For the CBJ captain, watching two of his children fight through serious illness brought a new perspective to both parenting and hockey.
On the ice, Nick Foligno leads and motivates the Columbus Blue Jackets as the team captain. At home, he has an even more important job: dad.
Those priorities were crystal clear last season, when Foligno stepped away from the game after two of his children became seriously ill. It’s a situation that doesn’t happen often in pro sports. But it was a decision every parent could relate to, and one for which his team and fans showed unwavering support.
Watching the Folignos’ three young children play hockey in the backyard of their Upper Arlington home, you’d never suspect two of them had been so sick. But the 2018-19 season was a rough one for Nick and his wife, Janelle.
First, daughter Milana was diagnosed in November with endocarditis. After six weeks of IV antibiotics, she underwent valve replacement surgery. Milana, now 6, was born with a congenital heart issue that required a valve replacement when she was just 3 weeks old. “We knew there was always the possibility, the risk I should say, that that valve could get infected because it’s a foreign object in her body,” Janelle says. “We hoped it wouldn’t happen, but that nightmare happened.”Get top reads, event recommendations, guides, parenting trends and more ideas for family fun. Subscribe to Columbus Parent’s weekly e-newsletter, The Bulletin.
Milana spent about two weeks at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she’d had her first surgery. Shortly thereafter, in mid-January, the Folignos’ oldest son, Landon, now 4, broke his leg. Then in March, Hudson, now 2, got pneumonia and spent five days at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Shortly after Landon got his full-leg cast off, Hudson got sick again and spent more than three weeks in the ICU. That time, he had a collapsed lung and needed to be put on a ventilator. It was a harrowing five months.
Foligno stepped off the ice for a game in November, four games around the new year and a March road trip. “You feel a responsibility that you want to be in both places. … But I needed to be home. I needed to be around my family. That’s the most important thing in my life is my wife and my kids,” he says.
Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen says there was never a question of whether Foligno should play. “It’s always family first, even though we are a business and very results-oriented and under pressure,” he says. “It’s not even negotiable.”
Cam Atkinson, the team’s longest-tenured player, thinks highly of Foligno—as a player and a person. “He’s our leader. He brings everyone into the fight every single day,” Atkinson says. “It’s really an honor and a privilege to play with Nick.”
So when Foligno’s children got sick, for his teammates, there was no question where he belonged—even though it meant playing without their leader. “Losing the captain for quite some time, there’s always that void you have to fill,” Atkinson says. “He’s kind of the heart and soul of the team.”
Foligno was overwhelmed by the support. “The outpouring of love from those guys and the organization just makes me so proud to be a Blue Jacket, and that’s probably a real big reason why I wear my heart on my sleeve with those guys and I want to do everything I can to help them,” he says.
Fans routinely offered support in the postgame autograph area. “Pretty well every person would ask me how my daughter was doing,” he says. “They have no idea how much that means to me. And you know, it humanizes things. At the end of the day, we’re all on this world as the same people and we use all the same services, and it’s amazing the stories I would hear from those people as well. Like, hey, my daughter was just there, or my son was there. Or, we’ve used the services at Nationwide, and we’re praying for you. And so it was really humbling.
“I think it gave me a great perspective in a season that was pretty difficult for our team last year,” he says. “Even for me as a player, I’m watching my kids fight for their lives. … So it gave me a wild perspective on the game of hockey in a lot of ways, and I think it made me a better person, a better player, probably a better leader for our team.”
Kekalainen agrees. “You try to grow every day, and you try to learn something new every day,” he says. “When you do that, you grow as a leader and a captain as well.”
On the Ice and in the Community
Foligno, 32, was born in Buffalo, New York, where his father, Mike, played for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. The younger Foligno joined the Blue Jackets in July 2012 via a trade with the Ottawa Senators. He made his NHL debut with Ottawa in 2007, after being chosen as the 28th pick in the first round of the 2006 NHL draft. He previously played for Sudbury—his parents’ hometown—in the Ontario Hockey League.
Hockey runs deep in the Foligno family. Nick’s younger brother, Marcus, plays for the Minnesota Wild, and cousin Lucas Theriault plays in the OHL. Mike is a 15-season NHL veteran who played 1,018 games and has held various coaching and scouting posts. He’s best known for the “Foligno Leap,” his trademark celebration move after scoring a goal. His sons, as fans know, have carried on that tradition.
