Mike Poulin Just Wanted To Be Good Enough – He’s Greatly Exceeded That
March 19, 2022By: Adam Levi
All goaltender Mike Poulin wanted to be throughout his lacrosse-playing career was “good enough.” He wanted to be “good enough” to be considered the best teammate, “good enough” to be the best goaltender, and “good enough” to be a champion.
Poulin has felt like he wasn’t “good enough” to achieve those heights for most of his amateur and professional lacrosse life. He has often felt like he’s been surrounded by better players than himself, surrounded by others who are more prepared or more worthy of the accolades they’ve earned. Whether in his junior career or during summer ball, a championship victory always seemed to evade him.
Yet, despite all of that, in recent weeks, Poulin has surpassed a couple of milestones that indisputably insert him into conversations about being one of the best goaltenders to ever suit up in the National Lacrosse League.
On March 4 and then March 12, Poulin reached the historic milestones of reaching his 6,000th career save and notching his 99th and 100th wins in his NLL career. The 99th win moved him solely into 4th place all-time for wins by a goaltender, and his 100th win last weekend made him only the 4th goaltender in NLL history to reach the century mark in victories.
Furthermore, if he were to continue at his average pace of minutes played per game, saves made per game, and wins earned per season (since he began his time with the Georgia Swarm in 2017) through the end of next season, he would be in the Top-3 all-time in each of those categories. This would be considered far exceeding “good enough” by anyone’s standards.
But, Poulin’s slow but steady climb to becoming an elite NLL goaltender has not been without struggle. He will be the first to tell you that he is a much more mature, thoughtful, and prepared goaltender than he was when he was drafted by the Buffalo Bandits in the 2nd round of the NLL Draft in 2005.
“I was so young; I would have been terrible had I been thrown in that spot [in net],” Poulin said. “I wanted to develop, but I knew I had some growing up to do.”
When Poulin was drafted to the Bandits at just 19 years old, he was joining a team that had a gifted starting goaltender between the pipes in Steve Dietrich and had a reliable backup in Ken Montour.
In fact, Dietrich was so good in Poulin’s rookie season – a season in which Poulin spent his time either on the practice roster or listed as a third-string goalkeeper for the team – that Dietrich would go on to win both the NLL goaltender of the Year award and the NLL MVP award. To this day, Dietrich is still the only goaltender to win NLL MVP.
Poulin relished the opportunity to play behind such a phenomenal goaltender, and it set expectations in his developing mind as to what it takes to play at an MVP level. He gained valuable experience watching Dietrich and the Bandits fight their way to the NLL Finals that season, where they eventually fell to the Colorado Mammoth.
“I was playing behind Steve Dietrich, who won NLL Goaltender of the Year and NLL MVP that year,” Poulin said. “So, I witnessed first-hand what it takes to be a pro through a solid year of watching Steve Dietrich in his prime.”
As his inaugural season in the NLL came and went, by the fall of 2006, Poulin had signed with the Toronto Rock full of eagerness to show his growth after playing behind Dietrich. In Toronto, Poulin was blessed to be moving behind Bob Watson – it’s not every day that you get to play with two of the NLL’s greatest goaltenders in your first two seasons in the league.
Jim Veltman, who was playing with the Rock at the time, had been a part of some of the best teams in NLL history while playing with some of the best players with the Bandits and the Rock. Just a few years before Poulin’s 2007 season with the Rock, Veltman and the Rock were in the middle of one of the most dominant dynasties in league history. So, saying Veltman knew how to win and succeed in this league would be an understatement.
Veltman was quick to help a young Poulin, just as Dietrich and others were. The advice Veltman would give Poulin would change the 20-year-olds life forever.
“You have such an opportunity to learn from these guys,” Veltman said. “You need to consider everything a chance to get better, even if it means listening to someone talk.”
Poulin knew that in the early stages of his slowly blossoming career, he was far from playing like Dietrich or Watson, but knew that Veltman’s advice would help him get there. To be the best, you can learn from the best. When he heard those wise words, Poulin would try to never again miss an opportunity to learn and grow as a professional lacrosse player.
