When Sarah Fillier got a text from her head coach at Princeton informing her that she’d been nominated for the Patty Kazmaier award — the biggest individual honour in women’s college hockey — she actually laughed out loud.
“I thought it was a joke,” the 19-year-old Tigers forward says. “Honestly. I was like, ‘There’s no way.’”
When it hit her that this was in fact real life, Fillier called up her parents. Their reaction wasn’t much different.
“You’re kidding,” her dad, Dave, said. “This isn’t real.”
“What?” her mom, Maureen, said. “Really?”
Yes, it was really real. And very much earned, too.
You simply can’t ignore what Fillier did in her first year of college as a not-so-wet-behind-the-ears rookie: The product of Halton Hills, Ont., where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend, put up nearly two points per game (1.97) to lead NCAA women’s hockey in the category in 2018–19. She ranked fourth in the nation in goals per game and first in assists per game. She led her team in scoring (a whopping 57 points — 22 goals, 35 assists — in just 29 games) and helped Princeton win the Ivy League Championship. Fillier became the first-ever ECAC player to win National Rookie of the Year.
And so the Patty Kazmaier nomination was yet another unexpected result of a lights-out freshman season.
“I expected coming in to accept any role that I was given,” Fillier says. “I thought my first year was just going to be a development year to feel out college and figure out how to handle classes and hockey at the same time.”
Fillier clearly figured things out in a hurry. And she’s excepted to yet again help lead a Tigers team that’s ranked sixth in the nation. The season opens Oct. 25 against Syracuse.
The five-foot-five centre spent her summer working to get faster and stronger and better, to help improve and follow up on a season that surpassed all her expectations. There was a stretch of nine games last season in which Fillier posted 23 points — an average of 2.55 PPG.
“Honestly, when I read that now it seems kind of absurd and it doesn’t seem like it actually happened,” she says, laughing, while crediting her linemates, fellow Canadian Maggie Connors and American Carly Bullock. “I guess in that stretch of games I was having a lot of fun,” Fillier says.
It wasn’t until she made her debut with the senior national team last November that Fillier says her confidence really began to grow. In her first-ever game for senior Team Canada at the 4 Nations Cup in Saskatoon, the lone freshman on the roster scored a goal while playing on a line with Natalie Spooner and Sarah Nurse.
“It’s just crazy to still think about,” Fillier says. “I have pictures of them from picture day, and it’s just a dream come true. I got to compete with world-class athletes like Marie-Philip Poulin and Spooner and Nurse, and I think competing alongside them and doing pretty well, I just came back with a lot of confidence. Like, ‘Hey I might be smaller, I might be younger and less experienced, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still perform the way I know I can and, you know, positively affect the team this year.”
The first words out of veteran national team defender Renata Fast’s mouth when Fillier comes up are: “Umm, wow.”
“She is up-and-coming for sure, my gosh,” Fast says. “She is extremely fast and she’s extremely poised with the puck. That’s a dangerous combo right there.”
At Team Canada’s most recent camp a couple of weeks ago in Halifax, Fast got to see that dangerous combo up close. She remembers watching Fillier streak down the ice towards her with the puck in a one-on-one situation. “She looked so confident with this puck,” Fast says. “Sometimes girls have their heads down, you’re able to read off them, but her head’s up — she’s looking to make plays. She’s always a threat.”
Despite all the awards and accolades and high praise, Fillier’s off-season was full of hard work.
“I’ve been working all summer to get to that next level and sort of never being satisfied, and just sort of tuck all those articles and talking points and awards last year in the back of my head,” she says. “The focus is on this year and obviously the goal is to win another Ivy Championship and ECAC final four and hopefully get to that NCAA final four and compete.“
Her longer-term goal is to continue advancing with Team Canada, and to join the team next April at the world championships in Halifax.
Fillier remembers her first-ever training camp with the senior team, two years ago. Of all the Team Canada players she’s long looked up to that she’s had a chance to play with and meet, none made her more nervous than captain Poulin. Fillier can remember every moment of the 2014 Olympic gold medal final, when Poulin tied the game at the end of regulation and scored again in overtime to earn the win. “She’s unbelievable,” Fillier says, of Poulin.
The feeling is mutual.
“Sarah is amazing,” Poulin says. “She’s so fast, she’s so poised with the puck, honestly. Sarah is going to be the future, for sure.”