Although Columbus kid Ryan Paul loved watching hockey -- specifically the Blue Jackets -- he wasn’t convinced that he had what it takes to play.
But that all changed after meeting Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno.
Ryan’s mom, Debbie, said after her son met Foligno and listened to him talk about how, despite being named captain, he still felt like he could continue to improve as a player, Ryan felt encouraged to start playing hockey.
“Ryan, in confidence, told me that if somebody like Nick Foligno, who is so good at what he does, thinks that he can get better, then there’s a good chance for somebody like himself, who doesn’t feel like he has what it takes to play hockey,” Debbie said. “It kind of motivated him to give it a shot.”
Ryan, 12, and younger brother Tyler, 7, first met Foligno after a game during an autograph signing.
“It was awesome,” Ryan said. “It was after a game, and we got a picture with him. I think he’s a good player. He scored like 31 goals this year!”
“The boys were just blown away,” Casey Paul, the boys’ father, said. “They got their pictures taken with him and he signed a couple of things, chatted for a while and, of course, he’s such a nice guy, they had a great impression of him.”
“From a mom’s perspective, the fact that they are such good role models is so positive,” Debbie said. “They like the community, they do good things. It’s so nice to meet people and feel like they are part of an organization that makes a difference, that they belong and I want that for my kids.”
Foligno, being a father to two young kids himself, understands how important it is for children to find something they are passionate about.
“I’ve got kids of my own and I know the struggles you go through as a parent. You care and you never stop worrying about your kid and you just want what’s best for them,” Foligno said. “But when you can find something he’s passionate about, that he cares about, then you want to enhance it that much more, and you can see that with their family.
"If (Ryan) loves the game of hockey, let’s bring him out to as many things as possible and get him surrounded by that.”
The second time the family met Foligno was at Nationwide Arena on the day Foligno was named the sixth captain in Blue Jackets history.
“They’re both just infatuated with him and Ryan, being autistic…he doesn’t like to interact with people outside of his little bubble,” Casey said. “Tyler, however, got into lessons and he’s learning everything about hockey and he’s loving it, soaking it all up, and Ryan just didn’t quite want to do that. He liked watching the games, but didn’t really want to go do lessons or anything like that.”
A couple of interactions with Foligno helped Ryan get excited about the idea of playing hockey. He was motivated, ready to go, and ready to take on the challenge.
The family of four resides in Grove City, and both boys practice weekly at the OhioHealth Chiller ice rink at Easton. In addition to hockey providing good physical exercise, it also provides the boys with an opportunity to work alongside and interact with other kids.
“For Ryan, it’s tremendous because he’s not very social,” Casey said. “He doesn’t know how to interact with people, and this is a great opportunity to go out and work as a team with people. I think that’s really the benefit for him because he can react and interact with people.”
Foligno said that the communication and people skills he’s picked up from hockey have greatly impacted his life.
“The game of hockey surrounds you and puts you in situations where you have to get out there and get outside your norm and really get to know people and bond together, and it’s allowed me to be where I am today just as a person, first and foremost," Foligno said. "I think that’s been the biggest thing for me.”
The Paul family feels that hockey has helped all of them, and not just the two boys. In fact, Casey and Debbie feel that it’s been such a positive influence that they invested in a quarter season ticket package for the 2015-16 campaign.
“This was one of the motivations for us buying a lot of tickets this year, was the more things we can do together as a family, it keeps everybody tight and it keeps everybody communicating and builds for a healthy family,” Casey said.
"That’s the kind of positive influence that we want," Debbie added.
Hearing about Ryan's new-found confidence and excitement to start playing hockey brought a big smile to Foligno's face.
“You take it upon yourself, as a guy who believes he’s a role model and a leader, not only on the team but in the community, to try to help and make them smile," Foligno said. "It’s great for them to find something that can really help him.”
"And a kid like him, he’s just an outstanding young man and they have a great family. It’s nice to see the game of hockey make him smile and be happy.”