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Canada’s Sarah Fillier projected to be first pick in PWHL draft

23-year-old just graduated Princeton University with a degree in psychiatry
FILE -Switzerland’s Stefanie Wetli (18) and Canada’s Sarah Fillier (10) battle for the puck during a women’s semifinal hockey game at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, in Beijing. Sarah Fillier is ready to shelve her Princeton education and focus on hockey in entering the PWHL draft, where she is projected to be selected first on Monday, JUne 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

Sarah Fillier has a degree from Princeton, but she’s opting for a pro hockey career by entering the PWHL draft on Monday.

The projected No. 1 pick from Canada took a moment to cherish her past six years in college.

On the ice, Fillier capped a four-year college career — she took two seasons off to focus on helping Canada win gold at the 2022 Beijing Games — by finishing among the Tigers’ all-time scoring leaders in fourth with 194 points. Off the ice, the 23-year-old leaves the Ivy League with a degree in psychiatry.

“I just feel free to be honest. I loved my time at Princeton. It was a challenge academically for sure and a challenge athletically,” Fillier told The Associated Press last week.

“I feel like getting a Princeton degree is so worth it. But now I’m home and the only thing on my mind is the pro league and draft and trying to be the best hockey player that I can be,” she added. “And I feel like I earned that after these four years.”

From suburban Toronto, Fillier tops a deep class of prospects — filled out by a large crop of European veterans after the league’s first season— entering the six-team, seven-round draft in St. Paul, Minnesota.

New York holds the first pick based on its last-place finish, followed by Ottawa. Newly crowned champion Minnesota goes third after its fourth-place finish. Boston, Montreal and Toronto round out the order.

Among the top-ranked prospects are players coming directly out of college, including Colgate centre Danielle Serdachny, who scored the gold medal-clinching goal in overtime for Canada at the world championships in April. The possibility of Serdachny going first escalated Friday when New York filled its head-coaching vacancy by hiring Greg Fargo, who was her coach at Colgate.

Then there’s U.S. national players, forward Hannah Bilka and defender Cayla Barnes, who helped Ohio State win the NCAA championship in March. Also in the mix are more experienced players who either took last year off from hockey or come from Europe.

Three-time U.S. Olympian Amanda Kessel spent last season as a special assistant with the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins. Canadian defender Claire Thompson focused on her second year studying medicine at NYU. Both are timing their return with an eye on competing at the 2026 Olympics in Italy.

“I missed (playing) a lot. I think that this year was really excellent in putting things in perspective,” the 26-year-old Thompson said. “I think that has motivated me and made me really truly want to come back to hockey. Not because it’s something that I should do, but because it’s something I really want to do.”

Among Europeans, 28-year-old forward Noora Tulus ends her nine-year pro stint in Sweden to test her skills in the PWHL.

“I’m super-excited but I’m also nervous. It’s going to be best against best and you’re around the best,” said Tulus, a two-time Olympian for Finland. “I’m looking to see where (are) my limits.”

The influx of talent increases the competition for what remains a limited number of roster spots — 23 active plus a three-player reserve squad — for a league that isn’t considering expansion until after the 2024-25 season.

Two of three PWHL general managers polled by The AP expect about 25 of the 42 players drafted to make the roster next season. The third GM projected the number to be 30.

Of the 167 players declaring for the draft, 35 are international players representing 19 countries, including Japan, Hungary and Italy.

Though spots are limited, the PWHL embraces attracting more Europeans to cement itself as the world’s premier women’s league. And Europeans are driven to come to North America to help develop their games in a bid to narrow the competitive gap.

Players from the Czech Republic, for example, rely on playing outside their home country because of a lack of a league and development program.

“In Czech, it’s a bad situation,” said 21-year-old defender Daniela Pejsova, who spent the past six years in Sweden.

“I mean, I’m proud of the program with what we have with a national team, but there needs to be some more steps forward,” she added. “I’m hoping that the Czech players are going to this league more to move women’s hockey overall forward.”

The growth of the sport is also apparent in the U.S. with players developing in non-hockey markets, such as Bilka, who is from Texas, and Barnes, from California.

“It’s growing. More girls want to play. And now being able to see the PWHL, I think it’s skyrocketing even more,” Barnes said. “When we were younger, that was just a shot in the dark, a hope. So that’s really exciting for the younger generations.”

Defending champion Minnesota is in flux after the PWHL parted ways with GM Natalie Darwitz. Coach Ken Klee will oversee the team’s draft selections.

In a twist, Abby Boreen is draft eligible despite being a member of Minnesota’s championship team. Boreen is in this situation because she signed a reserve contract with Minnesota after not declaring for the draft last year.

“It’s definitely unique,” said Boreen, who had five goals and seven points in 14 games, including five in the post-season. “I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the draft last year so, honestly, I’m super-excited.”

READ ALSO: PWHL Ottawa’s inaugural season leads to celebration of many firsts for players


John Wawrow, The Associated Press