April 11th 2021 is a day that won’t soon be forgotten in my house hold. Being a CBJ fan, I had heard all the rumors leading up to this point but had chose to hope for the best, however, when I got a text message as I was driving home from Cleveland from a friend saying Nick was scratched for the game that Saturday night, I knew what was about to happen. I knew our captain was about to be traded. Trades happen all the time in pro sports and being a 19 year fan of the Jackets, I’ve seen my fair share over the years. There have only been three of those trades that have brought me to tears and the most recent one is that of now former CBJ captain Nick Foligno. I hate to cry and I don’t do it much, so you know if there are tears it’s some thing major. There’s no crying in hockey (unless you win the cup) I know, but this, the trade of Nick was definitely major in my book.
People always tell me the same thing when I get utterly upset over a trade, “uh you know better, you know it’s a business.” Or one of my personal favorites “you cheer for the logo on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of it” and while I totally understand that frame of mind and agree with it to a point, I feel like if you have that mentality, you’ve never had an encounter with the human who’s name is on the back of the jersey that has impacted your life.
Some times it’s not always about hockey, some times it’s about the human that plays the game and the following story is why the trade of Foligno to the Maple Leafs is major to me.
Nick was traded to Columbus in 2012. He instantly became a fan favorite with everyone including my mom who hadn’t had a favorite since the Jackets traded Jody Shelley. I know the more interaction I had with Nick, the more of a fan I became too. There’s just something so down to earth about him. In my eyes he’s always seemed more human than hockey player. I say that because I think that people tend to forget that pro athletes are humans too. They go through challenges in life, they just often don’t share their struggles and I think that’s part of the reason why so many people love Nick the way they do because he has talked about the things that make him human like losing his mom to breast cancer and his daughter’s struggles with congenital heart disease. He’s a genuinely caring relatable human being and I think people can tell and want to rally behind him a little bit more.
Fast forward to 2017. It was right before the start of the season and my mom had gotten incredibly sick and ended up in the hospital. It was actually the week of the CBJ home opener that year and she was bound and determined to be out and at Nationwide arena that Friday night cause “I’ve never missed CBJ opening night, I’m not about to now. I gotta see Nick Foligno.” (If you know me, you now know where I get my hard head and stubbornness from, my momma. haha) She was so serious she even told her doctors and nurses who wrote it on the damn white dry ease board in her room. It should come as no surprise but on Friday October 6th, 2017 she was sitting in her regular seat right next to me in section 121.
Unfortunately neither one of us were as excited as we should have been. During the hospital stay and after every single test under the sun, the doctors only found one thing that concerned them, a lump on her breast, so while she had gotten out in time for the game, the real battle was about to begin.
She went back in as an outpatient the following week for the actual cancer screening. The day we found out, I think my world literally stopped turning. My mom is my best friend and literally all I have left family wise. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen if they hadn’t caught the cancer in time. Luckily for us, they had and with a few surgeries and radiation the doctor told us that mom’s prognosis was good. Something I had an absolutely hard time believing because it’s cancer, there is no cure, it kills 9.5 million people a year, there was no “good” in my mind.
We decided to only tell a handful of close family friends until we got more details. It was during that time she and I had talked about ways we both wanted to help give back to cancer community that we had now unwillingly found ourselves a part of. We wanted to do something in honor of the people who weren’t as lucky as she was in their fights. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was the Janis Foligno Foundation. (For those of you who don’t know, the JFF was started by the Foligno family in honor of Nick’s mom Janis who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2009.) I told her that as soon as I had the opportunity to run into Nick, I’d ask him if there was any way we could get involved but first we had to focus on getting her well.
As many hockey fans know, the NHL does their annual hockey fights cancer night either in October or November of every year. Even before her diagnosis it was a game we never missed. Since we hadn’t told many people at this point, mom decided that it was too hard to go to the HFC game that night and stayed home. I went with a friend who probably wishes I had stayed home too. He was one of the few who knew and we decided to make up a united we fight for card for my mom. By far one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life was write the two words of “my mom” in the space that night. Turns out her doctor was actually the one the Jackets had featured as a guest on the scoreboard that game to talk about breast cancer and that is the very last thing I remember before I broke into tears, said to my friend “I can’t do this” and ran out of the arena crying. Little did I know the next break down I would have, would be in front of Nick.
