For Mike Foligno it’s easy to see why the Red Wings’ rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs had such a dynamic nature when he started with Detroit in the late 1970s. An abundance of ex-teammates on the ice with one another – along with some family history divided between the two teams – simply made the matchups more meaningful for the players.
“It’s amazing how both teams are intertwined,” Foligno said. “Players have been playing on both those teams for so many years. It gives you something to play for each and every night.”
Unlike today’s infrequent matchups between the two rivals, the league’s previous alignment allowed Foligno and the Wings to play against the Leafs eight times during the right winger’s two seasons with the club, which was ample time to discover just how connected the two teams were.
“Every time we would play against the Maple Leafs it was the biggest rivalry of the year,” Foligno said. “Everybody got ready for those games and everybody was a little extra motivated. When they play against each other, it’s more for the rivalry and the bragging rights, and it makes for pretty entertaining hockey.”
Part of that extra motivation stemmed from having a number of players involved who had worn both the Leafs and the Wings jerseys. On the Leafs’ roster, forward Dan Maloney and center Walt McKechnie had previously played for Detroit, and on the Wings’ roster, more than a few players had previous ties to Toronto.
“You’ve got Errol (Thompson), who’s my linemate, and Peter Mahovlich there who used to both play for the Leafs making sure that we played our best games,” Foligno said. “Dale McCourt was a linemate of mine as well. Dale, another Ontario kid whose uncle was George Armstrong, who was with the Leafs for so many years. So we had that rivalry going as well, with Dale and I playing on the same lines.”
In his rookie season, Foligno led the Detroit roster with 36 goals and finished second to Boston Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year. After spending two full seasons with the Wings, followed by nearly a decade with the Buffalo Sabres, Foligno was traded to the Leafs, midway through the 1990-91 season.
Foligno’s move to Toronto proved to be unfortunate for the Wings when the two teams met in the first round of the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, a hard-fought series that was deadlocked until the Leafs won in overtime of Game 7.
“That rivalry catapulted the Toronto Maple Leafs at that time,” Foligno said. “You talk about the importance of one round, you try to figure out why is that so. It seems like you’re trying to find yourself in that first round, you’re trying to find that chemistry, you’re trying to gain that self-confidence.”
It took a few games for the Leafs to discover that confidence. Detroit took a 2-0 series lead, prompting Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher to rally his squad before Game 3.
“Cliff Fletcher actually had a meeting with our team because we were getting so wrapped up in retribution and retaliation that we were allowing Detroit to have so many opportunities, whether it was power play or momentum on the power play,” Foligno said. “And I remember Cliff Fletcher coming in and saying, ‘Guys, we’ve got to start playing hockey here. We’ve got to start coming together as a team and showing that discipline.’ ”
By Game 5, the series was tied 2-2, and it was Foligno who decided the outcome of the game when he scored on Wings goalie Tim Cheveldae, a moment almost as memorable for Foligno’s leaping, post-goal celebration as it is for the goal itself.
Despite how poignant the memory of that game-winning goal is, Foligno still hasn’t forgotten how many chances Detroit had to win the game before he scored, including one opportunity that Wings defenseman Paul Coffey had that nearly changed the series.
“Before I scored my overtime goal, I got caught up ice with a bunch of my linemates,” Foligno recounted. “Paul Coffey was going the other way, and I’m chasing Paul Coffey like my life depended on it. And I couldn’t catch him because he’s not one of the slowest guys in the league. Being such a fluid skater, he was just taking off and took a shot and I remember the puck hitting the outside of the post. And in that same shift we ended up going back down to score a tying goal. It’s moments like that you say to yourself, ‘It was meant to be for us that year.’ ”
In a repeat of Foligno’s goal, Leafs forward Nikolai Borschevsky scored an overtime goal in Game 7 of the series that propelled Toronto all the way to the conference finals where – in their third Game 7 of the postseason – they lost to the Los Angeles Kings.
If it hadn’t been for Foligno’s overtime goal, the Leafs might never have made it so far into the postseason. And even now, he admits that he almost hadn’t been there to score the goal, as a broken leg that most players don’t usually recover from nearly ended his career prior to the start of the season.
“I broke my leg Christmas the year before,” Foligno said. “And I remember working so hard in the summertime because I really wanted to get back to being able to play for that team, and for the players that we had there and for (coach) Pat Burns.”
It was Burns who encouraged Foligno throughout the recovery process, even to the point of taking him aside at training camp and reassuring him that he had a spot on the team so long as he took the time to properly heal.
“He came up to me afterwards and he said, ‘I want you here so make sure that you keep taking the time that you need to get back because I’m going to need a player like you,’ ” Foligno recalled. “That made me feel very comfortable when someone like that, someone of that stature, says something like that to you. It motivates you and it drives you more to want to do whatever you can to play for him. And then to score in the playoffs obviously was a combination of all that hard work that you say to yourself, ‘You know what, all that work was for a reason.’ ”