Whether it was his first pro start on March 17, 2007, against the Colorado Mammoth, a game that Poulin still remembers in vivid detail, or any other starting or backup role that followed in Toronto, Poulin always desired to soak up as much information as he could.
During his short time in Boston during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Poulin was privileged to again play behind one of the NLL’s greatest goaltenders of all-time, Anthony Cosmo. While short-lived, Poulin was able to earn his first NLL victory in 2009 against the Roughnecks team he would be traded to a year and a half later.
It would be in Calgary, where Poulin’s growth was exponential. Up to this point, he had had five seasons of playing with some of the greatest to ever do it in net and had the invaluable opportunities to be the fly on the floor around so many great lacrosse minds. His stint with the Roughnecks was that chance to finally show off what he had learned in a predominately starting role.
It was evident early on to Roughnecks captain Andrew McBride that Poulin was not only ready to take the reins as the starting netminder but was ready to thrive with them. It was all because Poulin never wavered from wanting to improve, wanting to help others improve, and wanting to be “good enough.”
“[Poulin] is such a great student of the game”, McBride said. “He knew if we were playing a particular team and I’m checking a low guy – let’s use a guy like Ryan Benesch – [Poulin] would communicate with me to get on-hand because Benesch is an elite scorer. Or, when you’re playing a one-on-one guy like Dhane Smith, [Poulin] let you know that you’re going to need help on both sides. Whenever you hear that kind of instruction from the crease, having your goalie communicate that and know where we need to be on the floor makes all the difference in the world.”
Yet, even as his stock was rising, Poulin still needed guidance. When Poulin joined the Roughnecks in 2010, Curt Malawsky was an assistant coach. Malawsky would be Poulin’s head coach just a few years later. Neither of them knew it at the time, but Malawsky would be one of the most integral influences in Poulin’s life both on and off the floor.
“I’m so grateful that I got to play for [Malawsky] and experience him as a coach,” Poulin said. “I honestly don’t think I would be playing in the NLL today if I didn’t have Curt Malawsky teach me how to be a leader and do things the right way.”
Malawsky has always been a coach that expects the most from his players. As a former player himself and as a player that played for four NLL titles while winning one championship, he knows how hard it is to be the best. There are never any days off during the season.
Poulin recalled one of the most meaningful conversations he and Malawsky had during one of the team’s road games to play the Washington Stealth. Many guys on the team had been hanging out at an outlet mall around Everett, Washington (where the Stealth played) in the days before the game.
Malawsky called Poulin out in front of his teammates and lectured him on preparation. It was a moment of embarrassment and shame, but it was also a moment to reflect on not straying from his ultimate goal to be “good enough.” It should be noted that Poulin and the Roughnecks went on to lose this game against the Stealth.
Malawsky didn’t single out Poulin to be a bully. He did it because he understood he knew how instrumental Poulin was to this team, and he knew Poulin could take it. Malawsky was privy to Poulin’s plan to be “good enough” and knew how to get the best out of him. This would be a recurring trend between these two if Poulin ever lost sight of that goal and wasn’t putting in the work to get there.
That moment and loss showed Poulin how significant his impact was on this team. In his mind, he was very much still a work in progress, but to those around him, including to the Roughnecks Captain during Poulin’s tenure with the team Andrew McBride, he was their goaltender, their last line of defense. They saw him as the role model and leader he couldn’t quite see himself as yet.
“I don’t think [Poulin] realized how much of a part of the team he was, how much guys respected him, and how much guys believed in him because he just thought he was supposed to do his job,” McBride said. “When he was doing his job, he gave us confidence. He was making easy saves for us, outletting the ball to us at an elite level, having a positive attitude, holding guys accountable on and off the floor. Being a leader means worrying about everyone else, and I think that’s one of his greatest qualities.”
By the time Poulin’s run with the Roughnecks came to an end after the 2016 season, Poulin had become a different man than he was when he joined the team and even added NLL Goaltender of the Year to his title in 2012. He was no longer an inexperienced goaltender. He was a playoff-tested, seasoned veteran whose teammates always had his back every step of the way.
“From my very first start until I became a regular starter in the NLL, what was incredible to me was how much other people believed in me,” Poulin said.
