Why Nick Foligno’s heart chose the Maple Leafs at the deadline

Elliotte Friedman joins Martine Gaillard on Sportsnet Central to break down the impact of the Toronto Maple Leafs trades, acquiring Nick Foligno and David Rittich.

TORONTO – Nick Foligno was only five years old when he first sensed the appetite of Leafs Nation.

His dad, Mike — the one with the indestructible bubble helmet and the defensive conscious — had just helped the Toronto Maple Leafs thump the visiting St. Louis Blue 6-0 in Game 7 of the 1993 Norris Division finals. For the first time in a generation, Toronto was headed to the final four.

Young Nick walked home with his family from Maple Leaf Gardens that night, city abuzz, eyes wide open.

“The parade atmosphere that the fans kind of gave, that just stuck with me to this day — how passionate Leafs fans are,” Foligno, 33, said Sunday after blessing a trade to Dad’s old club.

“I remember I’m not a big fan of Kerry Fraser after that.”

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The closest Mike got to touching the Stanley Cup was that year, ’93, in this city.

So, there was a giddy anticipation crackling on the phone line when Nick called his father Sunday to inform him another Foligno would be donning his Blue and White sweater, with a legitimate one-time shot to go deeper in the playoffs than anyone in their hockey-mad family has gone before.

“Enjoy it,” Mike instructed. “Play with passion.”

As if Nick, a lay-it-on-the-line captain for nine hard years in Columbus, knows any other way.

“The fans in Toronto are passionate, and that lines up with who I am and how I play. I think it will just come out that way. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” Nick says.

“I look forward to having another 71 flying around out there. It will be fun to wear that number that my dad wore.”

For Foligno, reality began to sink in on Saturday.

David Savard, a longtime co-leader in the Blue Jackets room and a fellow pending UFA, was dispatched to Tampa Bay for futures. Riley Nash, another teammate with a blue-collar work ethic, was sent to Toronto.

It was clear Kyle Dubas was clearing cap space. And it was clear the Jackets — seven points and three teams out of a playoff spot, with key contributors Boone Jenner and Zach Werenski too injured to help — were salvaging whatever possible from a lost campaign.

“As the captain here and as a guy that just never really says it’s over ’till it’s over, you know, I just never really wanted to think about that,” Folgino says. “Columbus and I grew together. When I got here, we were a team that didn’t have a ton of respect.”

Individual and organizational stripes were earned through the Jackets’ first playoff game win (over Pittsburgh in 2014) and first series triumph (a stunning sweep of the heavily favourited Tampa in 2019).

So, it was “bittersweet” for Foligno to rhyme off the talented teammates he’s leaving behind and discuss the hard but critical lessons gleaned from John Tortorella, “one of my best, favourite coaches to date.”

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From leader to coveted role player, Foligno isn’t taking his deadline decision lightly. He’s as thoughtful about where he’s leaving as he is excited about where he’s going. And he believes he owes it to the guys playing out the string to go do his thing.

“Columbus is an underrated city that doesn’t get its due in how avid hockey fans they are and how much they care about this team. And I felt that every time I stepped on the ice. And I tried to reciprocate that and make them know that I cared about being their captain,” Foligno says. “What they’ve given me is an understanding of how important it is to connect with your fan base and the community that you live in.

“Columbus has a place in my heart forever. Forever and ever. And that’s how our family feels.”

The versatile forward found himself in high demand in a thin rental market. Foligno held a 10-team no-trade list. He respects GM Jarmo Kekalinen for keeping him in the loop throughout the process and giving him control of his own fate.

Toronto was attractive for a number of reasons.

Foligno had skated with Auston Matthews a little in the U.S. program, knows captain John Tavares a little, and has long admired Joe Thornton from afar. Foligno sees some of himself in friend and former Senators teammate Jason Spezza, a cagey vet whose Cup dream won’t die.

Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and numerous Leafs broke from viewing the Masters Sunday to welcome Foligno aboard.

“Everything just felt right. I’m a guy that plays off my gut, my heart,” Foligno says. “My heart was telling me this was the right move.”

At the risk of sounding unromantic, the heart is often informed by the brain.

In the first-place Maple Leafs, an improved variation of the squad Foligno’s Jackets booted from the bubble, Foligno sees a core that has learned something about themselves. That can win games on the backs of their defence. That is getting an outstanding turn in net from Jack Campbell. That is consistently coming out on the happy side of one-goal affairs.

“Watching them lately, you can just see a different focus in their group, in how they are going about themselves,” Foligno says. “I just feel like they’re a team that’s understood who they are and how they have to have success to win, and I’m excited to bring you know what I know to that and then hopefully help push the needle even further.

“They’re understanding who they are now — which is a scary thing when you have the firepower that they have.”

Foligno is a dual citizen who spends summers in Sudbury, Ont. He and wife Janelle, “my rock,” have decided he’ll make the trip to Toronto and serve his seven-day quarantine alone. She’ll hang back in Ohio with their three children because, “no offence,” he says, there’s not much for kids to do in Ontario right now with the lockdown.

“They understand Daddy is going there to do a job,” Foligno says. “I’m going to go and do my best I can and try and help them and bring a Cup home.”

Foligno says he’ll never forget the Leafs’ playoff run of ’93.

He understands why Mike talks about that roller coaster to this day. He gets it. What all of this means to his family, his new teammates in Toronto, and all those rabid fans aching to be inside Scotiabank Arena for a run worth celebrating.

“It’s kind of ingrained into that city and people still talk about it to this day, so I’m looking forward to going on another one. Being the next Foligno to do so,” Foligno says. “I’m excited to join a team that has put themselves in a position to be talked about in that light, as a team that can do some damage in the playoffs.

“To have that opportunity come full circle and be able to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s a dream come true in a lot of ways.”

Yes, for the record, Foligno will consider signing back with Columbus as a free agent in the off-season. He’s a pure rental.

But all we have is the present. And adding a player of Foligno’s character could be a gift.

“For me, right now and where I’m at, it’s full steam ahead with the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Foligno says. “That’s my focus. And that’s what they deserve.”

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