‘Generational talent’ Sarah Fillier exceeds high expectations ahead of Beijing Games

Canadian striker Sarah Fillier, right, celebrates a goal during a match against Sweden on Friday. (Andrew Lahodynskyj/The Canadian Press – image credit)

Those who know Sarah Fillier expected her to turn heads at the Olympics. But as the women’s hockey tournament progresses, the 21-year-old finds ways to surprise them too.

Prior to the start of the competition, Princeton head coach Cara Morey warned analysts that Fillier’s contributions might not be obvious from the stat sheet.

“If you expect her to score a ton of goals, you might be disappointed because she’s more of a playmaker,” Morey recalled. “But if you look at what she does with the puck and away from the puck, you’re going to realize she’s one of the greatest players we’ve seen.

“And then she goes and leads the Olympics in scoring!”

With eight goals and two assists in five games, Fillier is tied for first in goals and fifth overall in points. She was so dominant that a game in which she helped set up the opening goal is her least notable performance.

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Although Morey’s prediction may seem foolish in hindsight, she was only half wrong. Fillier’s movement off the puck and his ability to read the game formed the basis of the 5-foot-5 center’s success.

“She just has that extra sense,” said two-time Olympic champion Cheryl Pounder, who is a CBC broadcasts analyst. “She knows where to be, how to get to a weak spot with good timing. She’ll take two crosses out of the spot in order to get the [defence] turn your feet.

“You very rarely see her driving the net when he’s not there, or forcing a play around the net. If she doesn’t think she can beat you one-on-one, she’ll stop, she’ll create space, it will open a way for someone else.”

Bradi Cochrane, who coached Fillier in high school, first saw the budding star when he was 13.

“At that age, his skill level was definitely above his peers,” Cochrane told CBC Sports. “But I think the most important thing was the way she thought about the game. You could honestly see her scanning the ice every shift and seeing what was going on and how to attack defensive and offensive players.”

As he got older, says Cochrane, Fillier began to focus on the details of the game. If a teammate excels at a drill, Fillier immediately seeks to understand how: does he move the defender’s feet? Did they move the stick? did they slow down?

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Even as the best player in her age group, she was always looking to add another element to her game, asking her coaches questions. It didn’t stop.

“She doesn’t think she’s fully developed in any way,” Morey said. “She’s super humble. She knows she has a long way to go, so she wants to learn.”

In recent years, Fillier has focused on applying her diverse range of skills to incite and exploit vulnerabilities in her opponents. The fruits of those efforts were evident on the Olympic ice.

“She started to really think, ‘How can I manipulate the feet of defense in the neutral zone?'” Cochrane explained. “She’s really starting to put those little skills that she has [to strategic use]and tackles the weaknesses she can now create, but also see.”

Fillier and Cochrane still occasionally analyze video together, and Fillier was keen to assess every little detail that contributes to successful play, from body positioning to edge work. Thanks to her combination of speed, intelligence and skill, she is able to quickly translate her learnings into game situations.

While she’s never flinched under the pressure of high-stakes competition, Fillier isn’t one to seek the spotlight either. Morey and Cochrane describe her as incredibly humble, with a family that keeps her grounded. Being the center of attention required some tweaking.

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In the fall of his sophomore year, Morey noticed Fillier performing drills in practice, letting the others finish first. This led to a moving conversation.

She wanted to be the best, but Fillier worried that constantly winning everything would seem conceited.

“It’s not who you are,” Morey told him. “You just need to win every race, you need to win every battle. Being the greatest, you have to carry that burden.”

If her performance in Beijing is any indication, she managed to adapt. And despite her prodigious talent and dedication to improving herself, Fillier isn’t letting the sport consume her.

“I think the most remarkable thing about Sarah is her life balance,” Morey said. “You would look at a player like that and think she’s really intense and she wakes up and eats and sleeps and breathes hockey, and that’s not who she is. She loves hockey and she’s excellent in hockey. But she is so much more than Sarah Fillier, the hockey player.”

Fillier is recognized as a thoughtful leader and was voted captain at Princeton in just her second season. She’s also quick to credit ― and express gratitude to ― those around her.

When Fillier scored his first NCAA goal, Cochrane texted his congratulations. Rather than a simple “thank you”, Fillier responded with a long heartfelt message, highlighting the coach’s impact on his development.

“It’s something that brought tears to my eyes,” Cochrane said.

Morey and Cochrane see no limits to Fillier’s potential as she continues to grow as an athlete and as a person. Neither is convinced that she fully understands how amazing she is, even though they think she must understand.

“He’s a generational talent,” Pounder said. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to convene its first Winter Olympics.”

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