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‘The Cal Foote evolution’ — What it means for the Lightning in Game 7 and beyond

Every game day, Lightning defenseman Cal Foote gets a text message from his dad.

It usually comes around lunchtime, and Adam Foote — the former longtime NHL defenseman — will send his son a couple of basic reminders for anyone who plays the position:

Move your feet inside the dots.

Make hard plays.

Foote, 23, knows they’re coming, but still gets a boost from the notes. So does his brother, Nolan, a forward with the Devils’ AHL Utica, who said their dad will send video messages with him drawing tips on a whiteboard, or clips of other NHL players. There may be an extra detail here and there for Cal, especially in the past few weeks.

“It’s a little longer,” Cal Foote says, smiling, “Because of the playoffs.”

If you asked Lightning fans — even coaches — midway through this season, they would have been surprised at the thought of Foote being a regular on the blue line in the first-round playoff series against the Leafs. But here Foote is, with the former first-round pick coming into his own on the biggest stage — and thriving — heading into Saturday’s Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena. Coach Jon Cooper said Foote was their best defenseman in a Game 1 loss, and there have been many other games in which he’s stood out for his poise, his physical play and his smarts.

In the Lightning’s 4-3 overtime victory in Game 6 on Thursday, Foote was entrusted with key minutes with their season on the line, finishing with 20:45, three hits, two blocks and two shots on goal. What Toronto fans will remember is Foote drawing and, perhaps, selling a high-sticking penalty in David Kampf in the third period. It was the first of two penalties that led to Tampa Bay’s game-tying power-play goal.

But the fact that Foote, at 6-foot-4, 227, showed the instincts and confidence to carry the puck into the offensive zone and make hard plays in deep was another sign of his growth. He was just listening to his old man. Foote looks like he’s been here before, and this experience will be significant for his development and his chances of earning a full-time spot in the lineup next season, especially with Jan Rutta becoming a UFA this summer.

“To be honest, I thought I’d be more nervous,” Foote said of his first playoffs. “It’s felt like any other big game. The crowd is louder, you try to block that out. But everyone comes to play. It’s faster. Everyone is more physical. But it’s fun to be a part of.”


The night before Cal’s NHL debut in January 2021, Adam Foote scrolled through some old photos.

Foote, 50, found one from his 2001 summer workouts. The menacing defenseman, who had just won his second Stanley Cup championship with the Colorado Avalanche, was tying his skates in the dressing room. Cal, then 2 years old, stood and watched, just like he did for most of his childhood while his father was in the league.

“I want to say I remember the ’01 Cup, but I don’t,” Foote said. “All I really remember about playoff time in Colorado was that they have the white pom-poms. I used to love playing with those and cheering him on.”

“We’d collect those pom-poms, as many as we could,” Nolan said. “We’d bring them home. I don’t know why.”

Nolan will never forget when Cal, then around 6 years old, was interviewed during an Avalanche intermission at a home game. They asked him who his favorite player was.

“Peter Forsberg,” Cal said.

“Your second favorite player?” he was asked.

“He thought about it,” Nolan recalled Friday. “He finally said our dad.”

Nolan, a fellow former Lightning first-rounder, spent countless hours with Cal on their family’s backyard rink in their Denver-area home. The professional-looking sheet of ice was complete with blue and red lines and a scoreboard just underneath the trees.

Nolan loved Evgeni Malkin — he had stickers of him in his room — and wanted to be like the power forward. Cal’s position might surprise you.

“All (Nolan) cared about was shooting,” Adam Foote said in 2019 on Nolan’s draft day, laughing. “And Cal wanted to play in goal. I’m like, ‘Not a chance you’re playing goal.’ I remember Patrick Roy for way too long. Goalies are weird.”

Cal is a bit different, too. When he was a young kid, he was so analytical, perceptive, cerebral. Perhaps it was the daily hockey dinner conversations with their dad, but Cal would notice little things. He’d point out to his coach that the opposing team only had a few players with white tape on their stick, or point out they had just three left-handed shots. Foote’s youth coach, Steve Frye, would jokingly squirt a water bottle in Cal’s face, trying to wake him up, only to find out he was just mentally locked in.

Cal would somehow know when the referees were looking and when they weren’t, and that helped a lot when others would target the kid with the high-profile name. As Fry once put it, “He was the center of attention, but he didn’t get anything for free here. He earned every bit of it.

“And he didn’t get messed with, let’s put it that way. He made sure of it.”

While Cal may seem reserved and more understated than his dad, he’s got a bit of a mean streak, too. Nolan recalled a time when he was 13 and they were messing around, hitting each other with pillows. Nolan caught his brother in the eye. “He lost it and pummeled the crap out of me with two pillows for five minutes,” Nolan said, laughing. “Brotherly love.”

Cal said his father taught him everything he knows about hockey, but Adam has made it a point to stay in the background and let his sons make their own names. Adam Foote, for example, has politely declined interviews, only speaking on the days when Nolan and Cal were drafted. But Adam said when the Lightning drafted Cal at No. 14 in 2017 that he liked the organization’s plan to take their time with the young defenseman, knowing how difficult the position is to grasp at this level.


