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Finding the Right Path: Sarah Fillier’s Path to Presumptive Top Pick in the 2024 PWHL Draft | CBC Sports

Sarah Fillier carried the puck from one end of the ice to the other, stickhandling through two Quinnipiac University defenders before scoring off the crossbar.

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

She spent this time with her idol Marie-Philip Poulin. She watched how Poulin carried herself on and off the ice and how she always strived to get better, no matter what she accomplished.

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

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

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

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

For Sarah Fillier, it would be “a dream come true” to land No. 1 in the PWHL draft

The 23-year-old forward from Georgetown, Ont., says she has seen almost every game and is looking forward to joining the league next season.

More than five years and an Olympic gold medal later, the 23-year-old Fillier will likely be selected first overall in the PWHL draft this June.

The team that recruits her is getting a generational player, a game-changer who can see the ice and find ways to score like no one else.

She begins her professional career immediately after a season at Princeton, where she led the country in goals per game (1.03). She was previously Canada’s best player at the 2023 World Cup and was named tournament MVP with 11 points in seven games.

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

It’s been a journey that has come with its fair share of hurdles, from returning to the college game after a two-season absence to learning how to be a leader in the bright spotlight.

Amazing hockey spirit

Fillier was about 14 years old when Morey first saw her play in a provincial tournament with the Halton Twisters, after being repeatedly told she needed to see a talented teenager from Georgetown, Ont., a community about 50 kilometers west of Toronto .

Fillier wasn’t the tallest player on the ice, but she was physically dominant. Her hands, speed and shot were on another level.

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

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

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

Since both were 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 her breakout game against Quinnipiac in 2018, Fillier scored 57 points in 29 games and helped Princeton to an Ivy League championship.

Morey remembers that Fillier sometimes held back during practices that first year because he didn’t want to be in the spotlight.

“I remember saying, Sarah, you have to be the best player on the ice every rep and every drill because that’s the only way you’re going to achieve your greatness,” Morey said.

“You have to learn to be okay with being the best player in the world because that’s who you are. And it was really emotional for her because it’s not her personality.”

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

And then the pandemic happened.

An Olympic dream

Since play in the Ivy League was suspended in 2020-21, Fillier decided to take some time off and pursue her Olympic dream.

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

She spent the next season at a gym and rink in Toronto’s Leaside neighborhood, wearing masks and social distancing while training with national team members including Natalie Spooner, Jamie Lee Rattray and Brianne Jenner.

“It was definitely good for me because, again, no one was there watching,” Fillier said. “There was no spotlight. There were no expectations, no pressure.”

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

As she had done with Poulin two years earlier, Fillier absorbed everything from the players around her. Jenner in particular became a role model. Fillier watched her show up every day looking for ways to get better.

After the World Cup was canceled twice due to the pandemic, Fillier got the chance to play in her first tournament in a bubble in Calgary in August 2021. After her season training in Toronto, Fillier felt comfortable with her teammates and the level of play.

This was evident on the ice, where Fillier was part of an outstanding line along with Spooner and Mèlodie Daoust. The trio totaled 27 points in seven games en route to Canada’s first World Cup since 2012.

At the Olympic Games a few months later, Fillier shined with a dominant Team Canada that won Olympic gold in Beijing.

Headlines called Fillier “the next,” a superstar in the making. When she returned to Princeton in the fall of 2022 after a two-season absence, expectations were high.

Learn how to lead

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

“She will come in and be handed over [the Patty Kazmaier Award — annually given to women’s college hockey’s best player] and led Princeton to a national title. And it was a really challenging year and that’s not what happened. She got triple-teamed.”

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

She had to learn to play differently, to lead as captain of the team and to keep all eyes on her, even if it felt uncomfortable at times.

An ice hockey player hits the ice.
Fillier posted a 30-goal season in her final season at Princeton. (Shelley M. Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

“I think last season really made her think about how to be a leader and how to deal with expectations when the whole world is talking about you and you feel like maybe you’re underperforming.” said Morey.

Fillier studied psychology and thought a lot about self-confidence and the role of self-affirmation. It led her to the topic of her thesis, which she is now writing. She observed approximately 250 Division 1 female hockey players to understand how self-affirmation affected their performance on the ice.

The future face of a franchise

In her final season at Princeton, Fillier posted a 30-goal season. Typically a center player, she spent the last half of the season playing on the wing, a position she had never played before, as she tries to become more of a “Swiss Army Knife on the ice.”

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

They will have the chance to do so starting April 4, when Canada begins its quest to recapture the World Cup after losing to the Americans on home soil last year.

An ice hockey player wearing a Princeton jersey carries the puck on the ice.
Fillier is writing her dissertation on the role of self-affirmation in college hockey players’ on-ice performance. (Shelley M. Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

According to Welten, Fillier will have his sights set on the PWHL draft in June. Fillier has seen as many games as possible this season and is a fan of the physicality of the league.

Playing with the best players in the world, Morey believes Fillier will succeed in the same way she did in her first two years at Princeton and in her debut in Canada: by relying on experienced leaders and growing into the face of a player Franchise.

“Those draft expectations are kind of outside noise to me right now,” Fillier said of the prospect of going first overall.

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

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