BRAMPTON, Ont. — Sarah Fillier remembers the first time she walked into Canada’s locker room.
The 18-year-old did what any fan would do.
She immediately whipped out her smartphone in front of women’s hockey superstar Marie-Philip Poulin’s empty stall.
“I took a picture and sent it to my friends,” Fillier, now 22, recalled with a wide smile. “I was like, ‘This is the craziest moment of my life.’ I still get that feeling sometimes. All my friends are still like that — they’re so shocked I get to play with her every day.
“And all the other names.”
After bursting onto the international stage with emphatic, assassin-like precision, Fillier’s teammates have a similar feeling.
“When she came around, we knew she was talented,” said Poulin, Canada’s captain. “But it’s more than that. It’s the little details, little habits. She has a strong stick. She sees the game well. As a hockey player and as a person, she’s great.
“Very happy to see her going along and being such a powerful player for us.”
The five-foot-five, 143-pound water-bug forward with a dirty blond braid dangling out the back of her helmet has been darting around the ice for Canada at the women’s world hockey championship, leading her country with four goals and three assists as attention now shifts to Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup with Sweden.
“A lot of young players have an adjustment when you get to this level,” said veteran Canadian forward Brianne Jenner. “It’s a little bit quicker, you have less time to make decisions, it’s physical.
“She’s a huge part of our team success. When she’s flying around the ice, it gives momentum to the rest of the roster.”
Fillier helped Canada win gold at her first worlds inside the Calgary bubble in 2021 with six points.
Then came her breakout in Beijing where the Georgetown, Ont., native scored eight times and assisted three others on the way to securing Olympic gold.
“Whenever you can have a talent like that on your team, it’s exciting,” said linemate Natalie Spooner. “That she’s able to keep it going, we’re pretty lucky.”
Fillier, who recently finished her third season at Princeton University in the NCAA, then led Canada with five goals and six assists at the 2022 worlds in Denmark, including the setup on Jenner’s winner in the gold-medal game against the United States.
The speedster added a goal and an assist against the U.S. in Monday’s 4-3 shootout victory that cemented top spot in Group A as part of her haul so far in Brampton.
“Definitely a surprise,” Fillier said of the immediate and sustained success wearing the Maple Leaf. “Every day playing with people who I idolized growing up, I still get goosebumps in that locker room.
“But I’ve been working behind the scenes incredibly hard.”
That included taking a year off from school before the Olympics to hone her game.
“Just a special player,” Canadian head coach Troy Ryan said. “She can be dominant at times. When she’s at her best, she’s almost like a shark.
“Lurking and ready to strike.”
That comes from usually being one of the smaller players on the ice since she first laced up her skates.
“Sometimes I won’t be able to outmuscle bigger defenders,” Fillier explained. “I need to be a little bit more hidden in the weeds and just jump on pucks and be a little bit more sneaky.”
Knowing she was likely the next big name in the sport, Hockey Canada made sure the fresh-faced forward got as much time with Poulin as possible early on.
“She can kind of lean on that and look to things she wants to accomplish down the road,” Ryan said. “We used to match them together, room them together.”
Canada blew Sweden’s doors off at the Olympics in an 11-0 quarterfinal romp accented by a Fillier hat trick, but only bested the Europeans 3-0 at the same stage of the 2022 worlds back in September.
“They’re a big, strong physical team,” Fillier said. “They’re not going to shy away from that physicality against us.”
Apart from preparing for the Swedes — Canada is 10-0 all-time against Thursday’s opponent at the worlds — she has to find time to prep for her university exams next month alongside teammate Claire Thompson, who’s working her way through medical school.
“We have our little study group,” Fillier said. “Professors have been super easy and relaxed about me missing a lot of class.”
The 2023 women’s world are basically in her backyard — although Fillier hasn’t seen much of it.
Brampton and Georgetown are right next to each other in the Greater Toronto Area, meaning there’s been plenty of hometown support from her friends and family.
“It’s nice to be home,” Fillier said. “But weird to get dropped off at the hotel to go to sleep.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press