Sarah Fillier isn’t the next big thing. She isn’t the future of Canadian hockey. She isn’t going to be a star. She’s the big thing right now. She’s the national team’s thrilling present. She is so transparently the star of her squad in Beijing that many of sports media’s forward-looking pronouncements in the last week—the “next generation” and “poised for breakout” reads of her career—already feel quaint and belated. The great-skating 21-year-old, on leave from her team at Princeton to make her Olympic debut, centered Canada’s electric, productive second line at the world championships in Calgary in August, and shined in just about every one of the hard-fought rivalry series games the U.S. and Canadian national teams played to prepare for the Olympics throughout the fall. It’s not so much that Sarah Fillier has arrived, but that you have.
Through three games in the group stage, Fillier leads Team Canada with five goals; in two of those games, she has opened the scoring on her very first shift. She finally ran into trouble in Canada’s game against the Russian Olympic Committee team this morning, which is to say it actually took her TWO shifts to score. (Later in the game, a potential sixth Olympic goal, borne from some brilliant passing work on the power play, was called back after an offside review.)
The record for individual goals in an Olympics belongs to the retired Canadian forward Meghan Agosta, who scored nine in Vancouver. With four games likely left and a Canadian offense that’s been rolling, Fillier may well break it. Impressive, considering goalscoring isn’t necessarily the centerpiece of Fillier’s game. Asked what makes her special, her coaches tend to point to her pace and her control of it. “She’s like a little hovercraft. She can vary her speed,” her Princeton coach Cara Morey told the National Post. That, coupled with her quick processing ability, gives you goals like this one against Finland, which begins with a puck passed into a defender’s skates and somehow ends with it fired off a turned-around Fillier’s backhand.
“I fear we placed Sarah Fillier too low in our player rankings,” The Athletic’s women’s hockey writer Hailey Salvian tweeted just after this goal was scored, a couple days after The Athletic released a very thoughtful ranking of the 50 best women’s hockey players at the Olympics, which had Fillier seventh.
They reserved the top spot for Canada’s captain, Marie-Philip Poulin, who is having a fairly quiet tournament by her own high standards, making some uncharacteristic turnovers and only scoring her first goal of the Beijing Olympics late against the ROC, despite her teammates pouring them on in an 11-1 win over Finland and a 12-1 win over Switzerland. Canada and the U.S. meet for their preliminary game late tonight, sure to be a fascinating battle between the U.S.’s disciplined puck possession style and Canada’s fluid, uptempo offensive attack. Perhaps Poulin is saving her devastating goals for the Americans. (Wouldn’t be the first time.) To paraphrase Homer Simpson: That little forward who hasn’t done anything yet? Look at her. She’s going to do something, and you know it’s going to be good.
It’s generally out of deference to Poulin that Fillier has been tagged with the “next” and “future” labels. Fortunately for Canada, she’s already playing breathtaking hockey. She might very well be next, but she’s also now.