Wolves assistant spreads joy and knowledge wherever he goes.
Perhaps the only thing you know about new Chicago Wolves assistant coach Mike Foligno is the "Foligno Leap:" His celebratory maneuver every time he scored during his 15-year National Hockey League career. Foligno would point his arms and stick toward the sky while performing an exaggerated leap that brought his knees up to his waist.
It sounds a bit showy, right? Like he enjoyed rubbing his success into his opponents' noses? Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The 53-year-old Sudbury, Ontario, native simply possesses a joie de vivre that he never has been afraid to express.
"One of the things about scoring a goal: There's great jubilation in it," Foligno said. "It's the highest thing you can do. It wasn't to demean the opponent. It starts to become natural. Nobody ever said 'If you do it again, I'll take you down' or anything like that.
Foligno's enthusiasm has been infectious throughout his life in hockey.
The fans loved Foligno --- and not just because he scored 355 regular-season goals. For five consecutive years, Foligno received the Frank Eddolls Memorial Trophy that goes to the Buffalo Sabres fans' favorite player. After spending nine-and-a-half seasons with the Sabres, two of them as captain, he earned a place in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
His teammates loved Foligno --- and not just because his 2,049 career penalty minutes indicate how frequently he came to their aid on the ice.
"His personality is so open. He's so honest. There's nothing fake about Mike --- and he's been that way his whole life," said Wolves head coach Scott Arniel, who played on the Sabres with Foligno from 1986-90. "His wife, my wife, we were young couples in those days and we'd go over to his house. Mike's mother was a true-blue Italian, and she'd cook and we'd have a big feast and our kids would run around."
For most of the 18 years since he retired as a player, Foligno has served as a coach. Five years as the boss of the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears. Nearly four seasons as an assistant with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks. In the middle, Foligno spent seven years in his hometown as the coach and GM for the Ontario Hockey League's Sudbury Wolves.
Considering the way fans and teammates felt about Foligno, it shouldn't be a surprise that Sudbury's players loved him as well.
"He's an awesome guy. A great person," said defenseman Frank Corrado, who spent the 2009-10 season with Foligno at Sudbury and the final month of last season with the Chicago Wolves. "He cares about his players. He's very approachable, very classy. He's not like some coaches who are very robotic and don't talk to their players and don't make connections. He always had time to talk to you and see how you were feeling."
That last point was particularly important to Corrado because he joined Sudbury as a 16-year-old living away from home for the first time. So how might the Chicago Wolves receive Foligno this season?
"Especially as an assistant, he might be more of a players' coach," Corrado said. "I think everyone's going to enjoy him. I know I did."
Foligno made the rare downshift from the AHL to the OHL in 2003 because he chose family over career. It was the perfect plan to move to Sudbury.
"It's my hometown and my wife's hometown," Foligno said. "With a young family with two boys (Nick and Marcus) who were just getting into the upper levels of the game, it was a great step for us. It was a chance to be with family after being away for 20-some years.
"To be able to coach your boys at that level was an honor. You don't get that opportunity often. We said, 'What if you don't get that opportunity again?' "
But within eight months of returning to Sudbury, the Folignos were faced with a sobering discovery that reinforced the importance of their decision: Janis, Mike's wife, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Like I say, sometimes you don't know why you make the moves you make," Foligno said. "The support obviously is important. We were really fortunate to be so close to family."
After a five-year fight, Janis passed away in 2009. One year later, after enjoying his first season as Marcus' coach, Foligno stepped down at Sudbury and resumed his professional path as he joined Randy Carlyle's staff with the Anaheim Ducks as an assistant. That ended on Nov. 30 last year when the coaching staff was let go.
The Wolves job marks Foligno's first step back toward the NHL, though he's in little hurry to return there. Foligno hopes his extensive experience as a player and coach will benefit the Wolves players, but he expects to get plenty out of being around them as well as Arniel and fellow assistant Nolan Baumgartner.
"You can't rely on the past," Foligno said. "You have to evolve and change as a coach. There's the new edge of skill development, the new edge of strategies to learn. My primary goal is to help Chicago win a Calder Cup. And after that, maybe another one."
Meanwhile, the Foligno Leap lives. Marcus, a 21-year-old left wing with the Sabres, imitated his father's celebration after scoring on March 14 in his fourth NHL game. Nick, a 24-year-old left wing with Columbus, did the same on Oct. 18, 2007, when he produced his first NHL goal while playing for Ottawa at Montreal.
Dad missed Nick's leap live because his Sudbury Wolves were playing an OHL game in Brampton, four hours away from the family home.
"My wife called when we were on the bus and told me that Nick scored and that she taped the game, but didn't tell me what happened," Foligno said. "So I get home about 3 or 4 in the morning and start the tape and see that he did the leap. I've got to be honest: I welled up with tears with happiness for him and the respect that he showed to me in one of the most important moments of his life. It's something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life."