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Finding Your Rhythm: Sarah Fillier’s Path to Projected No. 1 Pick in 2024 PWHL Draft | Radio-Canada Sports

Sarah Fillier carried the puck from one end of the ice to the other, passing the stick through two Quinnipiac University defenders before scoring with the floor bar.

It was early December 2018 and Fillier, then 18, had recently returned to Princeton University from the Four Nations Cup, where she scored a goal in her first call-up to the squad. Canada’s senior women’s national team.

She spent this time in the bedroom with her idol, Marie-Philip Poulin. She observed how Poulin carried herself on and off the ice and how she always strives to improve, no matter what she accomplishes.

The first few months of college hockey were an adjustment for Fillier, who had to get used to a different style of play against older players. But after returning from her time with Team Canada, Princeton head coach Cara Morey remembers feeling like something inside Fillier had been let go in that game against Quinnipiac.

“He’s a scary player,” Morey remembers thinking on the bench that night. Fillier scored twice in that 4-1 win at Princeton.

“You could just see the confidence she had in herself,” Morey said. “As a coach, it was a really exciting moment because you knew she had found her groove, basically.”

WATCH | Playing in the PWHL would be “a dream come true” for Fillier:

Becoming number one in the PWHL draft ‘would be a dream come true’ for Sarah Fillier

The 23-year-old forward from Georgetown, Ont., says she’s watched almost every game and is excited to join the league next season.

More than five years and an Olympic gold medal later, Fillier, 23, will likely hear his name called first overall in next June’s PWHL draft.

The team that selects her welcomes a generational player, a game-changer who can see the ice and find ways to score like few others can.

She will begin her professional career after a season at Princeton where she led the nation in goals per game (1.03). Before that, she was Canada’s top player at the 2023 World Championship, winning the tournament’s MVP award with 11 points in seven games.

“Not only will they have the best young player in the world, but they will also have someone who cares deeply about her family, her friends and her teammates,” Morey said.

It’s been a bumpy road, from returning to the college game after two seasons away to learning how to be a leader in the spotlight.

Prodigious hockey spirit

Fillier was about 14 the first time Morey saw her play in a provincial tournament with the Halton Twisters, after people kept telling her she should see a talented teenager from Georgetown, Ontario, a community about 50 kilometers west of Toronto.

Fillier wasn’t the biggest player on the ice, but she was physically dominant. His hands, speed and shooting were on a different level.

“You could tell she saw the game differently than everyone else,” Morey said.

Morey said Fillier saw potential in the Princeton program. Morey also recruited Fillier’s twin sister, Kayla, who Morey describes as one of the best hockey minds she has ever coached.

A woman smiles as she walks past display cases filled with hockey memorabilia.
Fillier walks through the women’s hockey exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2023. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

While they were both living away from home for the first time, being together made the transition off the ice easier.

“She’s definitely my role model, which she probably doesn’t know, and I’m really proud to be her sister,” Fillier said.

After his breakthrough game against Quinnipiac in 2018, Fillier scored 57 points in 29 games en route to helping Princeton win an Ivy League championship.

That first year, Morey remembers Fillier sometimes holding back during drills, not wanting to steal the spotlight.

“I remember saying, Sarah, you always have to be the best player on the ice in every rep, in every drill, because that’s how you will achieve your greatness,” Morey said.

“You have to learn to be the greatest player in the world because that’s what you are. And it was very emotional for her because that’s not her personality.”

The following season, she helped Princeton win the program’s first Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) title.

And then the pandemic arrived.

An Olympic dream

With Ivy League play halted in 2020-21, Fillier chose to take some time off and pursue his Olympic dream.

“I just remember my parents coming into my room one day and saying, if the Olympics is your dream, take a year off and we’ll support you,” Fillier said.

She spent the following season in a gym and ice rink in Toronto’s Leaside neighborhood, wearing masks and social distancing as she trained with national team members like Natalie Spooner, Jamie Lee Rattray and Brianne Jenner.

“It was really good for me because, again, no one was watching,” Fillier said. “There were no spotlights. There was no expectation, no pressure.”

A woman wearing a Team Canada jersey smiles with an Olympic gold medal around her neck.  She holds the Canadian flag behind her.
Fillier celebrates with his gold medal at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As she had done with Poulin two years earlier, Fillier immersed herself in everything, from the players around her. Jenner, in particular, has become a role model. Fillier watched her show up every day looking for ways to improve.

After the pandemic canceled the world championship twice, Fillier had the chance to compete in his first tournament in a bubble in Calgary in August 2021. After his season training in Toronto, Fillier was comfortable with his teammates and the level of play.

This showed on the ice, where Fillier was part of a remarkable trio with Spooner and Mèlodie Daoust. The trio collected a total of 27 points in seven games en route to Canada’s first world championship since 2012.

At the Olympics a few months later, Fillier shined as part of a dominant Canadian team that won Olympic gold in Beijing.

Headlines labeled Fillier “next,” a superstar in the making. When she returned to Princeton in the fall of 2022 after two seasons away, expectations were high.

Learn to lead

“When she came back, I think everyone thought it was going to be easy,” Morey said.

“She’s going to come in and receive the Patty Kazmaier Award – given annually to the best player in women’s college hockey) and lead Princeton to a national title. And it was a really tough year and it didn’t happen like that. She was doing a triple team.

After the Olympics, everyone on the ice knew who Fillier was.

She had to learn to play differently, to lead the team as captain in front of everyone, even if it sometimes felt uncomfortable.

A hockey player shoots on the ice.
Fillier recorded a 30-goal season in his final campaign with Princeton. (Shelley M. Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

“I think last season really made her think about how to become a leader, how to manage expectations when the whole world is talking about you and you feel like maybe you’re under -performing,” Morey said.

A psychology graduate, Fillier has thought a lot about confidence and the role of assertiveness. This led her to the topic of the dissertation she is currently writing. She followed approximately 250 Division 1 female hockey players to try to understand how assertiveness affects their performance on the ice.

The future face of a franchise

In his final season with Princeton, Fillier had a 30-goal season. Typically a center, she spent the last half of the season playing on the wing, a position she had never played before, as she attempts to become more of a “Swiss army knife on the ice.”

“You have to keep trying to find value to add to your game,” Fillier said. “Now I feel comfortable there and I hope I can fit in anywhere on our Canadian roster to help our program win a gold medal.”

She will have the chance to do so starting April 4, when Canada begins its quest to regain the world championship, after losing to the Americans at home last year.

A female hockey player wearing a Princeton jersey carries the puck up the ice.
Fillier is writing her thesis on the role of self-affirmation in the on-ice performance of female university hockey players. (Shelley M. Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

After the world championships, Fillier will aim for the PWHL draft in June. Fillier has watched as many games as she can this season and is a fan of the physicality of the league.

Playing with the best players in the world, Morey believes Fillier will be able to flourish in the same way she did during her first two years at Princeton and in her early days with Canada: by relying on veteran leaders and becoming the face of a franchise.

“These draft expectations are kind of outside noise to me right now,” Fillier said of the prospect of being picked No. 1 overall.

“But it would be a dream come true. I mean, I grew up watching the NHL drafts and seeing those moments for those guys. It’ll be really cool to experience the draft no matter where I go, and just to see women’s hockey being shown more.”

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