When Nick Foligno’s daughter Milana was born with a congenital heart defect two-and-a-half years ago, he knew he could rely on his Catholic faith for solace and strength. His mother Janis had died four years prior to that — an experience that initially threw him but eventually helped him gain a more positive outlook on life. Now, instead of seeing his mother as having been taken from him at an early age, he looks at the blessing of the years they did have together.
The family-oriented Foligno, 28, wants to make the most of his time with his wife Janelle and their two children. Each day with them is seen as a blessing, and so is each day he can play in the National Hockey League. His playing career is very much associated with family, since his brother Marcus plays for the Buffalo Sabres, and their father Mike played 15 years in the NHL.
Now as a forward and captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets (28-33-8), Nick Foligno is making use of the physical and mental skills passed on to him. The Buffalo, N.Y., native, who has dual Canadian-American citizenship, recently spoke about his family and hockey career — and how his Catholic faith has made him who he is today.
What do you think of the Blue Jackets’ season so far?
It’s been a roller coaster of emotions. There were high expectations for us as we started the season, but we didn’t live up to them. We lost our footing and fell behind with a 0-7 record. A slow start like that is always tough to recover from. However, we have a new coach now, and our record has improved … so we’re at least closer to where we want to be.
Your father played in the NHL and was your coach in junior hockey. What are the most important things you have learned from him about the sport?
My dad has had a huge influence on how my brother and I play the game. His 15 years of NHL playing experience have come in handy. He knows how, not only to get to play among the best players in the world, but to do so over the course of many years.
Probably the two major things my dad has passed on to me are a proper work ethic and a passion for the game. He taught me that no matter what else was going on outside of you, work ethic was one thing you always had control over. So many things can pop up as distractions, but the bottom line is that the work you put into the game is completely in your hands. You and you alone make the decision to get to the rink early and take extra practice, or go to the gym and lift when no one else is. Things like that may not seem like fun, but they do pay off down the road.
The second major point from my dad — passion for the game — is related to the first. Your love of the game is what leads you to do the extra work and it’s the driving force to do well in games. If you want to play with the best, you can’t just look at hockey as a hobby; it should be something you’re intent on putting everything into.
What do you like most and least about hockey?
I love the team aspect of hockey. Everyone needs to be on the same page in order for things to come out smoothly. Even if you have a superstar on your team, things can crumble really fast if you’re not functioning as one unit. This constant need for communication and teamwork is something I deeply appreciate being a part of.
Kind of paradoxically, the team aspect is also the most challenging thing about hockey. Because you rely on others and they rely on you, there’s a continual vulnerability in play. You have to trust your teammates to do things to help you, and they have to trust you to do things to help them.
Have you always associated hockey with Catholicism?
Yes, the two have always gone hand-in-hand for my family. My parents raised me, my brother, and my two sisters in the Catholic faith. It has always been seen as the most important thing in life, so we were taught that the way we played hockey was an expression of gratitude to God.
We were told that our lives and talents are God’s gift to us, and what we do with them is our gift back to God. The ability to play was given to me and my brother without any merit on our part, but we’re expected to fine tune that ability and make it productive. It’s like the parable of the talents.
Now that you’re married with children of your own, what do you enjoy most about family life?
I love sharing and building a life with my wife. Getting married, having kids, buying our first home — all those things that are part of what makes up a family — are special because they’re done with someone else. God made us human beings dependent on each other, so we can only exist at all in collaboration with other people, and marriage is an especially clear example of this.
Was there a particularly tough time in life that your faith got you through?
My mom died of cancer in 2009, which was devastating for me. I was hurt and angry and wondered how something like that could happen. She was young and lived a healthy life, so it just didn’t make sense that she would become sick and die.
To be honest, I ran from God at the time. It was very difficult to deal with the loss of my mom. However, my dad always remained strong in his faith, which ended up helping me. He was left without a wife, but didn’t let that get in the way of seeing a deeper meaning and purpose behind it.
After my initial reaction, I started to take a more positive view. Instead of seeing it as my mom being taken long before she should have been, I saw it as having 20 or so great years together with her. It was no longer a matter of loss, but a blessing. She could have died younger, even to the point that I would have had no memories of her, but no, we had 20 years of memories.
That experience readied me for when my daughter, who is 2 1/2 now, was born with a congenital heart defect. My wife and I did a lot of research and decided the best thing for our daughter would be to have surgery when she was 3 weeks old. She had an artificial valve placed in her heart and, amazingly, the doctors can actually inflate the valve as she grows, so there’s not a need to constantly replace it with larger ones. She does have to go for echocardiograms every few months, but she’s doing well.
Because of what I had gone through with my mom, it was easier to deal with my daughter’s health problems. I had developed a better understanding of humbly accepting setbacks within the context of God’s providence, so that made a delicate situation go much more smoothly.
Is there an aspect of Catholicism that you find particularly helpful?
I’m “old school,” so I find the rituals and routines of the Church very helpful. Going to Sunday Mass reminds us why we’re here and where we should be aiming to go. It gives meaning to everything else we do in the week and it’s a time to reflect and think clearly about life. It’s an opportunity to receive the grace we need to live as part of the body of Christ.
Going to Mass at any church is a good thing, but when you get to do so in an older cathedral, it is amazing. I haven’t been to Rome yet, but I have been to Cologne, Germany, and their cathedral is awe-inspiring. Every church has the Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but when the surrounding art and architecture go out of their way to remind you, it’s like you’ve stepped into heaven. I’ve been to other beautiful churches, but the cathedral in Cologne is the most amazing.
Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
I’ve been asked that before, but there’s really not one in particular that is most meaningful to me. The whole book is God’s word, and I look more at overall concepts and themes, like those found in the parables. The messages you take away are the important things — messages like respecting your elders and following the other nine Commandments. That’s actually a good example of what I mean — the Fourth Commandment says to honor your father and mother, but just because your grandparents or others older than you aren’t mentioned, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be included.
I look at prayer in the same way as the Bible. Even though there are specific prayers and specific times of prayer, I tend to see it more as a continual conversation with God. The conversation should last all the time, rather than being only for this or that occasion, or because you have a printed prayer in front of you. God loves us infinitely more than any human could, so that makes it easy to want to keep the relationship going.
That’s what Catholicism is all about — an ever-deepening and more thorough relationship with God. This is why I’m very thankful for my Catholic faith. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
Many of his sports stories for the Register can be found in Fit for Heaven.