Fatherhood isn't easy.
Pretty much every new dad knows this, but we try to prepare for it as best we can. But, there's no real way to be prepared. It can, often-times, feel like one is at the mercy of a tiny human who depends on you for literally everything. When you're a professional athlete, with a demanding travel schedule and the need for sleep, that can be compounded. Throw in an unexpected health issue, and your whole world can be turned upside down.
But, as they always do, the games go on. And sometimes, we forget that the people playing these games are actual human beings with lives and families. We look at their size, strength, speed, and amazing athletic abilities and forget that they, too, are just people who have to deal with health concerns and worries.
For Blue Jackets winger Nick Foligno, it all came together in this way last October. And, the journey from then to now was one full of ups and downs--thankfully more ups than downs in the long run--that ultimately led to one of the biggest moments in franchise history. And finally, this October, to being in the best situation of his life and career. I sat down with him after practice on Thursday, and he graciously discussed the last year of his life--both at home and at the rink--with me.
Nick came to training camp in 2013 knowing that his wife Janelle was due to give birth to their first child almost any day. As anyone who has gone through those final days of waiting for the birth of their first child knows, sometimes the uncertainty can be the toughest part. Combine that uncertainty with the start of a pro sports training camp full of expectations, and things can get ever trickier. "It's always in the back of your mind," Nick said. "You don't know what to expect. I actually had some other teammates going through it, so you're hearing stories from them, and that's making you think about it. But, my focus was on hockey and making sure I was ready to play. It was an exciting time. The birth was amazing. It was really special to be able to be there, and to be a part of that with my wife and share that with her... we can't say enough about how great that experience was. I'm so happy to have a beautiful daughter."
Nick and Janelle welcomed their daughter Milana on October 14 of last year. He missed a three game road trip to be with his family, which as we know is not always the choice that athletes choose--or are able to choose--to make. And, as most new parents find out, "sleep" isn't really something you can dictate anymore, either. Hockey players need to keep their bodies in peak condition throughout the season to be at the top of their games. How does one stay rested as a new parent in the very early stages of a new hockey season?
"Well, you have to have a good wife, that's for sure," he said. "She was pretty important in making sure I was sleeping. You want to be there for them, and it's exciting too. Your first time waking up for a cry is pretty interesting. It was awesome to come home and have a daughter. You can easily put up with the crying and the changing of diapers. You just kind of adapt. You realize it's not about you anymore. That was a big eye-opener, but a great one. Obviously, we didn't have a normal start to childhood and parenthood with being in the hospital, but I think [with the hockey] you just have to find a way. It's your job. You have to be professional about it and find a way to get ready for every game. I think I did that."
Unfortunately, the Folignos found out within the first couple of days that Milana had a congenital heart defect that required a heart valve transplant. Originally, they had hoped to put the surgery off to give Milana a chance to grow and get stronger. However, it was quickly apparent that she would need to have the surgery sooner so that she could really thrive. The surgery was done in Boston on November 8, and Nick missed three additional games around that time to be with his family.
But, as this team has shown time and time again, their mental character and makeup is in many ways what defines them and what makes them such a formidable team. "I think that made it that much easier [to be away from the team], knowing the guys were OK, and were very concerned," Nick told me. "It meant a lot to my wife and I, the support we got from teammates and the organization, friends, family. It allowed us to stay strong for Milana and make sure she pushed through. I couldn't believe the support I got from these guys."
Nick was back on the ice on November 14, and was with the team full time again from that point on. But, as the season wore on and the team started to climb out of their early season hole, Nick worked to find the balance between hockey and home life. One of the most under-quantified skills a professional athlete needs to have is the ability to focus, and to put outside distractions to the side while they're playing. For Foligno, though, he carried his daughter in his mind the entire way through the grind of the regular season.
When I asked him if there was ever a point that he was able to focus only on hockey, he paused briefly. "Probably in the playoffs," he said. "That was about it. Obviously when I came to the rink, my job was to play hockey, and that was my release from everything else that was going on. She's always in the back of your mind, but you have a job to do. But she was never far from my mind. I think it wasn't until the playoffs that I realized, 'OK, everything 's OK at home right now,' and I could focus more of my attention on hockey."
As if all of this turmoil wasn't enough for Foligno, as the team rounded into form and pushed for a playoff spot in the spring, Nick was forced to miss the final six games of the regular season and the first two games of the Jackets' first round playoff series in Pittsburgh as he battled a lower body injury. While he obviously wanted to be out there playing with his team as they finished their season, there was a small silver lining with being injured: it meant that he had more time at home with his family.
