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Christian Folin: From the Bus to the Big League

After rocky road to NHL, Wild defenseman trying to prove he belongs

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

This story appears in the December issue of Wild Magazine.

About a week after Thanksgiving in 2010, 19-year old Christian Folin stood inside a gas station in Fargo, North Dakota, contemplating his hockey future. Thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country with a different language and a different way of life, Folin waited for what seemed like forever.

Folin had just been traded, not only from one team to another but from one league to another; the United States Hockey League's Fargo Force decided he no longer had a place with the club, and sent his rights to the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League.

But that was just the end of his no good, very bad week.

Folin originally came to North America as a college recruit. He had committed to Bemidji State University and was set to play there until a low ACT score forced him to spend a year in the USHL working on his academics. 

A few days before being traded to Austin, BSU had dropped its scholarship offer.

"I kind of just wanted to quit and go home, play in Sweden," Folin said. "My game wasn't working, I didn't enjoy living here, I didn't have any good friends. I didn't enjoy hockey."

After learning he was traded, Folin packed up his belongings, jamming everything he had with him into two hockey bags for a new beginning in southern Minnesota. 

The Bruins had a game in Bismarck the next day and were set to swing through Fargo and pick up their newest defenseman. What was next for Folin? Even he couldn't have predicted it. At least not at that moment, perhaps the lowest point of his hockey playing career.

Eventually, the Austin team bus showed up. Folin threw his belongings in the luggage hold underneath, meandered up the stairs and stared at a bunch of unknown faces. 

Yet, at that moment, things began to look up.

After seeing occasional ice time with Fargo, Folin was a regular in the lineup with Austin, playing in 33 games the rest of that season. More importantly, he got close with a few teammates. He loved his coach, Chris Tok. The game was fun again.

The positive experience made Folin want to return to Austin for one final crack at earning a college scholarship. 

"I went home that summer and thought about it. I had nothing else, so I thought I'd go back and make the most of it," Folin said. "But looking back at it, it made me stronger. It made me into who I am today."
 

A new beginning

Folin played just one full season in Austin but made the most of it. In 54 games, he scored 11 goals and added 20 assists while accumulating a plus-45 in leading the Bruins to the playoffs.

Despite his great season, many colleges had their doubts. Could he skate? Was he physical enough? 

Through it all, Tok stuck by Folin. When schools asked the coach the tough questions, the coach had his player's back.

"He used to tell me it was his most frustrating time of his coaching career," Folin said. "He knew how much I had in me, but these guys just wouldn't see it."

Finally, the pieces came together at the right time. 

At the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, Massachusetts-Lowell associate coach Jason Lammers watched Folin play and offered him a scholarship. 

"I had a good feeling about the program and the coach," Folin said. "It took off from there."


 

Rising star

Despite getting a late start on his college career, Folin wouldn't be there for long.

In 2012-13, Folin skated in 38 games for the River Hawks, scoring six goals and adding 15 assists. He was one of the top freshmen in the Hockey East and landed squarely on the radar of professional scouts.

"I never had an agent and by the middle of my freshman year, my coach told me, 'You should probably get an agent because we got a bunch of teams calling,'" Folin said.

Teams kept calling during the second half of the season - which saw Lowell win the conference regular season championship, the league playoff title and advance to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season.

After winning their regional, Folin and the River Hawks advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time as a Division I program and the first time since it made the 1983 Division II semifinals.

A 3-2 loss to eventual national champion Yale in their first game at the Frozen Four ended Lowell's season, but plenty of NHL teams were ready for Folin to make the jump.

But a conversation with head coach Norm Bazin stuck with him.

"He pulled me aside and said, 'We don't want you to leave, we want you to be a part of our program,'" Folin said. "I told him right away I had no plans of leaving. It never even crossed my mind."

That summer, Folin was invited to a handful of NHL Prospect Camps, as teams salivated with the idea of adding a 6-foot-3, 210-pound, right-hand shooting defenseman. 

Convinced he was staying in school, Folin turned down several invites to camps around the NHL. He met with nearly half the League before his sophomore season to get a lay of the land, but was committed to staying in Lowell.

Teams stayed in touch even after the season began. Folin had had enough. With his phone constantly buzzing, he made an executive decision.

"I changed my phone number," Folin said. "I turned them all down and basically told them, 'I'm going back to school.' I told them I didn't want any calls during the season."

Lowell repeated as Hockey East playoff champions and returned to the NCAA tournament, winning 26 games in Folin's sophomore season.

Folin posted almost identical numbers and could no longer fend off the professional ranks.

With offers from almost every team in the League, Folin signed an entry-level contract with the Wild on April 1, 2014.

His two-year stint as Lowell was the winningest two-season stretch at the school in more than 30 years.
 

A career year

Folin made his NHL debut later that same season, assisting on one goal and registering a plus-3 in Minnesota's penultimate game of the season, a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues.

The following season, Folin bounced back and forth between Iowa and Minnesota, playing 40 games in the NHL and 13 more with the AHL club. 

Last season, a concussion early in the year spoiled the start and he skated in just 26 games with Minnesota. 

Again, his hockey career was at a crossroads.

With a new coach coming into the fold and Folin entering the final year of his contract, he had yet to establish himself as an NHLer. 

To get ready, Folin completely changed his offseason routine. For the first time in six years, he returned to his native Sweden. Once there, he hired a new trainer and introduced a workout called 3D Function [LINK], which Folin said has helped with hip movement and in creating more speed and has made him quicker into and out of the corners.

The early results have been positive.

After starting the year as a healthy scratch, Folin managed to work his way into the lineup. He hasn't left since. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, Folin has been among the team leaders in plus/minus and seen his minutes load increase. 

"He's a big body that makes simple plays but doesn't make mistakes," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "He competes. That's what you're going to get out of him, and those guys are hard to play against."

Boudreau said he knew very little about Folin when he signed on as Wild coach in May. 

"You see a young guy that hasn't played a lot of hockey," Boudreau said. "But he's gotten a lot better."

Wild assistant coach Scott Stevens, who worked at NHL Network as an analyst last season, knew plenty about the club's more established veterans on its backend, but admitted Folin wasn't on his radar when he came aboard.

But he is now.

"He's been a pleasant surprise," Stevens said. "He's come a long ways quickly. We have a lot of confidence playing him against other team's top lines. 

"He came in here [in training camp] ready to take a position and be a regular. He's doing a great job of that right now."

If being a regular in the NHL isn't motivation enough for Folin, he said he's always got plenty to lean on in tough times: Those that doubted him along the way.

"It always does. Whenever I hear one of their names, it makes a little fire burn in my heart," Folin said. "It's helped me. I kind of have them to thank for that.

 

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