Emotional Nick Foligno debut will give Maple Leafs a much-needed boost

Nick Foligno talks about jumping right in, and playing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for his Maple Leafs debut, says he hopes to rekindle the magic from when he last played with Matthews in the 2016 worlds.

It was when he spotted the CN Tower as the airplane began to finish its descent.

And when the customs agent gave him a giddy “Go, Leafs, go!” and welcomed him home.

It was when his phone blew up with text messages from all those Ontario-based buddies and family members saying they could finally root for him with their whole heart.

And when the Columbus Blue Jackets equipment guy handed over his gear, already packed into a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey bag. Because, hey, Mikko Lehtonen wouldn’t be using it again — and shipping ain’t cheap.

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It was when former teammate and close friend Cam Atkinson severed his phone number from the Jackets’ group chat, and he suddenly found himself privy to a new dressing room’s inside jokes. Chirps from a bunch of anonymous digits he’d need to plug into his contacts.

And on Thursday night, in the bowels of Bell MTS Place, it’ll be when he pulls on that blue and white sweater — a FOLIGNO nameplate stitched across the shoulders, 71 on the back, memories and legacy woven into the fabric.

“All these years you try not to be your dad, you’re still your dad,” Nick Foligno told podcast host Daren Millard on The Chirp this week. “That’s the coolest part, I think, for me now. Now I see why he was so excited. Now I get to instill that in my kids.

“This really hits home for me because this is my childhood.”

Nick won’t be donning the iconic Northland bubble bucket his father, Mike, wore during the Maple Leafs’ last great playoff run in 1993.

But he may wish to consider a cape for his debut in Winnipeg Thursday night.

The power forward’s emergence from quarantine could not have arrived at a better time.

Foligno’s first new team in nine years is floundering through a season-worst five-game losing skid. The Leafs’ special teams are in crisis, and they can’t buy a save. Their younger version of a homegrown Foligno, Zach Hyman, is out a minimum of two weeks with a sprained knee, and the injury bug has spread to Ilya Mikheyev (game-time decision) and Zach Bogosian (out one week minimum).

Meanwhile, the host Jets, who hold a game in hand, could knot the Leafs for top spot in the country with a clean sweep over this two-game set.

Winnipeg should benefit from a lineup and leadership boost of its own, as captain Blake Wheeler returns from a concussion and reunites with linemates Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.

Foligno, who sported a ’93 Leafs snapback Starter cap after morning skate, leaps immediately into the top line, to the left of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

“Might as well jump right in, right?” Foligno smiled. “I’ll be playing off adrenaline more than anything tonight, and I’m looking forward to being out there. I haven’t played in 10 days. I’m not expecting to jump in and start dangling, but I do want to contribute.”

GM Kyle Dubas surrendered a first-round pick for an impact forward — and Foligno sounds like a guy ready to be shot out of the Nationwide canon. Coach Sheldon Keefe gave him the option to wait, practise and debut Saturday, but the player wasn’t hearing it.

“You kinda have pinch-me moments that I’m a Maple Leaf,” the 33-year-old said. “I don’t think I even realized how excited I was going to be until after the dust settled.

“I’m still the guy who gets nervous before big games.”

Why?

“There’s a care behind it.”

The photograph Foligno tweeted out before he kissed his family and Ohio goodbye — the one where he is holding his miracle daughter Milana, and sons Hudson and Landon are guarding Dad’s sticks and Lehtonen’s used bag? Nick figures he’ll get that framed one day.

It’s an image of a man setting out to follow his heart, of a family supporting a dream. Foligno explained that his children weren’t so sad that day; they’re old enough to comprehend how excited Dad was for this opportunity.

“They were pumped for me in a way,” Foligno said. “I actually feel rejuvenated a little bit. I didn’t realize the shot in the arm this would give me.”

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Whereas fellow trade acquisition Riley Nash had to quarantine in a hotel room with his wife and a newborn, Foligno spent his seven days of isolation at the family’s expansive summer home in Sudbury, Ont.

And although Mike lives right next door, the father and son took social distancing seriously, waving through the window only.

Armed with a to-do list from wife Janelle (“I’m in one here,” Foligno chuckled) and all the time in the world, Foligno made good use of his full gym and sport court, stickhandling, shooting and keeping his cardio up.

“Talking to the walls isn’t fun. You definitely miss the kids running around,” Foligno said. “If I can’t be on the ice, this is probably the next best thing. I want to do everything I can to hit the ground running.”

New Leafs Ben Hutton and Stefan Noesen have joined Foligno in Winnipeg for the series. Their debuts will wait. Thursday is about Foligno.

“That, of course, will give our group a boost. We’ve got to remain confident. It’s difficult to do when you’re not getting the results,” Keefe said.

“He’s ready to go. A big reason why you acquire veteran players is because they know exactly who they are. They know exactly what works for them. They know what they need to bring to a team. They know why they were acquired.”

Pressure is privilege.

Nerves are a symptom of excitement.

So, a new Foligno era begins for Toronto. More hard checking, shot-blocking and net driving. Less antique helmets and jumping up and down after goals.

“When people think of Mike Foligno, that’s what they think,” Foligno smiled.

“Nick Foligno? Hopefully it’s good player and Stanley Cup champion.”

Maple Leafs projected lines
Foligno-Matthews-Marner
Galchenyuk-Tavares-Nylander
Simmonds-Kerfoot-Mikheyev
Thornton-Brooks-Spezza

Rielly-Brodie
Muzzin-Holl
Sandin-Dermott

Campbell starts
Rittich

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