How Nick Foligno and John Tortorella found a way to turn the Blue Jackets into a contender

Nick Foligno was named captain of the Blue Jackets in 2015. He spent most of his childhood around some of the NHL's best captains. Ricky Rhodes for ESPN

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NICK FOLIGNO DIDN'T know how to begin. The Blue Jackets' captain had taken off his helmet and jersey, revealing the ragged pallor of a creature reared in hockey rinks. He had left the ice for the dressing room but decided to skate back out to speak to the fans. Now he was center ice with a microphone in his hand, looking lost.

"Hi, guys," he began slowly. He made a long "uhhh" sound. Columbus had just lost on Fan Appreciation Night, in one of the final games of the 2015-16 season. Foligno laughed anxiously, stating the obvious, grasping for some bigger message. "We would've liked that one to be a little different for you tonight, so our apologies on that one," Foligno said. "On behalf of my teammates, a huge thank-you." Nationwide Arena was near empty by now. He could almost make eye contact with individual fans. "This year did not go as planned," he said. "Stick with us. We're going to make it fun for you." And then he skated off.

Foligno was a fan favorite. On the street, fans asked him for hugs. He led the team's charity efforts around the city. But he would never be mistaken for a superstar like Sidney Crosby -- he was just Nick Foligno. His first year as captain had been a struggle. He managed injuries, finishing with 37 points, just over half his tally from the previous season. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, went 34 -- 40 -- 8, out of the playoffs for the 13th time in their 15-year history. The Columbus Dispatch wrote that he had been "eaten alive by the responsibility of being the team captain."

The day after the season ended, Foligno was summoned to the suite level of the arena to meet with president of hockey operations John Davidson, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella. As coach of the Rangers and Lightning, Tortorella had been known for wringing success out of his players, often at a high cost. He joined Columbus after the team lost its first seven games of the season. They discussed whether Foligno should remain team captain. Tortorella looked him in the eye and said, "I don't think you can do it."

HE'D BEEN RAISED to be the captain. His father, Mike, was the lantern-jawed leader of the Sabres in the 1980s, and he would often take young Nicky with him into the home dressing room at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium -- the Aud. When Mike was traded to Toronto in 1990, his son was exposed to a team stacked with former and future NHL captains. By the time he was a teenager, Nick had learned to read the pace of a practice the morning after a loss. He could see when guys got yelled at and when they got words of encouragement. He saw the way you engaged the goalies and which rookies were tabbed to pick the pregame music. He grew to feel the pulse of the dressing room, to know when a team is mentally healthy or about to spiral out of control. All the little rhythms and truths of professional hockey.

The closest job description is NHL Rule 6.1:

One Captain shall be appointed by each team, and he alone shall have the privilege of discussing with the Referee any questions relating to interpretation of rules which may arise during the progress of a game. He shall wear the letter "C," approximately three inches (3") in height and in contrasting color, in a conspicuous position on the front of his sweater.

That's it. A 3-inch piece of fabric giving you permission to start a conversation with the dudes in black and white stripes. But it's more. It's also a 3-inch piece of fabric that gives you the authority to persuade a rookie to jump face-first into Zdeno Chara's 108.8 mph slap shot. It's a measure of stability to the room after the team gets relocated across the country. It makes it possible for your presence to feel like a shot of hope to a kid in the leukemia unit.

Each captain, on each team and in each era, adds to what it means to wear the letter. His function today is part older sibling, part team psychologist and part Canadian Mountie. Even as the NHL embraces the analytics that have unwound the mythology of other sports, the true nature of the hockey captain is difficult to measure. The league's 20-year-old star Connor McDavid of the Oilers is a captain. So is Derek MacKenzie of the Panthers, a 35-year-old fourth-line center who played 550 games in the minors before sticking with an NHL team. The Capitals' Alex Ovechkin turned down the role before accepting.

Sure, wins and losses are what ultimately count, but the pulse in the room is the real currency of the NHL. Nobody outside of it can ever understand that pulse. Not the suits upstairs. Not the coach. This division between room and coach was established in part by Scotty Bowman, whose tenure in the NHL spanned 30 years with arguably the most important captains of each era: Henri Richard, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman. But speaking about that lineage on a recent afternoon, the only note of reverence in his voice comes when he talks about his first captain, Al Arbour. Bowman says simply, "Al was a heart and soul guy." In Bowman's creaky voice you understand why the order of captains is the most precious of the lists the hockey people keep.

