Inside Dave Poulin’s ‘eclectic’ journey that’s led him to the Ottawa Senators

Dave Poulin kept the secret tightly guarded.

Only his wife Kim was aware that he was deep in negotiations to join the Ottawa Senators front office a couple of months ago.

“We didn’t even tell our daughters until the decision was really made,” says Poulin.

Into the month of December, Poulin was doing regular television and radio appearances on TSN, analyzing the Senators and talking about the state of the franchise. Little did the audience know that Poulin was doing so with the possibility of quietly slipping into a front-office position himself.

Even the most plugged-in hockey insiders who worked alongside Poulin at TSN had no idea their broadcast partner was on the verge of joining an NHL front office.

“First thing Darren Dreger said to me when I got the job was, ‘That was impressive,’” laughs Poulin.

Poulin says he didn’t receive “a call out of the blue” from Michael Andlauer.

In fact, he had been in regular contact with Andlauer and Steve Staios for several years and they had spoken in general terms about working together at some point. When the Senators’ season was spiralling out of control, the talks with Poulin heated up. The Senators parted ways with Pierre Dorion in early November and fired D.J. Smith in mid-December.

“Things accelerated throughout the course of the first half because of everything that happened. That wasn’t expected,” says Poulin. “Suddenly, it was a thin group at the top. Then it was like, ‘What about joining now?’”

Poulin was unveiled as the club’s new senior vice president of hockey operations during a rather hastily called news conference on New Year’s Eve. During that introductory news conference, Poulin alluded to having an “eclectic career” that has seen him do a wide range of things outside of the public eye.

During an extended conversation with The Athletic, Poulin was willing to shed a bit more light on the unique and colourful path that has led him to Ottawa.

He worked on Wall Street.

He scored a playoff overtime goal with three broken bones in his foot.

He helped lead the search that landed DeMaurice Smith his job as the head of the NFLPA.

And he helped lay the groundwork for building a new arena on the campus of Notre Dame.

“I’ve had an eclectic life,” Poulin repeats. “And I feel like all of those things are going to be called upon now.”

Dave Poulin was shocked by the request.

It was the summer of 1985 and his agent — the always blunt and direct Brian Burke — instructed his client to find a summer job. Poulin was stunned because he just completed a 30-goal campaign in which he inherited the full-time captaincy in Philadelphia from the legendary Bobby Clarke.

“I said to him, ‘I do have a job thank you very much. I’m the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers,’” says Poulin.

But Burke told Poulin that at 27 years old, his playing future was far from guaranteed.

Poulin recalls Burke telling him, “The average NHL career is about four years long. So you’re halfway done. You’re going to work in the summer or you need to go to law school.”

And so for the next several years, Poulin moonlighted in Manhattan’s financial district, working for a brokerage firm.

“In the winter I was captain of the Flyers. And in the summer, I was working on Wall Street,” says Poulin.

Poulin kept that dual lifestyle until he was traded to Boston in January of 1990, at which point he divested himself of his stocks and interest in the firm.

“The finance stuff always intrigued me from the outside. I always wanted to know how it worked,” says Poulin. “I would have tried it after I retired, but it wasn’t for me.”

The 65-year-old Poulin chuckles when asked about his reputation for being against numbers and analytics.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth. I worked on Wall Street for seven years,” says Poulin. “I’ve always been a numbers guy.”

Poulin has not been able to outrun that narrative of being an anti-analytics person that was amplified in the Toronto market. He and Claude Loiselle were ousted from the Maple Leafs front office in 2014 to make way for Kyle Dubas.

The easy storyline in Toronto was that Poulin and Loiselle represented an old-school way of thinking, while Dubas personified the new, open-minded approach that embraced analytics.

But Poulin says in addition to his financial background, he hopes his body of work in broadcasting dispels the myth that he’s against using numbers and analytics to help make his assessments about players on the ice.

“It’s funny people say that because I worked on TSN with Mike Kelly all the time. And I did analytics pieces with him using data from SportLogiq,” says Poulin. “And if you look at the way Sean Tierney (Senators director of analytics) presents his information, you’d be really impressed. It’s a big part of understanding the game now.”

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Dave Poulin, far right, with Brian Burke, David Nonis, Morgan Rielly, and Dave Morrison at the 2012 NHL Draft. (Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)

When it comes time for the Senators to interview potential head coaches, Dave Poulin might be the most qualified person in the organization to lead the search.

For two years — between jobs at Notre Dame and the Maple Leafs — Poulin worked for a boutique executive search firm in Chicago. Poulin’s job was to help identify the best candidates for high-level corporate jobs in America. His firm was tasked with finding CEO, COO and CMO candidates for some of the largest companies in the country.

“I didn’t know what I was doing at first. My first day, I just sat in my office with a whiteboard and markers,” says Poulin. “But I ended up interviewing 500 people a year for jobs.”

Poulin’s most memorable experience came when his firm — Reilly Partners — landed the job of finding candidates to replace NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, who died suddenly in August of 2009.

