Sloane O’Donnell Fox is happiest with her helmet on, skates sharp and stick taped.
Ice hockey is her haven; a strong connection to her late father, the force behind her motivation in overcoming numerous obstacles and the sport that brings O’Donnell Fox immense joy.
“Through all of the stuff that’s happened, it’s the one thing that I’ve been working toward,” she said. “I’ve loved hockey the whole time. It’s an outlet. Being on the ice, you’re not worrying about anything else that’s going on outside of the glass.”
A junior defender on the Portland/Deering High School girls hockey team, O’Donnell Fox has endured a few tumultuous teenage years notwithstanding the knee injury that virtually ended her 2022-23 season in the second game of the year, which didn’t stop her from making a major impact on the team.
The Portland native started high school at North Yarmouth Academy. While she loved the intensity of playing ice hockey with the Panthers prep-level team, she decided to leave the school after her sophomore year because it wasn’t a strong social fit. It was also during her sophomore year, February of 2020, when O’Donnell Fox’s father, Ricky, passed away after a 16-month battle with end-stage cancer. He was 58. Father and daughter shared many qualities and interests, wit and intelligence, and a love for sports, especially ice hockey.
“She’s just like her father,” Sloane’s mother, Cathleen O’Donnell said, “as their love for hockey runs deep.”
And hockey has played a pivotal role in the family’s path forward.
“It got us through a lot of hell, really,” Cathleen O’Donnell said.
After her sophomore year at NYA, Sloane O’Donnell Fox transferred to Cheverus. In August of 2021, just before the new school year, O’Donnell Fox suffered serious injuries in a horrific car accident, a drunk-driver situation with litigation ongoing. She broke bones in her neck and back, requiring surgery and two weeks at the hospital. She missed the first two months of school to recover and had to repeat her sophomore year. She missed the entire hockey season.
“I almost died in my car accident, and that gives me a lot to live for,” O’Donnell Fox said. “It made me realize that I’ve got to make the most out of what I have.”
At the end of the year, O’Donnell Fox decided to transfer again, this time to Portland. Though she attended private schools until now, she had many friends in the school because she grew up here. But she knew no one on the hockey team, whose roster includes players from Portland, Deering and Casco Bay High Schools.
“Before the season started, everyone was like ‘oh my God, if someone comes from NYA she’s really good,'” O’Donnell Fox said. “So I felt like I was coming into a place where I was already accepted before it even started.”
Even the injury this year — sustained during her third shift of her second game — provided O’Donnell Fox an opportunity to try something new. At the start of the season, first-year head coach Dan Winship didn’t have an assistant. He does now. O’Donnell Fox stands behind the bench at games (as coaches do), drafts up drills for practices, makes input on game lineups and remains a major asset to the team with her leadership.
“Honestly, she’s had a lot of bad things happen in the last few years so her mental toughness to just navigate life is impressive,” Winship said. “In my first year, I’m trying to build a team with a community feel… She’s somebody who obviously has a passion for hockey, and there’s things that she’s done to help the team or teammates. Bringing a player’s mindset and approach to practices in games has really helped.”
Coaching has crossed O’Donnell Fox’s mind. She wants to stay around the game for her whole life and pass it on to her children some day.
“I haven’t had a chance to actually do it, and this year I have,” O’Donnell Fox said. “I definitely know that I want to be a coach.”
The team itself isn’t great — 1-10 at the time of publication — but O’Donnell Fox and her teammates have formed a close bond.
With their support, O’Donnell Fox organized an end-of-season Hockey Fights Cancer game to honor her father and raise money. It’s similar to an event she took part in at NYA, and wanted to plan it last year, but she prioritized recovering from the injuries sustained in the car accident. Proceeds went to The Dempsey Center, the non-profit organization that has helped her family and so many others.
“They definitely did a lot for our family, so I wanted to give back to them,” O’Donnell Fox said.
Sloane’s mother has been inspired watching her daughter’s journey.
“Once you have grief you have it forever but life does get better,” Cathleen O’Donnell said. “Resiliency is elusive but it’s always there.”
And for O’Donnell Fox herself, she’s realized the resilience her mother alluded to.
“Once you find your thing and keep working for it, it gives you something that makes it all worth it,” O’Donnell Fox said.
“I’ve had so many things stand in my way, but I’m still here at the rink.”
Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].