NICK WAS 19 the first time he set foot in an NHL dressing room as someone other than Mike Foligno's son. He was a 2006 first-round pick trying to make Daniel Alfredsson's Ottawa Senators. Alfredsson had led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup finals the previous season. "He just showed up every night," Foligno says. "You can rah-rah speech. But if you're not doing it, who's going to follow?" Alfredsson entered the 2008 playoffs with a ruptured medial collateral ligament. Foligno would do anything for him.

But his first years in the league were tough. The dressing room became less a womb and more a harsh nexus between adult life and the pressure to deliver on the ice. He watched his mom die of breast cancer at 47. He broke his leg blocking a shot. He put up respectable numbers but nothing like his dad.

Foligno was traded to the Blue Jackets in the summer of 2012. In its short history, Columbus has been considered two of the easiest points in hockey. "You were coming in here looking to pounce on this team and move on," says 16-year veteran Scott Hartnell, who arrived in a trade from Philadelphia in 2014. The team did make the playoffs in 2008-09, only to finish last in the division in each of the three seasons prior to Foligno's arrival. "When I got here, I knew this team was in limbo," Foligno says. Captain Rick Nash never phoned to welcome him. Three weeks later, Nash was traded to the Rangers. Team management didn't name a successor. One will emerge from the room, they said.

A successful NHL club is an improbable collection of personalities that must blend. Young Finns, old Russians, Quebecois snipers, fourth-line American workhorses. "You can't have a bunch of saints down there," Davidson says. "If you don't have the right captain, then don't have a captain." So the Blue Jackets played the next three seasons without one. "There were a few guys who tried to do it," Hartnell says. "Guys going this way, guys going that way. It was just maybe a little disruptive room. You didn't have that guy to look up to."

But maybe they did. In October 2013, Foligno was on his way with the team to Detroit when doctors discovered his newborn daughter, Milana, was sick. The Jackets sent him on the first plane back home. When they found out Milana had a rare congenital heart disease, Foligno and his wife, Janelle, opted for experimental surgery to save her. The entire team showed up for her first birthday party.

Columbus made the 2014 playoffs behind Vezina Trophy -- winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and Foligno would hug him whenever they won with a deepness of affection that spawned YouTube montages set to Michael Franti & Spearhead's Life Is Better With You. Then, in the playoffs, before a sudden-death overtime against rival Pittsburgh, Foligno announced to his teammates: "I haven't done a whole lot until now. But I'm going to find a way to score. I hope you don't mind." Just under three minutes in, he floated a long, seemingly harmless shot toward the goalie that somehow went in. To this day, from various places in and around the Arena District, you'll suddenly hear the recording of CBC announcer Bob Cole screaming, "Foligno scooooores!" It remains the only playoff game Columbus has won on home ice.

When Foligno is on his game, he evokes something between a dire wolf and a Labrador retriever, scrambling after a frozen chunk of rubber. He never stops coming. He has soft hands, gets a stick on every puck and has a tremendous sense of timing. He rotated up and down lines in the 2014-15 season. He killed penalties. He was a grinder on the power play. He made the All-Star team. He celebrated his teammates' triumphs and downplayed his own. He came to feel like an old soul. If you had a problem in your personal life, it was Foligno you found yourself talking to.

Davidson and Kekalainen watched closely. Foligno's sincerity stood out to them. In exit meetings after the season, players suggested it might be time to name a captain. "I could tell it was orchestrated," Davidson says. "We listened and asked, 'Yeah, well, who would you name captain?'"

A captain had emerged.

Naturally, Foligno spoke to his dad, who told him: "The responsibilities of everybody else are now put on you, and you think you have to handle everything and fix everybody's problems." Says Foligno, "It's the best and worst job all wrapped into one."

In Foligno's first season wearing the C, the Blue Jackets went 5 -- 2 -- 1 through the preseason and were being touted as Stanley Cup contenders. Then they began losing games. Then they fired their coach.

Then they hired Tortorella.

JOHN TORTORELLA HAD won more games in the NHL than any other American-born coach. Most of the young Blue Jackets knew him only from YouTube: screaming matches with a reporter in New York; snarling in his husky Boston accent. Foligno's alternate captain, Brandon Dubinsky, had played for him in New York. Torts was fiery, he told his teammates. Torts would get to you.

