Christian Folin could have quit playing hockey four years ago.
He was 19, from Sweden and had little understanding of English. He so wanted to become an NHLer, though, so he headed to Minnesota, having been recruited to play hockey at Bemidji State.
One problem: “My SAT wasn’t good enough,” Folin said.
Folin was sent to Fargo of the United States Hockey League. He had a tough adjustment and was traded to the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League less than two months later. This came four days after Bemidji State said, “We don’t have a plan for you next year either, so you’ll have to find a new school.”
Shy, and not used to American culture, the teenager was dropped off at a gas station alongside Interstate 94 with his entire life packed into two suitcases and a hockey bag.
The Austin team bus picked him up en route to a weekend series in Bismarck.
Four years later, the 23-year-old will make his NHL debut Thursday night for the Wild against the St. Louis Blues.
“I’m pretty amazed,” said Folin, a 6-3 defenseman who signed as a free agent out of UMass-Lowell last week but is not eligible for the NHL playoffs. “It’s been a long journey. But I got a lot of help, especially from [Austin coach] Chris Tok, who really taught me what I needed to work on and how my game would best fit the North American style … and the coaching staff at UMass-Lowell. They really prepared me for this.”
Keeping his cool
Tok never saw Folin play. It was Austin’s first year. The Bruins were short of players, so when Fargo didn’t want Folin anymore, Tok purchased him for $1,000.
To put that in perspective, Folin signed a two-year, $1.3875 million contract with the Wild last week.
The first impression Folin made was when he got on that Bruins bus. He didn’t know anybody. He didn’t know where he was going. Yet, he wasn’t freaking out.
“He was just real calm. He’s not a guy that gets rattled,” said Tok, who played college hockey at Wisconsin. “Europeans, when they come over, they need a break-in process. The game’s on a smaller sheet, it’s played quicker.
“He came from a different culture and was thrown into the fire here and wasn’t ready right away. That’s normal.”
Folin moved to Austin, known more for Hormel’s Spam. “Not a fan of Spam,” Folin said, “at least not the smell.”
Folin moved in with Tok; his wife, Melissa; and their then-6-year-old son, Easton.
“He lived in the basement,” Tok said. “The first day, it snowed and he’s laying down. I go down there and say, ‘Got anything to do today?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ I said, ‘Well, the driveway’s full.’ So he got his snow clothes on, went outside and shoveled the driveway.”
Tok said, laughing, “I tease him now, ‘If you need your driveway shoveled, I’ll come up and do it.’ ”
Folin made an instant impact, scoring 12 goals and amassing 41 points in 87 games over two years. Yet there wasn’t much recruiting interest. College coaches thought he didn’t skate well enough, he didn’t break pucks out well enough, he wasn’t strong enough.
“I’d be like, ‘What do you want him to do, he’ll do it,’ ” Tok said.
Finally, two schools pursued Folin — UMass-Lowell and Robert Morris.
“I chuckle to this day,” Tok said. “He turned down Robert Morris because their stick budget was only eight or nine sticks. He said, ‘Coach, how am I going to get better if I can only break seven sticks?’ ”
Plenty of options
Folin attended UMass-Lowell beginning in 2012. He needed time to adjust. After his first game against Vermont, River Hawks coach Norm Bazin didn’t even take Folin to a trip to Denver and Colorado College. But when Bazin called to check up on Folin, he was told they couldn’t get him out of the gym and off the ice.
Bazin was impressed. Folin played the next game against Boston College and never looked back. He helped lead the River Hawks to the Hockey East championship this season, and had 42 points in 79 college games. He became the hottest college free agent this spring.
Thirty teams showed interest. Philadelphia and the Wild were the finalists.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher met with Folin last summer and was immediately impressed. Folin and his agent, Dan Plante, set up a plan.
“We had a couple meetings before the season and then said, ‘I don’t want to be bothered at all so I can focus on college,’ ” Folin said. “I even changed my [cell] number. A lot of teams really stuck to that [rule], especially the Wild, who stayed off me until my season was over. I really appreciated that. We lost Sunday [March 30] and we signed Monday night.”
Folin called Tok twice to seek advice.
“I said, ‘Christian, you know I’m not going to tell you what you should do,’ ” Tok said. “Selfishly, we wanted him to sign with Minnesota because we can go up and watch him. But he really thought this over, believes Minnesota offers him the best opportunity and said, ‘It’d be great to play back in the State of Hockey.’ ”
Wild coach Mike Yeo loves what he sees.
Folin has an NHL-caliber shot and he snaps the puck crisply when he passes. And he has shown no sign of nerves, despite being parachuted into an intimidating NHL locker room in the midst of what was a tense playoff push.
Folin is committed to becoming an NHLer. In fact, his father, Martin, who works for Volvo in Sweden, has gotten a transfer to their Hagerstown, Md., plant. Martin, wife Susanne and soccer-playing 15-year-old son Ludvig are moving to the United States in August. Another brother, Niklas, plays for Omaha in the USHL.
Christian Folin is the definition of a late bloomer, yet most feel he can step right into the NHL.
Wild fans should be patient, Tok says.
“To get into one game will teach him what he needs to do over the summer to make sure he’s ready for next year’s training camp,” Tok said. “I think he’ll make it very difficult for the coaching staff to say, ‘You should go down [to the minors].’ He’ll be right there as a player they’ll have to make a decision on.”
Four years ago, Folin sheepishly sat at a freeway gas station waiting for the unknown. Now he is on the verge of playing an NHL game.
How did this teenager not quit and run home to Sweden?
“I play hockey,” Folin said. “I do what I love to do. I went back home that Christmas, and after a few days, I knew I had to go back and give this a try. I’m glad I did.”