Sarah Fillier has asked herself that question many times over the past 12
months. By always answering it, she’s accelerated her way through Canada’s
National Women’s Program.
In January, she captained Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team to a
bronze medal at the 2018 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship; in August,
she was a member of Canada’s National Women’s Development Team for a
three-game series against the United States; and now, at the 2018 4 Nations
Cup, she’s making her debut with Canada’s National Women’s Team.
Fillier is only the second player to compete at all three levels of the
program in the same calendar year, joining Olympic gold medallist Natalie
Spooner, who did it a decade ago in 2008.
What’s allowed her to rise up the program so quickly?
“Taking every experience as a learning opportunity,” says Fillier. At the
development team camp, she was surrounded by players who’d been where she
was about to go: balancing university, hockey and the national program.
“Using that time to ask questions helped me, and being able to reach out to
people who’ve been in this situation will hopefully help me over the next
three years leading up to the Olympics.”
Considering where she is now, it’s easy to forget that her year began on a
disappointing note. Canada failed to advance to the gold medal game at the
U18 women’s worlds for the first time. “That was a wake-up call for me
personally,” says Fillier. “It was tough to fly home with a bronze medal.
It pushed me to do everything possible throughout the summer to become an
impact player at the next level.”
Her attention to off-ice details showed in the development series versus
the U.S., says Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada’s head scout for women’s
national teams. It showed she was ready for the next step.
“We knew that she would join us at some point in this quad,” says Davidson
“She’s certainly a little bit further ahead now than we thought she would
be. A lot of that is she’s matured in the importance of how to look after
her body for a high-performance athlete.” Davidson was impressed with how
prepared Fillier was for Canada’s National Women’s Team Fall Festival. She
came to camp fresh, fit and healthy.
“You’re never sure how these young players are going to stack up against
the older players with lots of experience and good strength and power, but
she held her own and earned her opportunity.”
Says Fillier: “I went to camp thinking, ‘Why not? Why can’t you make the
team?’ I knew I was the youngest player there, but I went in thinking, ‘Why
not be the best you can be? Don’t be intimidated. Play like how you know
you could play.’ I didn’t go with the attitude of, ‘Oh, I’m just here to
learn.' I wanted to push myself and push other people.”
Although the achievements of Fillier and Spooner came 10 years apart,
similar themes emerge: staring wide-eyed at the names on the players’
stalls around them; soaking in the lessons the veterans freely shared; and
adjusting to a faster, stronger level of game.
“I was 17 years old so I don’t think I had that much muscle on me yet,”
says Spooner, laughing. “But when you’re with those older girls, you really
watch what they’re doing because they’ve had the success already and they
know what it takes.”
Spooner played on a line with Gillian Apps and Cherie Piper at the 2008 4
Nations Cup. The veterans helped her feel comfortable and confident despite
Fillier played with Jillian Saulnier throughout the Fall Festival. The 2018
Olympian would let Fillier know when she had a good shift and talk with her
about how they could improve as a line. “She helped me remain confident,”
says Fillier, “and I think that was super important in my success
throughout the camp.”
A freshman at Princeton University this fall, Fillier wants to do big
things for the Tigers’ program over the next four years, but her main goal
is the 2022 Olympics. She may have surprised even herself by coming through
a camp filled with Olympians to crack her first senior team roster so soon.
But earning a spot on Canada’s National Women’s Team means a player has the
game to compete at that level, no matter her age. Ten years ago, Davidson,
then the head coach of Canada’s National Women’s Team, tapped Spooner
during the shootout in the gold medal game at the 4 Nations Cup.
Fillier, too, has the skill set to contribute immediately. What it comes
down to, says Davidson, is confidence.
“If she shows the coaches she can play a 200-foot game and a regular,
consistent shift [at this level], then the rest will come from there.”
And what does Fillier hope to see from herself in Saskatoon? She answers
that question with a familiar one of her own.
“Of course I want to win,” she says, “but I’m going in with the same
mindset as I did at camp: ‘Why not? Why not go in there and compete, battle
and perform as best as I can and get better? You’re going to be playing
with some of the best players in the world. Why not be at their level, too,
and make a difference?’”