But something seemed to have happened to Tortorella since his New York days. More than volatile, he sometimes seemed self-destructive. At his previous stop in Vancouver over a year earlier, he went after an opposing team's coach between periods. By the time it went through hockey fans' meme grinder, the story had him crawling into the arena's ventilation ducts and dropping into the Flames' dressing room to fight everybody. It was funny but not implausible.

Tortorella didn't care how many hockey captains Foligno had grown up around. He wasn't interested in the then-27-year-old's ideas about channeling the diverse voices in the room. Tortorella needed the wolf in Foligno, not the Labrador.

Did he actually believe Foligno couldn't handle the captain's job, or was he pushing him in that meeting after the end of last season?

"A little bit of both," he says.

Tortorella felt Columbus was set up to become a power in the league, and he could feel his years in the NHL winding down. He urged Foligno to be more selfish. "If a team is going to win," he says, "that room has to self-sustain without the coach. I think if you're a captain at this level, they're looking to you on your practice habits and your on-ice abilities too. Nick completely forgot about that because he's such a good man and cared about everybody else through the struggles of the team."

When Foligno arrived back in Columbus for training camp this season, there was a sign above the dressing room exit: safe is death. The Blue Jackets were the third-youngest team in the NHL. Tortorella wanted them to play boldly. "It was the hardest camp I've ever been a part of in 10 seasons," Foligno says. "After that, it felt like we were ready for anything."

They started off 11 -- 5 -- 4 and were fourth in the division. On Nov. 4, they blew up the league-leading Canadiens 10-0, setting a franchise record for goals in a game. That win is seen by some as the team's statement game, but players say it's what happened the next night that meant the difference between this season and any other in franchise history.

Playing on consecutive nights, they were exhausted and being outshot by the Blues. St. Louis' Ryan Reaves, one of the NHL's last legitimate brawlers, ran over Foligno's linemate Alexander Wennberg. Foligno rushed toward Reaves and pushed him. Reaves coasted calmly backward across the ice, Foligno stalking. On the Columbus bench, everyone shouted, "Don't do it!" Reaves and Foligno each feigned dropping their gloves, then rolled up their sleeves and immediately traded heavy right hooks. Foligno closed his left hand around the neck of Reaves' jersey and began jabbing at his chin, again and again before Reaves suddenly landed a wild right. Foligno was on the ice. It didn't matter. "He stood in there and took a few right off the bean and kept on chucking them!" Hartnell recalls.

Foligno doesn't focus on the fight. He remembers a conversation with winger Brandon Saad, who had missed a check in the overtime loss. "You're a great player, we're going to move past this," he told Saad. "But just take it upon yourself to understand that when you're put in those situations, other guys are sitting on the bench chomping their bits off to get out there, right?" Tortorella found out and told him that was the kind of growth he needed to see. "And I could just feel our relationship start to go from there," Foligno says.

JUST AFTER THANKSGIVING, Columbus beat Tampa 5-1. Five weeks later, the team had won 16 in a row, nearing the league record. Within the organization, the Jackets had trouble interpreting the streak. To acknowledge it as the franchise's defining triumph was to undermine the importance of the playoffs. But there had never been such a frenzy around the team. It came to an end in January with a 5-0 loss to Washington. "Hell of a run," Tortorella told reporters, a sentiment he echoed in the room, addressing the team after a game for only the second time all year.

They plateaued to 7 -- 8 -- 1 the next five weeks before a long homestand. The first night against Vancouver, Foligno missed a saucer pass in the Canucks' zone. Torts rushed down the bench. Foligno knew an ass-chewing was coming. They were on the same page.

"You've got to get that f---ing puck in!" Tortorella yelled.

"I know!" Foligno shouted back.

"So then f---ing do it!" Tortorella said.

"F---," he added. "You com-pleeee-tely missed it." He was trying not to smile.

"I knoooooow," Foligno replied with an exaggerated nod, trying not to laugh.

Vancouver shut them out 3-0. The next morning, Tortorella made the team watch the entire game. When the meeting ended, he dismissed the players. They weren't ready to go. "There's some other things we'd like to talk about," Foligno told his coach. In his career, Tortorella had had players approach him individually, but rarely in front of the team. "We just feel like we're kind of getting -- we've changed a little," Foligno continued. "We think the team's changed. We think you've changed a little bit ... we want you back." Tortorella made a proposition: "I'm going to concentrate on getting back to being a better coach. You guys try to be better players and play with more energy."

That Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada reported that the young Jackets were in open rebellion. On Monday morning, Foligno spoke to reporters. "Some of it was not as big a deal as it was made out to be," he said. "The message was, what we are doing in here is between us." They lost to the Rangers that night. But Foligno felt the pulse grow stronger. "We put some good minutes in," Tortorella said after. He shrugged. "That's the league." Tortorella sensed it changing too.

At practice the next morning, Tortorella began tinkering with the established lines. Foligno skated to him along the half boards. "Hey, what are you thinking here?"

"I'm just looking for some more scoring punch," Tortorella said.

"OK, I just wanted to ask what your thoughts were."

"Don't read into it too much. You know if you're not playing well, I'm going to tell you."

"Oh, I f---ing know." They skated off in different directions, both smiling.

When Foligno relates a conversation, he'll often repeat lines in a slightly different way, as if he hadn't quite conveyed the essence of a person. He's precise in a way, the side effect of channeling all the voices in the room back in his dad's day. Now he is trying to get the exchange with Torts just right: "Like, I just want to get some more scoring throughout the lineup ... but if you weren't playing well, I'd tell you!"

By the fourth game of the homestand, a win against Toronto, Columbus had its swagger back. It was the type of fearless game the Jackets played at the peak of their streak. In the trainer's room after, Foligno asked Tortorella to consider canceling the next morning's practice. Pittsburgh was coming to town on Friday. "The guys came in the room, and they just kind of had a blank look in their faces, just kind of staring," Foligno said. "I think we're just worn out a little bit."

The next morning, Tortorella's spirits were light. "So I come back in, I think about what Nick" -- Tortorella stops. "My captain talked to me and I said, 'All right, we won't have a full practice.'" My captain. "I heard him loud and clear," Tortorella says, thinking back to the meeting. His team isn't skating, but the coach is content. "You know," he says, shaking his head, "it's a really cool dynamic."

FRIDAY EVENING OUTSIDE the arena is a swarm of Penguins and Jackets jerseys. It's an unseasonably warm winter evening. If the season were to end today, Pittsburgh and Columbus would face each other in the first round of the playoffs.

Almost 90 feet above the ice, a scout from the new franchise in Las Vegas slips into the press box. Throughout the first period, he pulls his glasses on and off, carefully writing notes. He chews gum intensely. "It's like a playoff game," Mike Foligno says between periods. He's fascinated by what is evolving between his son and his coach. "That mutual respect's not something you had last week and now you don't; you have to earn it today and you have to earn it tomorrow, and then you develop a little bit of a history."

He talks to his son on the phone every day during the season. His own dad died when he was 10. Sometimes he isn't sure where hockey ends and fatherhood begins. "If being a leader means that you're just worried about yourself, then there's no use even having a leader in the game of hockey," he says. "What it should mean is that you're helping other people realize their fullest potential and realize their dreams. Because in doing so you'll get yours."

Dubinsky scores in overtime on the sort of impossibly smooth toe drag you'd expect from Crosby. Mike Foligno quietly slips out of the press box. In the dressing room, everyone crowds around Dubinsky. He was the guy paid to stop Crosby, not score the game winner. In front of another locker, the Blue Jackets' captain takes off his pads and stands alone, listening to Dubinsky trying to answer questions from reporters. Eventually, he hears what he's waiting for. Dubinsky didn't know how the puck went in. "I just kind of blacked out," he says.

Foligno's body shakes, giggling.

When reporters' attention turns to Tortorella, he shares the same expression as Foligno, as if they have the same appreciation for these rare moments of perfection, the ones that can start to accumulate into something special. "I'm happy for Dubi," Tortorella says. "He works so hard all the time. He makes some mistakes. He makes some doozies! I think he deserves a few seconds like that."

In the four weeks after the Penguins game, the Blue Jackets will go on to win 10 of 14. They'll secure a playoff spot, tied in points with Washington atop the Metropolitan Division standings.

And if it leads to a Stanley Cup run this spring, maybe the team will look back and remember this moment tonight -- a win over the Penguins thanks to an unlikely hero, in front of the second-biggest regular-season crowd in team history. By the time reporters make it to Foligno, he's summing up the week. "The feeling in here is that we're playing the right way. We've got the respect of the league, but we haven't really done anything yet," he says, sounding like an NHL captain. "We gave them their money's worth. Dubi did, at least, with that goal." Then his voice changes just a little, and he looks over at Dubinsky. "We all said he blacked out," he says with a laugh. And he sounds like an NHL captain then too.