Joe Finley is hard to miss. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound defenseman towers over virtually everyone, and he is certain to stand out in a small town like Hershey and in Washington, a city where the height of buildings is strictly regulated.
A few people spotted Finley (who looks more like a defensive lineman than a defenseman) during his short visit to Hershey during the Calder Cup playoffs in May. Immediately, this sighting began to fuel rumors that the Minnesota-born blueliner was about to forego his final two seasons of eligibility at the University of North Dakota in favor of a contract to play professional hockey in 2007-08.
In fact, Finley and a few of his Fighting Sioux teammates held a series of meetings and have made a pact to remain at North Dakota in solemn pursuit of a national championship in 2007-08. The Fighting Sioux fell just shy of that goal in each of Finley’s first two years on campus, succumbing in the semifinals to Boston College both times.
“Taylor Chorney, myself, T.J. [Oshie], Ryan Duncan and a few other guys who are good players who might have had offers to move on and aren’t necessarily high draft picks or anything like that – obviously Duncan is the Hobey Baker winner – we had plenty of talks at the end of the season after watching Michigan State knock off [Boston College] in that national title game.
“Personally, I went to North Dakota to do two things: win a national title and put myself in position for a leadership role. I’ve done that. I haven’t really been around a team long enough to wear a letter or do things like that that come with age and putting in your time. Two years at Edina high school, one year at Sioux Falls and now this will be my third year in North Dakota.
“All things aside, I think the best decision for me was to stay in school and play in that leadership role in all different situations; touch a puck on the power play and play big minutes. Hopefully, it will only benefit our team. The rest of those guys – T.J., Taylor and Ryan – also made decisions for themselves but also ultimately for their futures. All four of us are going to play big minutes next year. Hopefully we can do what we set out to do and go into North Dakota, get back to the Frozen Four and finish some unfinished business.”
In addition to being a good hockey player, Finley is a good talker. You don’t have to put a quarter in him to get him going, and he’s a pretty honest guy to boot. He’s going to fill some notebooks and tape recorders once he does decide to turn pro.
Finley was asked about Jonathan Toews, his North Dakota teammate who has signed a pro contract and is quite likely to make the Chicago Blackhawks’ roster this fall.
“Johnny sat in on those talks, he did. And so did Brian Lee [who signed with Ottawa on July 3]. We talked about some things amongst ourselves. But realistically we knew John being a third overall pick and Brian being ninth overall that they would probably move on.
“Johnny tore it up at World Juniors, won a gold medal and also won a world championship. Let’s put it this way; I wasn’t holding my breath on Johnny. He is doing what’s best for him. I spoke with him recently and he’s having fun in Chicago. They should have a bright future as well as the prospects here in Washington. We’ve got a lot of great young guys here. The first skate was real good and the future looks bright to say the least.”
The “first skate” Finley referred to was Wednesday’s development camp scrimmage at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Finley’s sharp pass to Mike Radja opened up the scoring in that contest, and he showed the ability to make a good first pass that afternoon. The 20-year-old Finley takes a lot of pride in that aspect of his game.
“Without seeing me play,” starts Finley, “I’m sure the first thing you hear is, ‘Look at that guy, he’s a monster. He’s this, he’s that.’ I’m 6-7, 250 pounds. I like to think I skate fairly well. Obviously I have to continue to get better at that this next year in order to make some noise and make the jump to professional hockey at whatever level that might be.
“I pride myself on that first pass, moving the puck, getting the puck to the forwards and letting them do what they do with it well. On that first goal, Radja made a nice play on the puck and tucked it in. Trust me, it’s not too difficult stepping out around the net and giving [Nicklas] Backstrom a pass and watching him go end-to-end, either. I think there’s another guy in Washington by the name of [Alex] Ovechkin who does that very well. If you can make a living handing the puck off to those guys, it only makes it easier.
“More specifically, today I felt good handling the puck and skating it up the ice. I got stripped once and they put it in for the game-winner. I guess if you don’t take risks like that here you’re never going to. I’m more comfortable handling the puck and playing offensively. The defensive game is good, so we’ll take it from there.”
Although he shows some ability to move the puck and also features a hard, accurate shot, Finley knows his calling card is his size and his ability to play physical hockey. A day after his fine pass to Radja, Finley hammered Paul Crowder – a forward from the University of Alaska-Anchorage – with a board-rattling bodycheck.
“It’s something that night in and night out I have to bring to the table to be effective,” he says of his ability to play physically. “If that hit on Crowder got me noticed, the better for me. That definitely has to be a staple of my game.”
Going as far back as high school, Finley has had the good fortune to play for coaches who have been where he hopes to be himself one day, playing defense in the National Hockey League. At Edina High School in his hometown of Edina, Minn., Finley played under longtime NHL defenseman Curt Giles. A full foot shorter than Finley, Giles played 895 games during a 14-year NHL career. He drilled Finley on the importance of strong footwork.
“Curt couldn’t be more helpful to me,” said Finley, shortly after the Capitals chose him with their second pick (first round, 27th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “He always has great insight. He is another guy who knows what it takes to get to the next level. He is a guy who knows what it takes to stay there for a long, long time having played 14 years in the National Hockey League.
