week of Slafkovský working with Adam Nicholas. The similarities are jarring.

Poulin, at 31 years old, is still the best player in the world, and it’s scary that she’s still looking for ways and finding ways to improve on the ice. It’s not always easy for great players to turn to coaching because things they found easy on the ice are not always things their players will find easy. When it comes to Poulin, however, she has all of the skills and knowledge to make that transition.

She is also known as one of the hardest working players in the game. Her ability to involve herself as a coach but also see it from a player’s perspective also allows her a unique ability to explain why it’s effective, and it shows why the Canadiens are a stronger organization because she is in it.

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