Fear The Beard

Nick Foligno Draws On Strong Bloodlines As He Looks To Lead The Blue Jackets To NHL Supremacy
Jess Myers

The American Civil War, that bloody chapter in our nation’s history that pitted brother against brother, is commemorated every time Nick Foligno scores a goal in his team’s home rink.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are named for the Union soldiers from Ohio who took up arms in an ultimately successful battle to ensure we remained one nation. They fire a deafening Civil War-era replica cannon each time their team scores at Nationwide Arena.

Last season, in his career-best campaign on the ice for the Blue Jackets, Foligno caused the cannon to fire 19 times, and notched a dozen more goals on the road for a team widely viewed as one of the up-and-coming franchises in the NHL.

And in the Foligno family, the notion of brother battling brother on opposite sides of a much more civil war is a familiar one. Nick, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., when his father, Mike, was a member of the Sabres, is a product of youth hockey programs in New York, Colorado and Pennsylvania, and cut his hockey teeth as a member of the National Team Development Program, before moving on to Major Junior hockey and eventually the NHL.

On several occasions, Nick has donned the red, white and blue sweater of Team USA in international competition, and says it’s an unbelievable honor to play for the country he loves as he did in the 2009 and 2010 IIHF World Championships.

But Nick’s NHL-veteran father and his NHL-playing brother, Marcus, are Canadian to the core, with Marcus skating for Team Canada on occasion, when he’s not in uniform for the Sabres.

And Nick’s wife, Janelle, is Canadian, and the first five seasons of his NHL career were spent north of the border, with the Ottawa Senators.

In the summers, the Foligno clan can often be found on a lake in Ontario, meaning this proud flag-waving American hockey standout finds himself often immersed in the culture of two rival nations.

“I get teased for having a funny accent on both sides of the border,” Foligno joked as he was gearing up for his first full season as the Blue Jackets captain.

It’s a season that begins with great expectations among Ohio hockey fans after getting a first taste of playoff hockey two seasons ago.

Since being traded from the Ottawa Senators to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012, Nick Foligno has quickly become a fan favorite and the face of the  franchise.Since being traded from the Ottawa Senators to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012, Nick Foligno has quickly become a fan favorite and the face of the franchise.

The evening of April 23, 2014, ended with a roar and the fire of that booming cannon inside Nationwide Arena, followed by wave after wave of ferocious crowd noise. Foligno’s wrist shot from just over the blue line came 2:49 into overtime in game four of the Blue Jackets’ first-round series with the Penguins and gave Columbus the first home playoff victory in franchise history. It knotted the series at 2-2, although Pittsburgh would ultimately prevail in six games.

When he thinks back to that night, more than a year later, Foligno can still hear the roar.
“That was the most unbelievable feeling ever, to do that at home, with the team and the fans behind you,” he recalled. “To do that for the team, for the city, for the fans. They had been waiting so long.”

But the “next step” so many anticipated the Blue Jackets taking in 2015 didn’t happen, in large part due to the injury bug taking up permanent residence in central Ohio last winter. Columbus led the league in a statistic that no team wants to own, with more than 500 man-games lost to injury.

When asked about his emergence as the team’s on-ice leader amid the medical chaos last season, the humble Foligno said the parade of teammates to the trainer’s room meant he received more ice time on the power play and on the penalty kill, which led to his career-best numbers.

His coach, however, sees it a little differently.

“Injuries played a little part in it, but for me last season was all about Nick taking a step forward in his game,” said Todd Richards, who has coached the Blue Jackets since 2012. “I thought there was another level he could get to, and he definitely got there.”

Despite their bloodlines, getting to the NHL was never a foregone conclusion for the Foligno brothers. In fact, both Nick and Marcus credit their father for not pushing them into hockey.

“Externally, other people expect you to be just like your father, but I give him credit for the way he was with us,” Nick said of his dad who played more than 1,000 games over the course of 15 NHL seasons. “When he saw a passion for the game in us, that’s when he pushed, but not until then. He knew that fire is what keeps you going.”

Marcus, who is four years younger than Nick, added there was always a healthy, even heated, rivalry between the brothers.

“We grew up in a neighborhood where we would always be put on opposing teams for ball hockey or whatever we were playing,” said Marcus, who played some youth hockey in Pennsylvania as well, but did the bulk of his on-ice development in Ontario.

“There were a few tough fights and some nasty name calling now and then, but that’s how you develop a thick skin.”

The brothers’ resolve was also tested by family tragedy. During his lone full season with the NTDP in Michigan, Nick was being recruited by colleges and fully intended to go the American university route. Then a phone call came from Ontario, where his parents lived and his father coached the Major Junior Sudbury Wolves. His mother, Janis, had been diagnosed with cancer. So Nick changed his plans, and moved to Sudbury for family, and for hockey.

“It turned out to be a great move, getting to play for my father and being close to my mother,” Nick said.

His on-ice work in Sudbury was sufficient for the Senators to grab Nick with the 28th overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Sadly, in the summer of 2009 after his first full season with the Senators, the Foligno family said goodbye to Janis, who lost her long fight with breast cancer.

While Marcus followed his brother’s path, first to the Wolves and then to the NHL, Nick spent four full seasons in Ottawa before the Senators dealt him to Columbus in the summer of 2012.

Initially, he found considerably less passion for the game in Ohio than in Ontario. But after the Blue Jackets won a few playoff games and hosted the NHL All-Star Game last winter, that is changing fast.

Nick Foligno represented the United States at the 2009 and 2010 IIHF World Championships.Nick Foligno represented the United States at the 2009 and 2010 IIHF World Championships.

“In Ottawa you can’t go to the gas station without being recognized by a fan who wants to talk hockey. But it’s impressive how much it’s changed in Columbus in the past three years,” said Nick, who was designated a captain for one of the All-Star Game’s two teams, with Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews serving as captain for the other.

“Now I get recognized at the grocery store, the hardware store and all over in Columbus. It’s amazing how it’s grown.”

Indeed, Foligno became the USA Hockey Magazine cover feature after Blue Jackets fans mounted a furious social media campaign on his behalf over the summer, rocketing him to the top of the list among more publicized American players like Zach Parise and Patrick Kane.

The challenge now, for Richards and Foligno, is to get the Blue Jackets to the next level. The Ohio sports community is a hungry one, and Columbus is accustomed to winning, with an NCAA football championship coming to town less than a year ago. The off-season addition of American winger Brandon Saad, fresh off scoring eight playoff goals for the Blackhawks on the way to their most recent Stanley Cup win, has only heightened the hockey hype in Columbus.

“There’s a lot of optimism and excitement, with the moves we’ve made,” Nick said. “There’s a real chance to take the next step. But it’s important to not get ahead of ourselves, to focus on doing our jobs.”

Still, in this family split by hockey passion on both sides of the border, it’s hard not to look ahead, past the coming season and the possibility of the NHL playoffs, and think even further down the road.

Marcus mused about the idea of facing his brother in the Olympics someday, and capping off the sibling rivalry in a battle for international supremacy.

Richards is more pragmatic, not looking too far ahead, as he considers the strides Nick has made on the ice, for the Blue Jackets and for another team that wears red, white and blue.

“He’s definitely put himself on the map with USA Hockey,” Richards said. “With the World Cup coming a year from now, Nick has earned a right to be a part of that conversation.”

As his game and his status continue to grow, it won’t be hard to know when this American star is making great things happen on a sheet of ice in central Ohio. Just listen for the sound of cannon fire echoing through the city.

Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.


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