Freshman year of college is usually a massive step in someone’s life. The adjustment to living away from home, having a roommate and a more rigorous workload is tough for all students. That transition is even harder in the age of COVID-19, as health and safety guidelines make it difficult to meet new friends and the challenge of hybrid or online classes.
Gunnarwolfe Fontaine’s transition to college has been more eventful than most.
The first-year student from Rhode Island is a forward on Northeastern’s men’s hockey team, and was recently selected by the Nashville Predators in the NHL draft. His transition into college was much the same as his peers, with the added challenge of continuing to market himself to NHL teams and staying in shape for an undetermined start to the season.
“It’s certainly not what I imagined,” Fontaine said, “but I am making the most of it.” He mentioned that despite the challenges and inconveniences brought on by the pandemic, he was still enjoying classes and time with his friends.
At age 20, Fontaine is a couple of years older than most of his first-year classmates, having spent two years playing hockey for the Chicago Steel in the USHL. Fontaine made a name for himself there, logging 46 goals and 54 assists in 105 career games, earning him recognition from several NHL scouts, including scouts from the Stanley Cup champions.
“I talked to Toronto and Tampa Bay the most,” said Fontaine, “and I talked to the Preds for the first time a week before the draft.” Despite the lack of an established relationship with the team, he still felt that getting drafted was “one of the best moments of my whole life,” the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Fontaine is not the first person from his family to play Division I college hockey, nor is he even the only one playing for Northeastern right now. His sister, Skylar, is a senior star on the women’s team and the reigning Hockey East Defenseman of the Year.
“She said it would be really cool if we could go to college together, but also respected that it was entirely my choice,” he said.
Aside from Northeastern, Fontaine also considered playing at Michigan State University, Providence, and UMass Amherst, but chose Northeastern because of its strong hockey program and academics. “It certainly makes my mom’s life a lot easier,” he noted. “She can come up for one day and see both of us.”
COVID-19 has drastically changed the way athletes and teams can train, and Fontaine’s experience has changed a lot too.
“I can’t really get out on the ice a lot,” he said. In Chicago, players had an entire rink at their disposal. They could go out onto the ice whenever they wanted, as long as the doors were unlocked. Now COVID safety regulations have significantly limited ice times. The only time he can actually practice at Matthews Arena is during the full team practices, which has forced Fontaine to adopt new workout methods.
“Sometimes I’ll just rollerblade to get my food with my roommate,” he said. The players’ workout routines have changed too. In the past, the whole team would work out together, but new guidelines limit groups to five.
Despite the lack of ice time and the splintered workout sessions, Fontaine said that he was feeling really good about the chemistry on the team.
“We have a lot of young guys playing important roles, and the great leadership core we have of Solow, Jozefek, and Harris makes us feel like we can be really competitive,” he said.
Sam Colangelo, second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks and Fontaine’s high school and USHL teammate, is also a freshman forward for the Huskies. While the two won’t begin the season on the same line — as they did in Chicago — when they take the ice together, they make a dangerous duo. “We have that bond out on the ice, where we just know where the other one is going to be,” Fontaine said.
Fontaine compared his style of play to the Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand and the Vegas Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault. “I am a bit small, in terms of hockey players, but I like to play hard and not let that stop me.”
That style has clearly netted him success, as he and Colangelo were selected to the USA Hockey’s Under-20 World Junior A team at the end of last season.
“It was probably my favorite hockey memory,” he said of putting on the Team USA jersey. “The competition was really strong, and definitely helped me raise my stock among NHL teams.” Team USA wound up with the bronze medal after losing to his fellow freshman Husky, Team Canada goalie Devon Levi, in a shootout. “I wish I could go back to that game, because I am pretty sure I know how to score on Levi now,” Fontaine said.
As far as his non-hockey life, Fontaine said he lives just like any other college student. “I like to watch movies and play video games with my roommate,” he said. “It took me a while to get used to the course load . . . I have a lot of group projects, so I will sometimes just be up late on a Zoom call.”
The college experience and the experience of athletes has massively changed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Gunnarwolfe Fontaine is certainly making the most of it.