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Young Foligno follows father's path by choice

by Karl Samuelson

Although Senators' rookie forward Nick Foligno grew up in locker rooms as the son of former NHL forward Mike Foligno, he had to earn his way onto Ottawa's roster.

The 1987-88 season was a special one for Mike Foligno. The Buffalo Sabres right winger finished third on the team with 29 goals and led the club with seven game-winners. He set a career-high with 220 penalty minutes, which to that point was the second highest one-season total in Buffalo history. Emblematic of his status as a perennial fan favorite, Foligno won the Frank Eddolls Memorial Trophy as the Sabres’ most popular player for the fourth consecutive year.

It was a season to remember off the ice as well for the high-energy power forward. Halloween brought the ultimate treat when Foligno and his wife, Janis, celebrated the birth of son Nicholas.

Young Nick proved to be an easy kid to have around the house. He was solid in school and respectful of his parents and siblings. Like his father, he loved hockey and never missed an opportunity to spend time with Dad and his teammates around the dressing room at “The Aud.”

“I was able to be around (hockey) my whole life,” says Nick, now a rookie for the Ottawa Senators. “It was definitely a neat thing to be around the guys in the locker rooms and learning the ways of a professional hockey player at such a young age. I’ve really enjoyed the game since I was little. I think I was destined to be a hockey player.”

But as William Jennings Bryan said of destiny, “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

Nick never was given preferential treatment on a hockey team in spite of the fact that his father was a well-known professional. He had to earn his own accolades. Opponents didn’t care about his last name. Teammates were most concerned about what he could do to help them win. His father could show him the way, but the younger Foligno had to achieve on the ice by himself.

Nick didn’t disappoint. His junior hockey career was similar to his father’s in that both played for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves before making the leap to the NHL. With his father acting as head coach, Nick improved his production in all categories during each of his three seasons in Sudbury, and last season set career highs in goals (31), assists (57) and points (88). He led an average Sudbury squad to the OHL final against the Plymouth Whalers and paced the team with 12 goals, 29 points and was plus-14 in 21 playoff games.

Having your father as the coach was not problematic due to the business-like approach Mike and Nick took to their respective roles on the team.

“No, it never was difficult,” says Nick. “We’d always joke around that we’d have a few fights and I’d have to go sleep at my aunt’s house. But you know what? That never really happened. It was a great experience. We treated it like a business and I think that’s what you have to do when your father is the coach. It’s a job at the rink and when we get home, it’s back to being father and son. He handled that really well for the most part and that’s why we were successful in doing the things that we did. I think the other players on the team appreciated us for that and it made for a much better environment. There was never jealousy on the team. I’m good friends with all those guys and it was a great environment for everyone.”

Like most hockey families, the influence of Nick’s mother should not be minimized.

“She was unbelievable,” Nick says, “especially at a young age when my father was away playing hockey or coaching. She was the one to take me to the rinks, get me up for practice and feed me the meals. So it was her that I had to thank for supporting me every day at the rink, cheering me on. As a hockey player there are highs, but there are also lows that you have to endure and I’m very grateful to have her in my corner.”

Many hockey families would be well advised to take a page out of the Foligno book when it comes to nurturing a young child in the sport. They were not a family to push their son in the direction of becoming a hockey player. Nick never felt any pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Former NHL forward Mike Foligno spent
a total of 15 seasons from 1980-94 with
Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto and Florida.

“You know what kind of pressure was put on me by my parents?” Nick says. “None. My Dad just loved the fact that I enjoyed the game. He always stressed that to me and it’s the same with my Mom. We had a few players on my team growing up that had aggressive parents and it used to bother us because here we were, just young kids trying to have a good time. That’s what my parents stressed the most – have a good time. That’s the way I approached it and I think I’m better for it. I enjoy the game a lot. The reason I’m here today is because I was never forced into doing anything when I was younger. They supported me no matter what I decided. I decided to become a hockey player because I enjoyed it so much.”

As Nick matured through his teenage years he heard a familiar refrain from his parents – go out and enjoy the game, and if you make the NHL that’s great, but if you don’t, there are plenty of other options in your life.

“I heard that all the time,” he says. “My mother was the one who suggested that if I didn’t want to become a hockey player it was fine by her. She lived the life. But the game of hockey has been good to my family. We love the sport. We’ve been good to the sport and the sport has been good to us. My parents never, ever pushed me when I was younger or said that I should play hockey. The message was always, ‘Do what you want and follow your heart’. My heart led me to this sport.”

It was Nick Foligno’s heart that attracted Ottawa scouts and led to their decision to choose him in the first round (No. 29 overall) of the 2003 Entry Draft. He now finds himself skating among the most dedicated athletes in the world. Cracking the talent-deep Ottawa lineup will take the same resolve shown years ago by his mentor. Does the term, “Like father, like son” apply?

“It does and it doesn’t,” says the younger Foligno, who has scored two goals in 12 games so far. “I think that we’re two totally different players in the sense that he was more of a rugged winger. I like to pass the puck more than he did in his career. He was more of a shooter. I don’t fight as much as he did, but I definitely get in there and get my nose dirty, so I take that style from him, for sure. The other thing that makes us similar is that we both love to play the game. I know that he played with a lot of passion and I’m trying to do that now.

“I consider myself to be a pretty good all-round player,” Foligno said. “I don’t want to be thrown off guard at either side of the rink. Even at defensive positioning I try to make sure that I’m sound. Nothing really throws me off guard. I’m just trying to make an impact whenever I’m on the ice. Whether it’s a defensive role or offensive role, I just want to make sure that I’m doing what the coaches ask.”

Perhaps the most common element in father and son is the fire that burns within to be an impact player.

“Definitely,” Foligno said. “I want to be an impact player. I enjoy this sport so much. You’re playing the game you love for a living. That’s something that excites me. I get up every day excited to come to the rink. It’s such fun to be around these guys because there are a lot of great players in this locker room. Just to talk to them and have them as mentors is a great first year experience. Hopefully I can take what they say and learn from it as fast as possible. I want to be a guy that the team can trust to do the job when I’m on the ice and not worry. That’s something that will take time and I’ll have to grow with it. But I want to be the guy that they can look to and know that I’ll do the job.”

Do the job? That makes sense. After all, that’s what the Foligno name is all about in the game of hockey.


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