Being a Blue Jacket isn't just about playing hockey, it's about giving back and making a difference. And last week, led by captain Nick Foligno, a group of Jackets found a way to put the two roles together at the second annual NHL vs. Docs game that benefits the Neo Kids Foundation in Sudbury, Ontario.
This year's event has raised over $50,000 to date and the two-year total for NHL vs. Docs has surpassed the $175,000 mark.
"As hockey players, we have a unique opportunity to do special things in the community," defenseman Scott Harrington said. "This cause is very close to Nick and his family's heart. They want to give back and help and there was no hesitation from any of the guys when Nick approached us."
The event itself is a hockey game, but the reason behind it is so much more.
NHL vs. Docs is the brainchild of Dr. Sean Murray, Medical Director of HSN's Neo Kids and Family and Child program and Chief of Pediatrics.
Foligno and Murray knew each other through a shared contractor in Sudbury, but when the Foligno's oldest child, Milana, was born with a congenital heart defect, the two came to connect with each other on a much deeper level.
Through Milana's journey, the Foligno's came to learn that when you have a sick child, the demands for treatment and regular checkups are plentiful. For the residents of Sudbury and northern Ontario, that can often mean a trip to Ottawa or Toronto that takes upwards of four hours in a car one-way.
Putting treatment options closer to the patient and in an environment built exclusively for children is what Neo Kids is all about.
"What Dr. Murray is trying to do in Sudbury is have more of a pediatric presence," Foligno said. "It's already so disruptive when your child is sick, you just want to be able to have some sort of normalcy, and that's what Neo Kids is trying to provide while you're going through treatment. Things like that are half the battle."
And so, as Foligno came across teammates during the off-season, he invited them to join him for this year's game. The Jackets' captain wanted to reward the residents of Sudbury who have rallied behind the cause of Neo Kids by bringing NHL talent to the area in a personal forum.
Along with Harrington, Zach Werenski, Josh Anderson, and Boone Jenner headed to Sudbury to hang out for a few days and add their talents to a roster made up of NHL players and doctors from Neo Kids.
"It was fun that they mixed up the teams," Harrington said. "It was pretty cool to play with some of the doctors and meet the men who, on a daily basis, are helping to save lives through research or surgery or hands on treatment. It was special for us."
That's not to say the game wasn't competitive. Bragging rights were definitely on the line, and Foligno's team fell for the second year in a row.
"Embarrassing," Foligno said with a laugh. "I think it's me. But it was still pretty fun. I just told people I'm saving all my goals for the regular season."
And while the hockey game played to a packed house of over 700 people, it was the moments around the game that stick in people's memories. Players held a post-game autograph session, and a group of children who are currently receiving treatment met with the players in the locker room before the game.
"There's a personal touch here," Foligno said. "The smiles on their faces and how much fun they had coming in the room and joking around that we smelled bad, that's what they'll remember and bring home and tell their family and friends about. That's what it's all about.
"You're trying to take away a little bit of the worry and the sadness and the fight that's going on in their lives and let them be kids or let them enjoy their moments with their families."
Foligno says the NHL vs. Docs game is now officially an annual event. He wants to keep finding ways to make it better every year in appreciation for the efforts of Neo Kids and the people of Sudbury who've given their support.
"It's so easy for us to go out and play hockey and raise money through something like that," Harrington said. "The amount of thanks we got from the community, you could tell they were genuinely happy that we were there. We had a blast. The fact that we could raise money on top of that was just great. The way the effort came together speaks to the type of people the Folignos are."
Video: Nick Foligno discusses his fundraising efforts