Canadian Sarah Fillier's hockey rise has everyone in awe — even her twin sister
"Are you serious?"
Few people, if anyone, know Canadian hockey star Sarah Fillier better than her twin sister, yet even Kayla Fillier couldn't believe what was unfolding.
Sarah, just 21 at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, had scored twice mere minutes into her debut against Switzerland.
Kayla, who plays alongside Sarah at Princeton University, was watching the game with teammates on campus.
"[We] sat there and kind of laughed a bit," Kayla recalled to CBC Sports. "Like your first game you're going to score that many goals? And I remember going to practice the next day and everyone is kind of like, 'Are you serious?' We knew she was good, but like, that many points in your first Olympic game?"
Sarah finished her Olympic tournament with eight goals, second only behind teammate and MVP Brianne Jenner. Her Beijing breakthrough — and world championship follow-up, where she added seven points in four games as Canada won gold — brought her into focus as potentially Canada's next great hockey player.
Just over one year after winning gold at those Olympics, Sarah is struggling to grapple with her accomplishments herself.
"I'll look at pictures and it kind of seems surreal. You second guess that it actually happened and I still don't really have words for it," she told CBC Sports. "It was a dream come true, and to do it with people who I idolized, like Marie-Philip Poulin and [Natalie] Spooner and Jenner made it even more special."
WATCH | Fillier pots pair in 2022 worlds against Switzerland:
Spooner, who played on a line with Fillier and Mèlodie Daoust in Beijing, was equally awestruck.
"We would joke about it after," she told CBC Sports. "We're like, OK, we're going to go out this game and score [on the] first shift again, huh?"
Spooner and Fillier could be reunited on the same line at the upcoming world championships in Brampton, Ont., which bring on April 5, though Daoust wasn't named to Canada's roster.
Spooner, 32, first got to know Fillier, now 22, in the year leading up to those Olympics through training together in the summer and then the Olympic centralization period in Calgary.
Spooner said it was their three separate playing styles that made their line mesh so well.
"Melo, she's such a great passer and can really distribute pucks to people. For me, I picture myself as a power forward. So I get the pucks from the corners [and crash] the net front. So I think really if we can get the puck on either Melo or Filly's stick, like if Filly gets a shot, I'll be in front, either to pick up the garbage or to screen."
It's that Fillier shot that Spooner said is her single most impressive skill.
"She scores in all different scenarios, like she can shoot and score or she can pick up backdoor passes. She just seems to be in those right spots to get shots off."
But Fillier's poise in her first Olympics struck Spooner more than anything else.
"I remember my first Olympics and I was a nervous wreck, but she just seems to be super calm and cool and just was able to just play her game," Spooner said.
'I just wanted to play hockey'
That steely demeanour was formed in Georgetown, Ont., surrounded by hockey players and fans.
The Fillier twins first laced up skates when they were four years old. While Kayla spent her first three years in figure skating, Sarah knew right away that hockey was her calling.
Before she was even allowed to play, Sarah would dress in full uniform for open skates at a public rink.
"I just wanted to play hockey so bad. I remember my dad telling stories of us at public skates and I would just skate as fast as I could, as many laps as I could for the whole hour and I would just rip in between everyone," she said.
The Filliers — parents David and Maureen, older sister Nicole, older brother Trevor, and the twins — were a hockey-crazed family in a hockey-crazed town.
Toronto Maple Leafs games were always on TV. Sarah skated in the junior Timbits program as soon as she was eligible. She played mini sticks in the basement against Trevor and Kayla in their downtime.
During holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, cousins would come to town and the Filliers would organize road hockey games of about 12 people.
Kayla recalls Trevor sticking Sarah in net and peppering her with shots.
"When he scored, or if he scored a lot, even though he's eight years older, Sarah would always kind of be upset and my dad would have to come out and kind of settle the moment," she said.
"But even though she knew he's probably going to score, she always wanted to try and save it and try and still be better than him, even though she kind of knew it probably wouldn't happen."
Sarah said those experiences shaped the hockey player she is today.
"I think it taught me just to have fun. Those are my best memories growing up with playing hockey with my family and friends. So I'm always going back to that when I step on the ice," she said.
WATCH | Canada beats U.S. for 2022 world championship gold:
The twin rivalry was real too — in hockey, in school, in "everything," according to Kayla.
When it came time to choose post-secondary education, Sarah and Kayla initially hoped to enrol in separate schools and forge their own identities.
Then they visited Princeton, the New Jersey-based Ivy League university, and the rest was history.
"When we first committed, people always were like, 'Wow, that's going to be such an unreal opportunity, going to school with your twin sister,'" Sarah said. "And it's lived up to that."
However, the past season marked their final one together. Sarah, the team captain, still has one year of eligibility remaining after missing the past two seasons due to the pandemic and Olympic centralization. Kayla's eligibility, having not been in Olympic camp, is done.
The sisters got to play on a line together during their final season.
"You don't have to do much when you're on a line with Sarah," Kayla said. "Just kind of sit there and just watch what she does. It's a pretty cool experience."
WATCH | Princeton coach on what makes Fillier so special:
Now their paths will finally part. Sarah's future, despite her psychology major, is fully pointed toward hockey. She's not exactly sure what's in store after graduating Princeton next year, though she is already a member of the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association, which hopes to form a professional league by next season.
Spooner said Sarah's future is bright.
"She has to keep using her shot and her strength and just keep pushing to get better every day, and I think that she'll be a threat for a long time to come," Spooner said.
Meanwhile, Kayla said her career is done. She has an economics degree and would be open to coaching if she were to stay in the hockey world.
Her senior thesis is due on April 13, the day of the world championship quarterfinals. Brampton's CAA Centre, host of the tournament, sits about 30 minutes east of Georgetown.
Kayla said that before she enters "the real world," she'll hope to return home in time to watch Canada's title defence in person.
Sarah said before she was officially named to the team that she was already fielding multiple ticket requests for the 5,000-seat arena.
"I think that would be probably one of the coolest experience in my life, to play [near] my hometown, representing Canada on the world stage."