PWHL

Finding her stride: Sarah Fillier's path to projected top pick in 2024 PWHL draft

Fillier, 23, is poised to star for Canada again at April's world championship. She was named MVP of last year's tournament.

Last year's world championship MVP is poised to star for Canada again this April

A female hockey player in a red Team Canada jersey smiles and celebrates on the ice.
Team Canada's star forward Sarah Fillier is projected to be the top pick in the 2024 PWHL draft. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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

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

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

The first couple months of college hockey had been an adjustment for Fillier, who needed to get used 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 let go in that game against Quinnipiac.

"This is a scary player," Morey remembers thinking on the bench that night. Fillier scored twice in that 4-1 Princeton win.

"You could just see the confidence build in her," Morey said. "As a coach, it was a really exciting moment because you knew she found her stride, essentially."

WATCH | Playing in PWHL would be 'a dream come true' for Fillier:

Going No. 1 in PWHL draft 'would be a dream come true' for Sarah Fillier

4 months ago
Duration 0:55
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, 23-year-old Fillier is likely to hear her name called first overall in this June's PWHL draft.

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

She'll start her pro career fresh off a season with Princeton where she led the country in goals per game (1.03). Before that, she was Canada's best player at the 2023 world championship, earning tournament MVP honours with 11 points in seven games.

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

It's been a path that's included some bumps in the road, from returning to the college game after two seasons away to learning how to be a leader under a bright spotlight.

Prodigious hockey mind

Fillier was around 14 years old the first time Morey saw her play at a provincial tournament with the Halton Twisters, after people kept telling her she had to see a talented teenager from Georgetown, Ont., a community about 50 kilometres west of Toronto.

Fillier wasn't the biggest player on the ice, but she was physically dominant. Her hands, speed and shot were on a different level.

"You could just tell she saw the game differently than everybody else," Morey said.

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

With both living away from home for the first time, being together helped the transition off the ice.

"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 went on to score 57 points in 29 games en route to helping Princeton to an Ivy League championship.

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

"I remember saying, Sarah, you have to always be the best player on the ice in every rep, in every drill because that's how you're going to reach your greatness," Morey said.

"You have to learn to be OK being the greatest 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

With play in the Ivy League shut down in 2020-21, Fillier opted to take time away and chase her Olympic dream.

"I just remember my parents kind of 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 in a gym and rink in Toronto's Leaside neighbourhood, wearing masks and social distancing as she trained with national team members like 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 in a Team Canada jersey smiles with an Olympic gold medal around her neck. She's holding the Canadian flag behind her.
Fillier celebrates with her gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2022. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Like she did with Poulin two years earlier, Fillier soaked in 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 pandemic cancelled the world championship twice, Fillier got the chance to play at her first tournament in a bubble in Calgary in August 2021. After her season training in Toronto, Fillier was comfortable with her teammates and the level of play.

It showed on the ice, where Fillier was part of a standout line with Spooner and Mèlodie Daoust. The trio put up a combined 27 points in seven games en route to Canada's first world championship since 2012. 

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

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

Learning how to lead

"When she came back, I think the assumption from everybody was just, this is going to be easy," Morey said.

"She's going to walk in and be handed [the Patty Kazmaier Award — annually given to women's college hockey's best player] and lead Princeton to a national title. And it was a really challenging year and it didn't happen like that. She was getting triple teamed."

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

She had to learn how to play a different way, how to lead as the team's captain with everyone's eyes on her, even if it felt uncomfortable at times.

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

"I think that going through last season really made her kind of reflect on 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 major, Fillier thought a lot about confidence and the role of self-affirmation. It led her to the topic of the thesis she's writing now. She's tracked about 250 female Division 1 hockey players to try to understand how self-affirmation affects their performance on the ice.

The future face of a franchise

In her final season with Princeton, Fillier put up a 30-goal season. Typically a centre, she spent the last half of the season playing on the wing, a position she'd never played before, as she tries to become more of a "Swiss Army knife on the ice."

"You have to continue to try and find value to add to your game," Fillier said. "Now I'm comfortable there and hopefully I can fit kind of anywhere in our Canadian lineup to help our program win a gold medal."

She'll have the chance to do that starting on April 4, when Canada begins its quest to reclaim the world championship, after losing to the Americans on home soil last year.

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

After worlds, Fillier will have her sights set on June's PWHL draft. Fillier watched as many games as she could this season and is a fan of the league's physicality.

Playing with the best players in the world, Morey thinks Fillier will be able to thrive in the same way she did in her first two years in Princeton and in her debut with Canada: by relying on veteran leaders and growing into becoming the face of a franchise.

"Those expectations about the draft are kind of outside noise for me right now," Fillier said about the prospect of being taken first overall.

"But it would be a dream come true. I mean, I've grown up watching NHL drafts and kind of 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 get shown more."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. You can reach her at karissa.donkin@cbc.ca.

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