Dave Poulin: Killer instinct takes time. But in the NHL playoffs, you can’t win without it

You can sense when it’s missing, and you know when it’s there. It’s hard to define, yet there are many ways to define it.

Killer instinct isn’t the first thing that comes up when describing your favourite hockey team or player, but it may be the single most important element in sports. And at playoff time in the NHL, there’s no more important trait: You are not winning without it.

You can’t buy, lease or rent it. You don’t go to the gym and practise it. It’s part innate, part developed. You may not know you have it until you truly need it, and it surfaces.

Killer instinct is the ability to do whatever has to be done to win, within the rules. It may come in the form of a critical shot block, taking a hit to make a play or sacrificing your body by playing through injury. It can be as simple as staying on the right side of the puck or not taking a selfish penalty at a critical moment. It’s understanding the importance of a moment, and taking advantage of a team when they’re down. It’s sealing the deal.

I can think of at least six people or moments that contributed significantly to the killer instinct that became part of the fabric of my game. I recognized some of them at the time, others much later.

  • Steve Craig was my left-winger for parts of five years, from my first days of organized hockey at age nine; I had been a figure skater up to that point. Steve was a rough- and-tumble player, even at that tender age. Skilled linemate Eddy Howell and I were able to play freely, without fear. Years later, as captain of two of the toughest teams in the NHL in Philadelphia and Boston, I continued to play the game freely. Steve allowed me to play up on my toes, aggressively. It was the foundation.
  • I contracted meningitis during my sophomore year at Notre Dame and missed part of the season. Playing catch-up academically the following summer, I stayed on campus and trained with varsity football players. I saw a level of commitment and confidence that I had never witnessed in an athlete. Their competitive drive pushed me to another level.
  • Playing professionally in Sweden after college, coach Ted Sator gave me no choice but to be my best. As one of only two imports playing in a foreign country, with a style of play that was very different from the one I had grown up with, Sator pushed me to be selfish, to become a goal scorer instead of looking to pass first. I was marked by the opposition nightly, and the coach challenged me to respond. I learned how to handle a starring role.
  • I joined the Flyers as an undrafted free agent after that Swedish season and met Bob Clarke, with no idea at the time how much he would go on to shape my pro career. During summer workouts, the Hall of Fame centre pushed me. His level of training was far ahead of what anyone else was doing, and he took me along for the ride. One of the most intensely competitive combatants to ever lace up a pair of skates shared some of his secrets, and I absorbed them with awe.
  • Later, as more of a protégé, I roomed with a young Rick Tocchet for five-plus seasons in Philadelphia. The overachieving battler, a sixth-round draft pick, blossomed into one of the toughest skilled power forwards to ever play the game, and taught me not to accept perceived roles. He knew what he wanted, then went and got it.
With the Flyers in 1987, Dave Poulin battles for position between Leafs goalie Ken Wregget and defenceman Borje Salming.
  • The most challenging part of my education came from the mercurial Mike Keenan, bench boss for four seasons during my Flyers captaincy, starting in 1984. He dared me to lead every single day, and there was never a calm moment in those four years. His mantra to expect the unexpected meant constant upheaval. He forced me to be the point person he was coming after, and never wanted anyone to be comfortable. He knew that comfort and killer instinct don’t mix.

Killer instinct is built over time. Eventually, it’s no longer a choice; it’s automatic. That’s when you know you’ve got a chance to win.

Dave Poulin is a former NHL player, executive and TSN hockey analyst based in Toronto. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @djpoulin20


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