Atop the list of Minnesota Wild jersey sales, one might expect to see Zach Parise
’s No. 11 sweater or Mikko Koivu
’s No. 9, and it is safe to say Ryan Suter
’s No. 20 is pretty high on that tally.
At a junior hockey rink nestled in a small southern Minnesota town known for Hormel, the company that produces Spam, Iron Range Red and Forest Green No. 5 jerseys can be seen sprinkled in with the usual black and yellow of the home team, the Austin Bruins.
That’s because Wild defenseman Christian Folin, once proudly donned a Bruins sweater. When Wild Training Camp ended, just days before he would find out that he made the team’s opening night roster, the rookie blueliner headed to his old stomping grounds at Riverside Arena.
The 23-year-old was returning to attend the North American Hockey League team’s home opener. It was the club that gave him a chance when seemingly nobody else would.
“It’s really fun to go down there and see how the town has grown around the team,” said Folin. “[Bruins Head Coach] Chris Tok and the entire coaching staff really helped me. They are like my second family and that’s one of the big reasons I wanted to come back to Minnesota—to have them close and being able to go down and see them.”
“When one of your own makes it, you’re very proud of that,” said Tok. “He treats us like family and we treat him like family. He’s such a good kid. To get to watch him play in the NHL and to get to play for the hometown team is definitely something special.”
By now, Folin’s improbable journey has been well-documented. Four years ago, without a college offer or a firm grasp of the English language, the native of Gothenburg, Sweden was waiting for his new team to collect him from a highway gas station on its way out to play a weekend series in Bismarck. Austin was in its first season in the NAHL and, as is the case with most expansion teams, there were many challenges.
“I remember my first year was a really tough year for the whole team, and the second year we got better, but it was still a struggle,” said Folin. “We were trying to build up the team in the town and it was a lot of work for our players.”
While Folin and his teammates did their part off the ice to help the Bruins establish a foothold in the community, the coaches worked to develop each player’s game on the ice, with the hope that college scouts would take notice.
“Everybody always knocked [Christian’s] skating, so we worked on it,” said Tok. “But I go back to his self-drive and work ethic. That was actually a big reason why he was able to make a meteoric rise like he did. He even got a power skating instructor after he left here.”
“I had a tendency to stop moving my feet when I got the puck,” said Folin. “Coming from the European game, more of an east-west game, we really worked on trying to get my feet moving north.”
By the end of his second season in Austin, Folin’s efforts earned him two college offers. He committed to UMass Lowell in Hockey East, where as a freshman, he helped the River Hawks reach their first NCAA Frozen Four appearance in school history.
At the conclusion of his sophomore season at Lowell, Folin had established himself as the top college free agent with many of the thirty NHL teams vying for his services.
Imagine that. A young man who came to America to pursue his hockey dream, was all but written off, and in four years went from a discarded prospect to a highly coveted professional.
“It is amazing,” said Folin. “Four years ago, I didn’t believe I was going to sit in [an NHL] locker room, and today I’m sitting here. It has inspired a few people and I hope it continues to.”
The 23-year-old’s story has had a profound impact on the Bruins’ ability to recruit new players year after year.
“That goes a long way when we try to get kids to come here,” said Tok. “It’s kind of a feather in our cap that we’ve been able to help a kid reach his ultimate goal of playing in the NHL.”
Folin admits that when he first arrived in Austin, he was a little scared of Tok. “I think it’s just his personality. He’s a coach after all and he has a temper, which I liked. He’s a really good coach who helped transition my game, got me into college and eventually made me come here.”
The Bruins organization is in its fifth season in the NAHL and Folin was one of the first of now-25 Austin players to earn Division I college commitments—four of those to UMass-Lowell. Success stories including, but not limited to Folin’s have helped Tok, assistant coach Jamie Huffman and Bruins scouts recruit and develop talented players.
“We bring in players that are good to begin with,” said Tok, who played for the University of Wisconsin in the early 90s. “You have to believe they have something to work with, and as soon as they see the light and realize there is something to their game and this organization can help them, you can just see it in their eyes. The best aspect I get out of coaching is teaching.”
Since leaving Austin, Folin has maintained a strong relationship with his “second family.” He fondly remembers the home-cooked meals of Tok’s wife, Melissa, whom he calls “a wonderful woman” and he’s even made it to a few of the couple’s 10-year-old son, Easton’s, youth games.
When he has the chance, Folin keeps up with his former team’s progress.
“We built it up and that’s something that me and my friends from the team are really proud of,” Folin said. “Their success speaks for itself. They’ve been doing really well and they almost won the whole thing last year.”
Austin’s rise since its expansion season in 2010-11 culminated last year with a Division Title and a trip to the Robertson Cup Finals, the NAHL’s championship series.
With the organization’s first NHL alum in attendance at Riverside Arena in Austin on opening night back in October, Bruins fans flocked to get their picture taken with their favorite Wild player.
“It’s pretty special to see those [Folin] jerseys and the people come up to him to get the jerseys signed,” said Tok. “He’s a pretty humble individual and sometimes it can get overwhelming, but that’s one of his great characteristics. He spends time with his fans and makes sure they all get a little piece of him.”