I hope you’re ready because here comes the part you’ve been waiting for, the one where Nick Foligno became more than just the captain of my hockey team and instead the first person to tell me it was going to be ok. It was probably a couple weeks after the HFC game and I was at one of the malls here in Columbus. As fate would have it I ran into Nick, his wife Janelle and their kids. I never like to bother the guys when I see them out in public because their personal time is just that, their personal time and to this day I still don’t know what made me stop and say hi to Nick as I walked out of the store. He was sweet as normal and when he asked how I was, I remember telling him horrible before asking him about the JFF and if they had plans to bring the foundation into the US as well. He questioned me on why I was horrible and that’s when the damn broke. I told him my mom had just had been diagnosis with breast cancer and that’s why I was asking about the foundation because we wanted to be able to give back. It was at that point he started asking me questions about her diagnosis. He stood there for a good 25 minutes just asking about her treatment, what hospital she was going through, what stage she was in and everything else that went a long with it. I remember trying so damn hard not to cry because who cries in front of the captain of their NHL team in the middle of the mall, but I failed miserably like you do when you’ve held something in for too long. That’s when he said “I know you’re scared, but it’s going to be ok.” Never in my life had I needed to hear those words more than I did in that moment. Here was a guy who had lost his mom to the same damn thing and he had enough faith to look me in the eyes and tell me that it was going to be ok. That’s the kind of moment that stays with you forever and gives you hope that it is actually going to be ok whether it is or not.
I eventually pulled myself together enough and apologized for taking up his time and he hugged and asked me to keep him updated on my mom which I did every chance I got and still do for that matter.
She finished radiation in the spring of 2018 and was cancer free. I told her that once she was done with treatment we could go anywhere she wanted to or do anything she wanted to so of course what she wanted to do was go support Nick’s NEO Kids charity event that summer in Sudbury, Ontario. When I questioned her about it, she didn’t even blink, “I want to go and support Nick and show him the same love and support he has given to us.” I couldn’t argue with that, so we went. The first thing he did when he saw her was jump up out of his chair and hug her, which has now become the typical response we he see’s her. When her one year cancer free anniversary rolled around, I let him know and jokily told him she had requested a goal that night and I’ll be damned, he scored. I’ll never know if it was coincidence or what but, I do know that we both jumped up and down and screamed louder than we had screamed before.
This is why a normal everyday NHL trade was that much harder for me this time around because somewhere along those 9 years that Nick was here, it became personal and not just business. He’s never treated us like run of the mill fans who just cheered for the team he was on and I can’t treat him like he was just any other player passing through those locker room doors. He wasn’t and he never will be to me.
Listen, I know you are reading this right now and are like uh Jess, this isn’t quite a normal experience, and yeah you are absolutely right. I’ve been extremely lucky. Most people don’t get the chance for some kind of personal connection but I can almost guarantee you there are dozens of other CBJ fans out there who have some kind of personal experience they can share with you about how Nick has touched their life beyond the rink.
It’s hard because we didn’t just lose our captain but we also lost an amazing human. He’s has done so much for everyone, not to mention the Columbus community. He and his family donated one million dollars, $500,000 a piece to Nationwide Children’s hospital and Boston Children’s hospital after his daughter was born with a life threatening congenital heart defect. For every goal he scored throughout the season, Papa Johns Columbus would donate 500 dollars to the Janis Foligno Foundation which helps raise support and awareness for breast cancer. He’s held an annual charity event game called NHL vs. Docs in Sudbury to help benefit the NEO Kids foundation for better medical care for the kids in northern Ontario. And recently he and his just as amazing wife (maybe some times even more so), Janelle started the Heart’s Playbook foundation which not only shares their daughter Milana’s story but also helps raise awareness for congenital heart disease.
Humans like Nick and the impact they leave do not come along every day and that’s why in some circumstances it’s more about the name on the back than the logo on the front and also why he will always have two more people who cheer for him no matter what that logo is.
All of that being said, yes, I know he was a UFA, yes I know this is an incredible opportunity for him and yes that he could possibly return as a free agent signing in July, but I also know hockey and there are never any guarantees especially in an expansion draft year. While I’m hoping this just a see you later type thing, I will continue on as if he’s really gone and on that note I have to go help mom buy a Leafs jersey.
Thank you for everything you’ve done Foligno family, we love you and always will. Go Leafs Go….. for now.
Since you’ve made it this far through do me a favor, please go check out more about the Heart’s Playbook Foundation, by visiting their website
Or you can check out the interview I did with Janelle Folingo back in February by going here
Or if you’d like to check out/donate to the Janis Foligno Foundation you can do so here