Why Nick Foligno Should Wear The "C" in Columbus
As the dog days of summer wind down, and serious hockey talk begins, let's spend a moment on the Blue Jackets' vacancy in the Captain's Chair. From here, Foligno is the guy.
The headline of this piece is going to incite certain elements of the fan base, who are likely reaching for the torches and pitchforks before finishing this sentence. While I will be safely out of the country when this piece is published, let me reassure you that there is no need for alarm.
I have written in the past -- and continue to believe -- that the issue of who wears the "C" is one exclusively for the team, and not a matter of concern for the fans. The importance of the captaincy -- which is truly another entire article -- rests on the ice and in the room. Period. So, my decision to post a piece on the issue is not heresy, not in any way intended as disrespect for any other member of the Blue Jackets who is perceived to be a candidate for the position, nor to the front office for their decision not to award the "C" as yet. While it's my opinion that it would be better to name somebody sooner than later, in the final analysis it's not my call, and I'll be supportive of of whoever is selected -- or not selected -- fully reserving the right, of course, to level some criticism if I see the lack of a captain is adversely impacting the squad. After all, this is a blog . . .
No, this pieces stems from some considered reflection of what a captain is, the qualities the position requires, my observation of the guys on the ice, and some spirited debates with various members of the Blue Jackets' fan base and blog community. In fact, it was in the course of one such conversation that I was encouraged to "go public" with this view. So, I can share the blame if I get hammered here, as some folks take this "C" thing very seriously. As noted, that's a question for a different day.
A quick survey of the NHL reveals that the "C" is donned by a broad spectrum of types, from the grizzled veteran to the young superstar. While some captains are known for their dazzling stats and star power, many are not. Some are brash and combative by nature, while others present a more inscrutable facade. No, there is no uniform mold for an NHL captain in terms of how the position is approached. In my view, a successful captain is dictated more by internal qualities than external demeanor.
However, there are some external prerequisites for the position that should be met, in my view. The player should ideally have been in the NHL long enough to credibly say "been there, done that, got the T-shirt." Without that, it's tough to garner respect from the veterans and show they way for the youngsters. Next, while the captain does not need to be the team's statistical leader or a perennial All-Star, he has to have enough skill and savvy to be on the ice in all situations, and one of the guys you want out there in the final minute of a tie game. More importantly, whatever skill level the player may have, there can never, ever be a question about effort. Finally, I think the "C" needs to be earned through effort with and and for the current club. The captain should emerge organically from the common struggle, not be externally imposed, except in the most extreme circumstances.
Ultimately, however, we have to return to those internal qualities, which -- for me -- boil down to two essential traits: versatility and responsibility. An effective captain has to be versatile enough to provide a pat on the back or a kick in the ass, and understand which is required and when. He must pick the club up when it's down, keep things in focus when times are good, and be as quick with the joke or self-deprecating remark as he is with criticism of others. He has to be responsible with his on-ice duties, and never let the "C" adversely impact his performance. He has to responsibly use his role for the benefit of the team as a whole, and manage to maintain both perspective and a sense of priority. Finally, while his passion for the game must never be in doubt, he has to make responsible use of both word and deed, not allowing emotion to overcome to override sense.
So, it is with those qualities in mind that I came to Nick Foligno. He finds his way in the upper echelon of the statistical categories, from goals and assists, to hits and PIM. He's quick to step up and defend himself or a teammate, but equally quick to lay a big bear hug on a certain Russian netminder. He can be thoughtful and introspective in his comments with the press, but is not afraid to call things squarely as they are, whether it involved his own performance or that of others. At the same time, he has the good-natured hubris to call his own shot in the playoffs -- and then fulfill the prophecy.
Nick demonstrated perhaps the ultimate in perspective and priority last season when he faced the extraordinary dilemma of balancing his hockey responsibilities with the serious health issues facing his daughter. While any parent can empathize with his ordeal, none of us can truly understand the competing pressures exerted in full view of the public eye. Foligno managed to address both his family crisis and his team responsibilities, without any external indication that the inevitable stresses impacted his performance in either venue.
Again, this is not intended to discount any of the other candidates for the position, all of whom would be terrific in their own right. Horton or Hartnell? Great credentials, but I want to see somebody who has been on the ice with the club for some significant period of time. Brandon Dubinksy? Love his game and ecstatic that he signed a long extension. My concerns are that the responsibility of the "C" might curtail his intensity, or alternatively that his unbridled emotion might trump common sense a little too often. Jack Johnson? Another viable choice, but a bit vanilla and not as versatile as Mr. Foligno.
So, Foligno's my guy. After all, there are times when we all could use a good hug.