The siblings try to see each other every day. There are times when Skylar Fontaine, a senior All-American defenseman, will be stretching in a corner of Matthews Arena. She’ll wave across the ice to her brother, Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, a freshman forward, as he’s taking the ice.
The big sister, 22, and her little brother, 20, are two of Northeastern’s hockey stars—one established, the other emerging.
“It’s been great to get lunch with him, which we did the other day,” says Skylar, who was happy that she and Gunnar were joined in one of the heated tents on campus by their mother, Deborah Tancrell, who drove up from their hometown of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. “I hadn’t seen him play or practice in the same area for three years. So it’s been great to be close to him again.”
Skylar and her No. 1 Huskies (18-1-1) are pursuing an NCAA championship, with the next step coming in a Hockey East semifinal against Connecticut Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at Matthews Arena.
She notes the divergent paths that led her and Gunnar to Northeastern—a hockey youth system that is far more advanced for boys than for girls. As Gunnar advanced from one league to the next, he moved from his Rhode Island home to Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts to the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League, where in two years he scored 46 goals with 54 assists over 105 games.
The moves paid off when the Nashville Predators chose Fontaine in the seventh round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Ask Gunnar how many high schools he attended along the way, and he needs to count twice to make sure.
“I went to four—technically five—high schools,” he says, laughing. “The second year in Chicago, I did a little bit of online school as well, so that’s a fifth school.”
No such structure existed for Skylar, who grew up playing on boys’ teams in Rhode Island.
“Skylar might have been 12 when a friend of mine—whose son was playing in the league—said, ‘I just want to let you know there’s a player in our league that, if you didn’t see the ponytail sticking out of the back of her helmet, you wouldn’t know she was a girl,’” says Dave Flint, the Huskies’ coach. “He said, ‘And she’s the best player in the league.’”
Both Fontaines are known for their speed. Flint compares Skylar to Bobby Orr—the Boston Bruins Hall of Famer who was the greatest defenseman of all time—in her ability to cover ice with minimal apparent effort.
“Her legs don’t look like they’re going fast but she generates so much power from her stride,” Flint says. “Next thing you know, she’s by you.”
Fontaine uses her speed to attack in the offensive zone. She has been named the top defenseman in Hockey East the past two seasons, and last year was the conference’s leading scorer at her position with 17 goals, 25 assists, and 42 points.
“Because of my speed, I’ve always loved jumping into the [offensive] play,” Skylar says. “But I also know that I can only jump in the play when our entire team is doing well.”
She has become better at reading her teammates and recognizing when she can afford to move forward.
“Even if she goes at the wrong time and she turns the puck over, she still beats everybody back to our own end,” Flint says. “You want to get mad at her for the decision she made to turn the puck over, but she beats everybody back anyway, so she doesn’t really hurt us.”
Gunnar has used similar speed to generate 13 points (five goals) in his initial 17 games with the Huskies.
“He’s on our first power-play unit and one of our top lines, so he’s adjusted very well to the college game,” says Jim Madigan, coach of the Huskies (9-7-3). “He’s got a tremendous work ethic. He wins a lot of puck battles, and his compete level is really good. We’re very happy with his progress and his contributions to our team.”
Both siblings give credit to their mother, a school teacher who played softball at Slippery Rock University, for raising her three kids to play hockey at an elite level. Their oldest sister, Alex Tancrell-Fontaine, played at Union College.
“She did everything for us,” Gunnar says of his mother. “It was amazing to watch how hard she tried to make sure we got everything we needed. She would rush home from work, make us our meals, and rush us off to the rink. Now I realize how much she’s done for us, and I have to do everything I can on the ice and off the ice because I know what she did for me growing up.”
The upcoming weeks will be the most exciting time of the season for Northeastern hockey, based on the finality of the one-and-done postseason tournaments. But Skylar, in spite of her senior status, will have more to play for later this year when she competes for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. And if that effort falls short, then Flint will be elated to invite her back for 2021-22, based on a temporary NCAA rule that provides an extra season of eligibility for athletes during this pandemic-haunted year.
“It does take some pressure off,” Skylar says of her options. “But I’m taking this year and this opportunity as my last shot. I really want my team to do well, I want myself to do well, and hopefully we can make it to the NCAA Tournament and go all the way.”
And if she does find herself back at Northeastern next season? Her brother will be happy to see her.