Finley out to prove himself in Hershey

by John Walton || AHL On The Beat Archive

On the road to a potential NHL career, Joe Finley has endured his share of potholes and speed bumps along the way.

Washington’s first-round pick, 27th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft out of the University of North Dakota, Finley entered his first full season of professional hockey in 2009-10, hoping to start climbing the ladder to Washington, D.C. Instead, he spent most of the season on the sidelines, anxious for his chance to get back into the lineup due to injury.

But 2010-11 has been a much brighter season already for the former Fighting Sioux standout. For Finley, it’s all about being thankful for a second chance at hockey, and the hunger to become a better player.

Finley, who stands at an imposing 6-foot-8 before he even puts on his skates, had hoped at the beginning of last season to spend the season with the defending Calder Cup champion Bears. But opportunities and roster space were limited, and Finley opened 2009-10 with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL. It was there that he was determined to work his way back to Chocolatetown, starting out his pro career a step lower in the Washington food chain.

He scored his first professional goal on Oct. 24, 2009, and Finley’s plan to show what he could do seemed on track. On track, that is, until a freak and serious injury finished his season almost before it started.

The date was Nov. 21, 2009, and South Carolina was playing Gwinnett.

“I was out there playing tough in the defensive zone, and a guy came to finish his check as I was moving the puck out and I cross-checked him,” Finley said. The play was one that Finley had executed countless times before, but this time it would go terribly wrong. The resulting impact after the collision was a ruptured artery in his hand, which suddenly made Finley’s career flash before his eyes.

“I didn’t know it right away, but when I took my glove off at the end of the shift, my fingers were completely white”, he said. “It was scary, I’d never seen anything like it before.”

After an evaluation of what had happened, and the potential seriousness of the injury, the doctors told Finley that one of two things was about to happen.

“There was Plan A and Plan B”, Finley said. “Plan A was (out) for three weeks, and Plan B was a minimum of six months. That was the first question I asked waking up out of surgery, did we get it done with Plan A?”

For Finley, and his 2009-10 season, the bad news was that Plan B was the answer. The artery that ruptured needed to be replaced with a graft, and instead of completing his first season in pro hockey, Finley would spend the next six months getting ready to play all over again.

After the vein repair, he was fitted with a cast for the next three months, with no wrist motion. Then it was three more months without a stick in his hand. Not the plan that Finley had entering his rookie year, but he fought through the reality he was facing and prepared himself for Washington’s development camp this past summer.

“I went to development camp being one of the older guys, and some guys in that position might have been a little grumpy having to do that in the middle of July”, Finley said. “For me, man, I couldn’t have been more excited. I wish the season would have started right then.”

Finley came to Washington’s camp, and after some time in Arlington, Va., at Camp Boudreau, he was assigned to Hershey. This time, there wouldn’t be an assignment to South Carolina. Big Joe made Hershey out of training camp.

“Making the team here in Hershey was step one, and becoming an everyday player is step two,” Finley said. “I think I’m making a good case for myself so far, and we’ve got a very talented veteran team here that won’t be an excuse by any means. It just gives me more fuel to go out and earn my spot.”

The beginning of this season in Hershey saw the assignment of three-time NHL All-Star Sheldon Souray to the Chocolate and White, and when Souray was ready to get into the lineup, he found himself paired with a rather sizable defensive partner in his first game: Joe Finley.

“I was pretty fortunate to be able to pick his brain right away, giving him rides from the hotel to practice and to lunch, things like that,” Finley said.

While Souray has been a mentoring figure in the Hershey locker room to a lot of younger players since his assignment, staying late to work with guys and talking to them on and off the ice, it’s Finley that might have gotten the most out of having Souray’s talents in Chocolatetown.

“He’s obviously been (in the NHL) first-hand, and been a great offensive player, but early in his career, he was the kind of defenseman that I aspire to be in the National Hockey League someday, a big physical guy that plays well in his end and gets the puck up to the forwards.”

What better player for someone like Joe Finley to learn from than a three-time NHL All-Star? Already, 2010-11 has treated Big Joe better than 2009-10 did.

The ruptured artery seeming like a distant memory now, Finley is playing fairly regularly in a Chocolate and White sweater, and even has partnered with a terrific veteran influence like Souray. It’s been a long 12 months for Joe Finley, with a lot of obstacles in his way. But now that he’s made Hershey’s roster and seeing playing time on a talented team, he’s looking forward to the day when he can climb one more rung on the ladder, and make his dreams come true.