His peers and teachers knew what Poulin brought to the team both on and off the floor, but Poulin didn’t understand how impactful he was as a teammate, friend, human being until, in his last season with the Roughnecks, he was named the NLL Teammate of the Year. As of this writing, Poulin has now won this award three times, and it has only been awarded five times.
It was the perfect way to end his time with the club, and it was the ideal way to transition to his newest club, the Georgia Swarm (where he became their starter in 2017). In his professional career, Poulin hadn’t given as much of his blood, sweat, and tears to a team as he had with the Roughnecks, and we know how hard he’s always tried.
Poulin cherished every moment he had with the Roughnecks. He wanted to play for an Eastern Conference team only because of his maturation and desire to be closer to home, family, and work. Every lesson he learned in Calgary, Boston, Toronto and Buffalo, he brought with him to the Georgia Swarm. And his intention was not to settle once again, Poulin still wanted to improve and help others, but in his pursuit of wanting to be “good enough,” he still needed to win an NLL championship to even consider that.
Immediately, according to Swarm Captain Joel White, Poulin was able to show his influence on this team. With age came wisdom, and success was inevitable by embracing the wisdom preached by a man whose desire was to help himself and others be “good enough.”
“[Poulin] is a chameleon,” White said. “He can mesh with anyone because he’s such a good person. And then there are all the things he brings on the floor, his wealth of knowledge, and how he goes about his business. Obviously, the numbers and stats back up what he’s done, but, when you meet him, not only does he bring the numbers and stats, but what he does to prepare, how he treats people, his attitude on and off the floor, it makes you want to rally around him.”
And that’s what this team did. They rallied around its leaders such as Head Coach Ed Comeau, Poulin, White, Lyle Thompson, and others. Poulin wouldn’t have felt as comfortable with that kind of responsibility; Comeau taught Poulin a different approach to the game than Malawsky. Comeau knew what Poulin was capable of and was a poised veteran; there was no need for added pressure from the coaching staff or his teammates because, by this time, Poulin knew what the right and wrong things to do were.
“When something doesn’t go right, it’s not the end of the world,” Comeau said. “You can laugh or shake it off.”
Taking a more straightforward, more relaxed approach to the game helped Poulin play some of the best lacrosse of his NLL career. A level of lacrosse helped him be a part of a team that was surging towards an NLL title.
With all the pieces clicking, the Swarm finished the 2017 regular season with a 13-5 record, earning them an automatic spot in the Eastern Division Finals. In that best-of-three round of the postseason, the Swarm made quick work of the Toronto Rock, winning the series 2-0.
To reach the finals in the NLL was new to Poulin and many players on the Swarm. For Poulin, this was his chance to finally win a major trophy. It was his chance to prove to himself and those around him that he was “good enough.”
In the locker room, after the team clinched the series win, Poulin made sure to stand up and tell the guys what getting to the finals meant to him to have a shot at beating the Saskatchewan Rush in the NLL Finals.
“I spoke to the guys about what I thought people saw in me and thought of me and how that affected me and hurt me,” Poulin said. “It was a feeling that I could never shake – this feeling of not being good enough to win the big one. I talked about how hard it would be because we were coming up against a better team. It just felt so good to get to this point, and I could see the guys were all so happy and pumped, but I told them that this is only going to get harder.”
Of course, as we now know, Poulin and the Swarm went on to win the NLL Championship that season. After decades of not being “good enough” to be a champion, Poulin finally did it.
But, even today as an NLL Champion, a former NLL Goaltender of the Year, and NLL Teammate of the Year (multiple times), and with his name rising up the ranks in every significant historical goalkeeping statistic, Poulin is still not ready to entertain being “good enough” to be one of the great goaltenders in NLL history. All Mike Poulin wants to do is contribute to others’ successes.
“I want to be a contributing factor,” Poulin said. “If I find myself not playing up to my standards, that’s when I know it’s time to hang it up. It’s not like I want to play a certain number of years; it’s purely wanting to be able to contribute to a team.”
Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
Mike Poulin took it upon himself to be responsible for his success and his teammates’ success. He embodied greatness at various stages of his illustrious career and now has a resume that proves that he is far greater than “good enough.”
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