In late October, Foligno played his 500th game for the Jackets, becoming only the seventh player in team history to do so. In 2016-17, he received the King Clancy Award and Mark Messier Leadership Award.
“He’s such a well-respected guy around the league,” Atkinson says. “He’s the type of guy who would do anything for his teammates and friends.”
Foligno is committed not only to hockey, but to using his job to give back. Perhaps most well-known is the $1 million gift the Folignos made in October 2016, split between Nationwide Children’s and Boston Children’s hospitals. Here, the donation was directed to the Foligno Family Cardiovascular Research Lab. In Boston, the funds were earmarked for fetal and surgical cardiac research.
“We want to make sure that we get the word out that these places are continuing to help these kids and pull off miracles, and just the care that you receive is unbelievable,” Nick says.
Nichole Ferris, vice president of development for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation, says the impact of the donation is far-reaching. “They really wanted to support the cardiovascular research lab here and just try to figure out why those congenital heart defects were happening in the first place,” she says.
“They are very generous, humble people. As a pro athlete, he has a platform most people don’t have,” Ferris says, adding that the couple is always willing to help, whether through patient visits with the team or gestures such as providing gifts cards or giving cookies to nurses.
The Folignos spend the offseason in Sudbury. His annual NHL vs. Docs hockey game there has raised $440,000 in four years for the NEO Kids Foundation, which focuses on pediatric health care and hopes to one day build a children’s hospital.
Even closer to his heart is the Janis Foligno Foundation, which honors his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2009. The organization is dedicated to cancer research and helping patients. “I’d love to see a way to try to bring it down to Columbus, because I know we’ve had so much support down here,” he says.
In April, Foligno received the Blue Jackets’ 2018-19 Community MVP Award, which he previously won in 2016-17 and 2014-15. The award recognizes players for service, dedication and leadership. The Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation donated $5,000 in his name to Nationwide Children’s pediatric intensive care unit.
“Do It Together”
The struggle of balancing work and family is familiar to all parents, but it takes on a different meaning when your spouse is a pro athlete whose regular season lasts six months.
“That’s always been our thing as a parent was, do it together,” Nick says. “She’s unfortunately left alone a lot because I’m gone, but any decisions, anything we do, we try to help each other along. And it’s been a great marriage because of that. And then it’s been really fun to parent because of that.”
“I think for me, the hardest part is just not having the same support system that I would if I had my family around. We’ve been lucky enough to have two babysitters that we love that have almost become part of our family,” Janelle says.
“There’s definitely hard days. There’s a lot of hard days, but it’s part of helping your kids and making them realize the right and wrong way of doing things. And I think it makes you appreciate your parents a lot more, too,” Nick says. “It’s so true though, the age-old saying that you act like your parents. As you get older, you start to do the same things over and over. And I definitely do that. Janelle reminds me quite often, “You sound like your father right now.’ ”
Atkinson, Foligno’s longtime teammate, credits Foligno’s parents for instilling a strong foundation that he has passed on to his own children. “One thing that I really appreciate and respect about Nick, obviously he’s a hell of a hockey player, but just the type of family man he is and a dad,” Atkinson says.
“I think a lot of days, you wonder if you’re doing it the right way,” Nick says. “But I think when you see those little moments, as a parent I love just watching the growth of my children and those aspects, and it’s progress, right? It’s teaching them how to be a great person, to eventually allow them to have all these tools that they’re going to use later in life.”
“For me, it’s seeing the love that they have for one another and feeling that love back for us,” Janelle says. “I feel like there’s no feeling in the world as great as feeling the love from your child, and then just seeing that within the siblings, too.”
Though it’s too soon to tell whether they’ll be future hockey stars, the kids do take an interest in the Blue Jackets and love wearing team gear, Nick says, especially when he is, too. “I’ll never force my kids to play hockey if they don’t want to, but what I want to do, I hope, is project my love of the game for them. And that’s something that my dad did.”
He also enjoys seeing the game through his children’s eyes. “They love coming to the rink. They run right for the bubble gum when they get there. They know where it is, which is pretty bad. But just those kind of moments, that’s what I remember as a kid. I remember going to the rink and having 13 pieces of bubble gum in my mouth because that was the only time I was allowed to have it, or running around the shower or the rink, or putting guys’ gear on. And it’s so cool to see my childhood through my kids again, and it’s been really fun.”