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.’ ”