By: Justin Dickie
08/14/2014 8:36 AM -
At 6’8” and 250-plus pounds, Joe Finley could simply let his physical stature define him as a hockey player.
But with a big personality, big character and big veteran presence, there’s a lot more to the 27-year-old defenceman than his size.
The Edina, Minnesota native comes from an athletic family and the value of hard work was instilled in him as a child. His dad, Ray, is a six-time state champion women’s high school basketball coach. His oldest sister, Kelly Rae, is a former National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball player and current women’s basketball assistant coach at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His youngest sister, Taylor, is a current NCAA Division I basketball player at Harvard.
“Ever since I was little, you had those guys whose parents coached and they’d go home and whine and complain,” Finley says. “There was none of that in the Finley household. It was always like ‘Shut your mouth and work harder.’ I think it’s encrypted in my DNA.”
His family-taught work ethic earned him the opportunity to be a first-round pick of the Washington Capitals in the 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft. After getting drafted, then playing four years at the University of North Dakota, Finley made the jump to pro. But the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, were stacked with veterans and Finley couldn’t hold a roster spot as a rookie. In his second year pro, he sustained a serious hand injury that kept him out most of the season. Following his second pro campaign, the Capitals didn’t renew his contract.
“It was a tough situation because they had so many good veteran players and it was a tough lineup to crack,” Finley says. “It didn’t turn out to be the ideal situation for a guy that’s a first-round pick, but I made peace with it, worked very hard and earned a three-year deal with Buffalo the next year.”
In his first season with the Buffalo Sabres organization, the hulking defenceman got his first taste of NHL action, something he credits as his fondest accomplishment in his career to date.
“Playing that first NHL game with Buffalo against the Red Wings, that was a cool experience. It was the start of something that I worked so hard for my whole life,” Finley says. “You finally get there and you get to lace ‘em up and play in a real game. You’re stretching on the red line and Nick Lidstrom’s on the other side and he’s talking to you in the warm ups and you’re like ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ Although it was just one game and hopefully one of just many, that’s something that definitely I’ll never forget.”
After a season and a half in the Sabres organization, Finley was claimed off waivers by the New York Islanders following the 2012-2013 NHL lockout. He earned 16 games with the Isles in the shortened season and collected his first big-league point – an assist on a John Tavares goal in his 10th game in the show.
At the beginning of last season, the defenceman was assigned to the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, for what Finley had expected would be a brief stint. Five games in, he suffered a second hand injury that would require surgery and was believed would keep him out for the rest of the season. But he took his time to find the right specialist to do the procedure and was diligent in rehab, allowing him to get back into game action with Bridgeport in February.
“The way they re-engineered it, I’m at no risk for having that injury again, which is something that definitely puts me at peace,” Finley says. “I came back probably six weeks ahead of schedule and that came from just working hard and doing all the right things.
“I was able to get in a bonus 25 games at the end of the year, which they didn’t expect. For me, I was really happy to do that, otherwise that would’ve made my off-season extremely long. It would’ve been miserable.”
Having missed the playoffs the past couple of years, Finley bemoans the long off-season. He feels that the pieces the Bulldogs have in place for 2014-2015 will lead to playoff success. He just wants to win and the expectation to do so in Hamilton was his main reason for signing with the ‘Dogs on a one-year AHL contract.
“You win games and those are the guys who get new deals and those are the guys who get watched, looked at. You want to be the last team standing,” he says. “I want to be on a winning club and I want us to be a playoff team. Hamilton hasn’t done that in three years. That’s going to be something that we are going to strive for and we’re going to get done.”
Finley’s a steady presence on the blue line that will make a good first pass, play hard defensively and stand up for teammates. Most of all, he wants to be a leader in the dressing room by demonstrating his version of the ‘right way’ to conduct business on and off the ice.
“I take a lot of pride in seeing some of the young guys develop,” Finley says. “Ultimately, you’ve got to worry about your game first and make sure your game’s right. But being a guy that some young guys can look up to and ask questions to, whether it’s on-ice or off-ice stuff, whether it’s ‘What are you eating?’, ‘What are you doing?’, ‘How’s your routine?’, little things like that, those are all parts of it that kind of complete my package and what I can do to help the team and the organization.”
The big man can also be expected to keep the mood light amongst teammates.
“We’re going to play 76 games during the regular season and hopefully 20 more in the post-season,” he says. “I think you’ll drive yourself nuts if you’re wound up too tight every night. I’m going to be the guy laughing a little bit, telling a joke or looking at the lighter side of things, but ultimately, when it comes down to it, I don’t know that there’s many people that will be more focused on the task at hand.”
There are a lot of things Finley wants to accomplish in the season ahead – imparting a positive influence on his younger teammates, staying healthy and winning among them – which will all aid in the main goal of getting back to the game’s highest level. His imposing size will surely play a significant role in his personal and team success, but there’s more to Joe Finley than what meets the eye.
“A term I use is ‘continuous progress’, working hard every day to continually get better and be consistent,” he says. “In doing so, it’s going to open a lot of doors. Ultimately, those things will come to you. You don’t have to force it. You don’t have to worry about what’s to come. You’ve just got to worry about doing what you can, understand and respect the process and go about it. Then, at the end of the day, those things will come.”
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