By Tom Witosky | AHL On The Beat Archive
Take one look at 6-foot, 8-inch Iowa Wild defenseman Joe Finley and the question arises immediately.
Why hockey and not basketball?
After all, Finley’s father, Ray, is a highly successful girls high school basketball coach in Minnesota. His older sister, Kelly, got an athletic scholarship to play Big Ten basketball and now is an assistant coach in the Big 12.
“The biggest thing was that my oldest sister played basketball and my Dad coached women’s basketball so I sorta thought basketball was more for girls,” the Edina, Minnesota-native said with a mischievous smile.
But Finley’s seven-year professional hockey career has been much more than just a way to be a little bit different in a family of high achievers.
“Joe is doing a good job,” said Wild Head Coach John Torchetti. “At the start of the season, it was hard for him because he wasn’t a starter. That is a tough thing to handle, but he put his time in, on and off the ice, and he is playing well.”
Finley, whose professional career has been hampered by two severe injuries to his left hand since the Washington Capitals made him their top draft choice in 2005, said that he has learned an important lesson about professional hockey and life.
“I’ve learned that there really isn’t an obstacle that can hold you back,” said Finley. “Between the ears, the game is very challenging and I’ve been tested many times. Even looking back at this year, early on, I knew it was going to be difficult getting a spot on the roster.”
Up until he began playing his professional career, Finley appeared on his way toward a top pro career. As a high school freshman, Finley became one of the few first-year players to ever make the varsity squad of the Edina High School hockey team – one of the top high school programs in the state. After two years, he played for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United State Hockey League and then four years at the University of North Dakota. At each stop, he built up a reputation as a physical player who also had good hands and good hockey sense.
His family strongly supported him. “My Dad loved it because he thought it was good for me to do something different,” said Finley. “It was hardest on my mom because she was the one driving me to and from the rink early in the morning for skating.
Ray Finley, Joe’s father, played football and basketball at the University of Minnesota, then became one of the most successful coaches in Minnesota high school girls’ basketball with state championships at three different schools. Finley’s older sister, Kelly, played college basketball at Northwestern and is now associate head coach at the University of Colorado, and his youngest sister, Taylor, is a guard for the Harvard Crimson.
Once in college, Finley bolstered his reputation for toughness by leading North Dakota defensemen in penalty minutes two out of his four years at the school and for never backing down from a fight, including one during the postgame handshake with former Gopher and current Winnipeg Jet, Blake Wheeler. He also earned a degree in business management.
“We had a rough group around the edges,” said Finley. “Grand Forks is such a great hockey community. Sometimes with the amount of pride and scrutiny, you are under the microscope a lot. Sometimes the bad comes with the good.”
Then there was the time when Finley personally chastised the Wisconsin mascot, Bucky Badger, with a smack across the shins with his stick during warm-ups in Madison.
“On the first night when we were skating during warm-ups along the red-line, the Badger bumped into our starting goalie,” said Finley. “Then the next night he did again. Well, you know, c’mon. So the Badger bumped him again and so I waited until he skated by and two-handed him across the shins. Well, he didn’t have shin pads on.”
A letter of apology from Finley to the Wisconsin student soon followed, but Finley’s reputation has preceded him to the Iowa roster and that’s something Torchetti appreciates.
“Folks know he will drop his gloves,” the head coach said, adding Finley provides help to the Wild’s Kurtis Gabriel, who leads the team in penalty minutes. “He gives Gabs a little protection too because he can’t be our only fighter. That is what I like about this.”
Torchetti said that Finley has earned a spot on the starting roster by hard work on the ice and being part of the veteran leadership group off the ice that has led to a steady improvement of the club’s play.
“He is really a good kid in the locker room,” said Torchetti. “He is personable and it goes a long way. Joe’s confidence helps everyone.”
At the halfway point in the season, Finley is now a regular among the Iowa blueliners and is often paired with one of club’s younger players like Dylan Labbe or Zach Palmquist – two players who are improving steadily in their first full year in the American Hockey League, according to Torchetti.
On top of that, the 28-year-old Finley is among a group of veteran players who have been part of reigniting of the Wild’s season after a disappointing start caused mostly by key injuries as well as developing a chemistry among a lot of new players on the Iowa roster.
Finley said he told Minnesota officials before signing a one-year contract he welcomed the role as a mentor as well as trying to make it back to the National Hockey League.
“I just told them I wanted to help the team in any way, shape, or form that I could,” said Finley.
In 21 games, Finley has scored two goals and had one assist, but is one of the few Iowa skaters with a positive +/- rating. In a recent 4-1 victory over Milwaukee, he and linemate Dylan Labbe were each a +3 – a good night for a team that emphasizes defense as much as offense.
“It is up to us as players to buy in and to do things the right way,” said Finley. “We’ve got 20 guys willing to stick up for each other. It is the little things like getting the puck deep in the offensive zone and getting the puck out of the d-zone as fast as we can. It is about committing to team defense.“
Finley also thinks he would like to stay in Iowa a while longer with the Minnesota organization. He has relatives living in the Des Moines area and his two grandfathers both attended the University of Iowa. Finley said that another year in Iowa probably would be preferable than going to Europe or somewhere else.
“With the mix of young guys and the proximity to home, it looked like a very good fit for me,” he said. “I have found a place here that I like. It is fun to come to the rink every day.”