"I think the biggest thing was it allowed me to help my wife out," he told me. "Unfortunately, not being with the team I probably drove her nuts a little bit, but I was able to help her with getting up at night when our daughter still wasn't sleeping well from being in the hospital. [It helped to have] things like that where you're able to lend a hand, whereas when you're with the team you're always traveling and have to be at the rink all day. [The injury] allowed me to help out at home and maybe give my wife a bit of a break."
Lost in all of this? Despite missing 12 games during the regular season while also dealing with the ongoing health issues his daughter faced, Foligno notched the highest goal total of his six NHL seasons with 18, and his points-per-game (.56) was the second highest of his career and well above his previous career-average of .42 ppg. Also, of course, the pinnacle, despite all of the off-ice trials, was that he made it back for the Jackets' final four playoff games of the year, and scored arguably the most memorable goal in the history of the franchise in netting the overtime game-winner in Game 4 against Pittsburgh at home... a goal he predicted to his teammates that he'd score during the intermission with his now-famous speech: "I’m going to go out and score the OT goal. I haven’t done a whole lot until now. But I’m going to find a way to score. I hope you don’t mind."
Now that he's had some time to digest that moment, he still smiles but is more pensive about what could have been in that series, as well as the longer-term big picture. "I'm happy I was able to get back into games, and get back to play for [Milana]. It felt really good, with everything that went on, to be able to help the team and score a goal like that in the playoffs, but I would have liked a playoff series win more than anything. I think the way we were coming together at the right time, it made it exciting and hockey was a lot of fun for everybody. It was a nice feather in the cap for me, but I think, more importantly, I like the way our team is headed and, for the first time in a long time, people in Columbus are excited about coming to the rink and watching us play. The guys are excited about what we're doing. I think it translated off the ice as well for me: things were getting back to normal in my house and I think it allowed me to play a little better."
There has been a buzz about this team since that playoff series, and for Nick the season couldn't start soon enough. Coming into camp this season without so many distractions, it has allowed him to simplify his life and, by extension, his game. When asked if the start of training camp was different for him this year, he thought for a moment. "I think so," he said. "Maybe not even just family-wise. I'm more comfortable with the team and what my role is, and how we're playing. I'm finding that I can fit in really well here. Also, someone always said: as long as your family life is in a good place, usually everything else in life is good. So, that was a big part. I finally realized that we're in a good spot as a family. There's still some things to come down the road, but right now we're in a really good place, and Milana is doing really well. So, my focus is on being a good dad, being a good person, and being a good hockey player. When you simplify it that way, it helps."
All of which brings us back to the present. Milana just had her first birthday on Tuesday, and as someone with a child of my own I can tell you that there's nothing quite like that experience of seeing your child celebrate his or her first birthday. For Foligno, it's symbolic of a life more normal, and free of many of the distractions that last year presented. "It's just normal days, now. It's been awesome. She's developing so well. It's just fun to see her do all of her 'firsts', you know, first steps, her first word is 'mama'... everything's 'mama' right now. She's doing great, and it's really nice to see. As a parent, it's so enjoyable to come home and have a family. My wife and I are really enjoying it."
And that's as it should be. They've certainly earned it.
Throughout my conversation with Foligno, I was left with the impression that, first and foremost, he's just a good person. And, the more you talk to the players in the dressing room for the Blue Jackets, the more you can see that the room is full of good people, and that they all genuinely care for each other. When he talked of how the team supported him during his absence for Milana's surgery, he noted something else that stuck with me: "I think that's why I care about this group so much. I want to make sure they know that I appreciate everything they did for me, and I want to work that much harder for them."
And that is something that doesn't show up in box scores, and can't be tracked in a Corsi rating. When guys truly care about each other and are compelled to go the extra mile for each other, the sum is almost always going to be greater than the parts.
Nick Foligno will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. When he talks about this team and how he feels being a part of it, though, one gets the impression that he won't be leaving when that contract time rolls around. With everything that's happened, I asked him if this is the most fun he's ever had playing hockey. He didn't hesitate to answer. "By far, yeah, by far," he said. "We really genuinely get along, and everyone enjoys each other's company. We're so happy for each other when a guy has individual success. I think that's what allows us to have team success. I think if you ask any guy in here, it's probably the most fun they've had in hockey in a long time, and we want that to continue."
A lot can change in a year. I'm sure every one of us knows that, and has lived it to some degree in our lives. The ability to work through adversity, and to put forth your best in the worst of times is what defines character. One need look no further than Nick Foligno and his family. For the near future of this team, one is left with a sense that the dressing room could not be in better hands than it is right now.
Author's Note: Information from the Boston Children's Hospital Pediatric Health Blog was also used to write this article.