Over the next several months, Poulin and his partners had to identify key candidates they could take to an NFLPA committee that included big names like Drew Brees, Jeff Saturday and Mike Vrabel. They interviewed dozens of potential candidates before presenting a list of 10 final candidates to the union.

Poulin recalls being extremely impressed when interviewing DeMaurice Smith — a relative unknown who suddenly sprang up on their radar. Poulin was in Hawaii when NFL players would eventually vote Smith into the role of executive director, a title he held for more than 14 years.

So with that experience under his belt, Poulin could certainly be the one helping ask questions to a potential head coaching candidate in Ottawa.

“What it helps with is knowing what questions to ask. And listening to the answers,” says Poulin. “More than anything, I think it’s just being able to judge an answer that somebody gives you. Steve (Staios) and I have talked constantly about asking the right questions. To look at situations and use the experience I’ve been in.”

Poulin played for a wide range of coaches over the course of his 13 years in the NHL. He played for Mike Keenan in Philadelphia, Mike Milbury in Boston and Terry Murray in Washington.

And Poulin believes there is room to mix a bit of the old school, disciplinarian, with the new approach of being collaborative and communicative.

“I mean just look at what (Rick) Tocchet is doing in Vancouver,” he says. “These guys have also learned how to communicate. It’s not different than professors who have to re-learn how to communicate with today’s students.”

No matter who is behind the bench in Ottawa next season, Poulin pointed out that it’s important for Jacques Martin and his staff to build good habits now — setting the table for the long-term coach to take over.

“There are layers to coaching. Look at Vegas, for example,” says Poulin. “They’ve had Gerard Gallant. Peter DeBoer. Both good coaches. And they’ve both applied a layer. Then Bruce Cassidy steps in and takes them to another level. You have to build.”

Dave Poulin doesn’t brag too much about one of his most prized pieces of memorabilia from his hockey career.

“What you probably don’t know is that I have a Stanley Cup ring,” says Poulin.

Poulin was a part-time pro scout with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. He was in Ottawa and watched games in the Stanley Cup Final as the Ducks defeated the Senators in five games. Poulin doesn’t boast about his championship ring because he concedes his role on that team was rather small.

He went to the club’s AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine, and was asked to identify which players could kill penalties at the NHL level in a pinch. Poulin suggested Drew Miller and Ryan Carter, both of whom appeared in a handful of playoff games as spare parts for the Ducks en route to their title.

But Poulin came tantalizingly close to a Stanley Cup as a player, as his Flyers lost a closely contested Game 7 to the Edmonton Oilers in 1987.

“I don’t think about that game too much,” Poulin says. ” The only thing I would change, is I wish we were healthy. I wish we had Tim Kerr. There’s been no regret that we didn’t leave it all out there. We only had one Hall of Famer and they had seven. And we pushed them to the brink.”

Poulin is hoping to inject some of his playoff mentality into the Senators dressing room, where a young club has yet to find its way to the postseason. Poulin can share stories of three trips to the Stanley Cup Final, as well as three additional trips to the final four.

When Poulin speaks to Senators players about determination and dedication, he can do so with a level of authority that nobody can question.

During Game 1 of the 1989 Wales Conference final, Poulin broke three bones in his foot blocking a slap shot from Chris Chelios.

Poulin required crutches to walk on off days, but he never missed a single game of that series, requiring an anesthesiologist to freeze his foot just prior to each game starting. On the night of Game 5 at the Montreal Forum, the Flyers anesthesiologist was late arriving to the arena and Poulin couldn’t even take the warmup skate 30 minutes before puck drop. But after getting his foot frozen, Poulin ultimately scored the overtime winner past Patrick Roy to stave off elimination.

“I never considered myself an offensive player,” says Poulin. “It was a mentality more than anything.”

Dave Poulin says he has “too many memories” of visiting Ottawa during his childhood to list them all.

His grandmother owned a house on Byron near Woodroffe, in the McKellar Park neighbourhood of the city. He fondly remembers going to Rough Riders games at Lansdowne Park and watching Russ Jackson at quarterback. Or slipping into the Civic Centre to watch Denis Potvin and Peter Lee play for the ’67s.

“This is so exciting for me. It’s a new chapter, but I have ties to the area,” says Poulin.

Given his intimate knowledge of the market — both from his childhood and having covered the Senators extensively for the past decade — Poulin seems excited about the notion of a new arena near the downtown core. And not surprisingly, his previous work experience could be valuable to the Senators.

After wrapping his coaching career at Notre Dame, Poulin spent two years as the assistant athletics director in development. One of his key roles was spearheading fundraising for the school’s new arena project.

“I was involved on the front end stuff. The really early stages, like helping with finances more than actual arena design,” says Poulin. “But I would love to do some arena stuff here.”

Poulin says his role with the Senators will be all-encompassing and will stretch into the business side of the organization too.

“My job is to make the Ottawa Senators a championship hockey team. And so whatever role falls within that. The main thing is supporting Michael Andlauer and Steve Staios in decision making,” says Poulin. “And every part of my experience is going to be utilized.”

(Photo of Dave Poulin: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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