“I basically told him after my first year that I don’t think he can be a captain,” Tortorella said. “[That] I don’t think he understands totally what it takes. I said I’m going to give him another opportunity when the season starts, but I’m going to watch him very closely.”
Tortorella’s biggest concern: “He’s one of the better people I’ve met in the game. I thought he was just too good a guy.”
Eventually, Tortorella noticed what Blue Jackets players also saw in the left winger: Foligno developed a sense of when to be chummy and supportive with teammates, and when to push them. He began finding a knack for the right moments to speak up in the locker room: When to raise his voice, and when it was appropriate to joke around.
When reminded of his blunt conversation with Tortorella four years ago, Foligno said: “That was so many years ago, I haven’t really thought about it since. I think my reaction is everything I’ve done up to this point … I think I’ve just learned that it really is who you are. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
When the Blue Jackets host the Boston Bruins on Monday night in Game 6 to fend off elimination, they’ll once again count on Foligno — their captain — to lead. But teammates say they’ve already learned valuable lessons this season from Foligno, ones about love, strength and resiliency.
Twice during the regular season, Foligno took leaves of absences to be with his sick children. Foligno and his wife, Janelle, have been candid about their family’s tribulations. Weeks after their first daughter, Milana, was born in 2013, she underwent a procedure to replace a heart valve. Milana has a rare congenital heart disease called mitral valve arcade, which has presented complications since.
In December, Foligno announced to the team after a practice that Milana was undergoing another procedure in Boston, and he would be there. According to those at practice, the players gave Foligno stick taps on the ice, then converged together for a big 25-person hug.
“When I first got here, I heard about everything with his daughter, but to see it firsthand, to get to know his family, to see him have to miss time, that’s some scary stuff,” defenseman Zach Werenski said. “We play a sport for a living, and sometimes people say it’s pressure on us. But that’s pressure stuff he went through. What he went though is pretty unbelievable, and it made us a little closer as a team.”
As teammate Cam Atkinson added, “I have a 9-month-old, and when my kid gets a cold, I feel like it’s the end of the world. So, I don’t know how he and his wife do it.”
Foligno, 31, would miss four games, and teammates grappled with how to show their support. Many athletes choose to play through trying times, believing the normalcy of routine can be used as a coping mechanism. The NHL also welcomes a culture of understanding and a humane approach when it comes to family situations. There have been several examples over the past two seasons of NHL players taking time away to deal with hardship, from Erik Karlsson to Johnny Gaudreau to Jordan Staal.
“You text him when you can, but you know a lot of people are probably reaching out to him, and you want to give him his space,” teammate Boone Jenner said of Foligno. “When he came back, after 10 days without him, it was special just to see him again.”
In March, Foligno would take time off again. This time, his 2-year-old son, Hudson, battled pneumonia so severe that his right lung collapsed at one point. After Hudson’s health improved and he returned from the hospital, Foligno would return to the squad.
Foligno’s production has dipped from his career-high 31 goals and 73 points in 2014-15 (he tallied 17 goals and 35 points in 73 games this season), but he plays his best when he is physical and adds energy to the Blue Jackets’ lineup.
He is part of a small core of players, along with Jenner, Atkinson, forward Brandon Dubinsky and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who have been with the Blue Jackets over the past six seasons and whose playoff performance this spring — advancing to the second round for the first time in franchise history — is most meaningful.
“He scores big goals for us, he hits, he fights, he does everything for us on the ice,” Werenski said. “Off the ice, he’s a guy everyone listens to and gravitates to. He’s a guy we all want to win for.”
As Atkinson added, “I can’t imagine anyone else being the captain here.”