Cal Foote. (Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

Tampa Bay didn’t have to rush Foote because of the depth on their blue line, especially after trades for Erik Cernak, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev. And Foote needed the work, including improving his skating and building his strength. That meant 150 American League Hockey games with Syracuse before he reached the NHL. It’s just another success story of the Lightning’s development system.

“He’s really matured,” Cooper said. “He’s trusted the system, and it hasn’t always been easy. Going from junior to pro then the AHL to the NHL, those are huge steps. It’s taken him time to find his way, especially on a d-core where you have to wedge your way in. He’s found a way to do that, he’s really simplified his game.

“He’s found out, ‘OK, you know what, I can do this here, I can use my size to my advantage.’ He’s become reliable back there. I think a little experience has helped and it’s been fun to watch him grow.”


What was the turning point?

There was no “lightning in the bottle” moment. The coaches say there was no “come to Jesus meeting” or sit-down with the young defenseman. That would make a great story, a neat narrative.

But this is a process that was years in the making. There were countless hours spent on empty ice sheets with skating coach Barb Underhill, as Foote — with a size 13.5 skate, size 16 shoe — tried to find the necessary quickness and agility to keep up in a faster game. Syracuse coach Ben Groulx talked about Foote improving mentally in terms of putting bad shifts or bad moments behind him.

Foote played 35 games with the Lightning last season, though he was a healthy scratch for the entire playoffs. This was supposed to be the year in which he’d challenge for a regular spot on the blue line, along with veteran Zach Bogosian. But a summer injury to his finger required surgery, forcing him to miss training camp and the start of the season. Cooper estimated it took Foote one-third of the season to get in the right kind of shape. There were some road bumps, like Foote getting sat for a game or two due to an “internal reason,” which assistant Rob Zettler dubbed minor and “long forgotten.” Cooper and the staff would continue to communicate with Foote when he’d sit out as part of the rotation, telling him, “Hang in there, you did nothing wrong here.” It boosted the second-year NHLer’s confidence.

But did the coaches think back in February that Foote could be someone they’d rely on in playoffs?

“It’s hard to say,” said Zettler, who runs the blue line. “He just chipped away, chipped away and kept getting better and better. There are a few aspects on the physical side of it, and secondly is his ability to get involved with the rush and up in the play. He’s created some offensive opportunities because he’s shown he’s willing to get up in the play. He’s got good instincts, better than you think, and that’s a big part of it.”

Foote is at his best when he’s physically engaged, but he needed to get quicker to be in position to finish plays. That all came together in the last few months of the season. Foote had the other tools: hockey IQ, a heavy shot, offensive instincts. It all began to click starting at the Feb. 26 outdoor game in Nashville, when Foote said he “really started to feel good, more confident.”

Nolan said he and Cal call each other or FaceTime almost every day. Sometimes it’s for 10 to 15 minutes. If neither has a game, it’s longer. Nolan could sense Cal’s comfort level growing, not to mention his excitement when he found out the day before Game 1 he was in the lineup.

Finally.

“He handled it really well,” Nolan said. “There were times this year when he was in and out of the lineup every other game for Bogosian. You just have to stay confident with yourself and continue to work hard and, every practice, show how badly you want to be in the lineup, and he did exactly that. Even last year, in the playoffs, not getting a game, but the team winning, you want to have that positive mindset where you’re happy you’re there.

“There was a time even before the playoffs this year where we FaceTime’d and he wasn’t fully 100 percent sure he’d be in the lineup. He said, ‘I want to play every game. It’s going to be a lot of fun.’”

No, Foote won’t be the exact same player as his dad, but he’s got that edge to his game, and Zettler said he’s coming out of battles with the puck more, with opponents “debating whether they want to go into the corner with him.” That’s part of being a defenseman at this level.

“I’ve seen him asserting himself physically more,” Zettler said. “That’s helped him in all areas of his game, to give him confidence. He’s a big man, big body, and we all expect that from him and want that from him. That has been a big part of the ‘Cal Foote evolution,’ him getting to play more in these big moments.”

After Game 6, Foote got a text from former Lightning teammate Luke Schenn, who used to work out with the Footes in Kelowna.

“Best game I’ve seen you play in the NHL. Keep’er going!”

“He’s defending really well and trusting his skating,” Schenn said Friday. “Being involved in every play around the ice and having poise with the puck, yet still playing fast and being decisive. It’s hard to do all that when you don’t play much but now they’re trusting him more and he’s trusting himself more.”

The Lightning are showing trust in Foote by putting him in the lineup for Saturday’s Game 7, one of the most important games of their last three postseasons. It’ll be a chaotic environment in Toronto. Every mistake, every play will matter.

So it’s no surprise that Foote got a note from his dad on Friday, reminding him not to get caught up in a good game. The gist of the advice? Come down from the high, knowing Game 7 is going to be fast and unpredictable.

“Keep it simple and hard early until things settle down.”

(Top photo of Cal Foote: Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

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