“I can tell you this. If someone took a look at him when he was playing at [University of Minnesota-Duluth] the critics would have said he wouldn’t play five years in the league let alone 14. Just having that attitude of ‘You can say what you want, but I am going to do my thing.’ I think that is something that is real important, not letting outside people influence you or your game. He might be 5-foot-6 but I promise you he can throw a hip check with the best of them. And he can still drop the gloves and mix it up with bigger guys like myself.”
After two seasons under Giles, Finley moved on to Sioux Falls of the USHL. He totaled three goals, 13 points and a whopping 181 penalty minutes there in 2004-05, drawing the attention of Washington scouts in the process. The Caps traded a pair of second-round picks to Colorado for the Avalanche’s first-round choice in 2005, then used that pick to grab Finley.
Finley chose North Dakota because of its style of play and again, because a former NHL blueliner was on the coaching staff.
“The style of play they play at University of North Dakota,” he stated when asked about his choice prior to the start of his freshman season. “They play physical and they play real tight defensively. That’s not to say that you won’t develop a two-way game. One of the more important things is the defensive coach there is [ex-Jets and North Stars defenseman] Brad Berry, a guy who has about 300 games of NHL experience under his belt. The coaching staff is not too far removed from the game. They know what it takes and that’s real important to me as a developing hockey player.”
In his two seasons at North Dakota, Finley has eased himself into a larger role on the team, something he eagerly embraces. He has not put up big offensive numbers – just a goal and 10 points in 83 games to date – but he has piled up 166 penalty minutes and has established himself as a fearsome on-ice presence in the WCHA.
“When I was drafted I was coming out of junior in Sioux Falls,” he begins, “I felt pretty comfortable towards the end of the year there. I played a full season there, got accustomed to being allowed to play a bit more physical in junior hockey and fighting a little bit and things like that. I played the power play a little bit at the end of the year, picked up a couple power play goals and started to feel comfortable offensively. And then you get thrown into a situation at North Dakota in college hockey where they want to start you off from square one and try to ease you into it. The WCHA is a great league. It’s fast.
“There was also a guy there my freshman year named Matt Smaby. He was a junior in a similar position that I will be in this year. I was definitely going in there to earn my [spot], but he definitely put in his time and he played a similar role that I expect to play myself this year, playing in all situations. He was our captain my freshman year. I guess I’ve paid my dues and waited my turn, so to speak.”
Finley hopes that his dues paying will also pay dividends in the form of fewer penalties this season. Because he is so much bigger than most opponents, he sometimes gets whistled for finishing his checks. We asked him about it, but also mentioned that we didn’t want to get him in trouble. But it’s not Finley’s style to dance gingerly around an issue.
“I’ll step out there,” he firmly declares. “I’ve got a guy I like to give some grief to, [WCHA referee Derek] Sheppard. He likes to call penalties on me. It seems like I’ve got to pick up three or four a series or something. Like I said earlier, I paid my dues in that regard. In order to come back to the WCHA and play hockey and have it be beneficial to me, the coaching staff at North Dakota hasn’t been pulling in the reins on the physical play. But personally for myself, to benefit my team and stay out of the box I do have to pull in the reins a little bit. You can’t go around hammering guys and this and that.
“This year, I’ve got to speak with the officials a little bit and have a communication with them, and maybe they let a couple go. Or you finish your check and because I am 6-foot-7 and I elbow a 5-foot-10 guy in the head or whatever it is, that’s not a call. It’s [a matter of] starting to get those calls, and it’s something that should hopefully eventually fall into place this year.”
Although he has no intention of turning pro this season, Finley’s trip to Hershey was beneficial.
“It was a great learning experience for me sitting with some of the scouts for Washington and hearing what they have to say about other prospects and players in the organization and guys who have played big minutes in the National Hockey League, and guys who play similar styles to myself,” he says. “They’re making a simple play continually, and they’re responsible defensively. If I can make the game that simple, then I am better off. Going out there and seeing the Giant Center and seeing the fans in Hershey in full force was something. They are great fans and the rink is unbelievable. It will give me something to reflect on this next year and take steps in the right direction.”
Some of those steps in the right direction involve doing the things he has been doing, like working out diligently during the summer.
“What it all comes down to is off-season training,” he states. “I’ve been fortunate enough to train with [Capitals physiologist] Jack Blatherwick in the [Twin] Cities. Obviously he has done great things for the Capitals here in Washington. Whether it is that off-ice stuff – strengthening skating muscles and things like that – that helps you get around the ice, I definitely feel a lot more mobile. I feel comfortable handling the puck although at times out there it doesn’t look that way. All in all, my game is coming together.”
As it does with so many players, the ability to adjust to the speed of the game at higher levels will determine just how far Finley goes, and whether he can follow in the NHL footsteps of former Fighting Sioux blueliners such as Berry, Alan Hangsleben, Marc Chorney (Taylor’s dad, and a former Sioux captain), James Patrick, Rick Zombo, Craig Ludwig, Brad Bombardir, David Hale, Mike Commodore and Matt Greene among the ranks of those who have gone on to play in the NHL.
“It’s going to take an adjustment to speed at various levels,” Finley says, “going from high school to the USHL, then to college and potentially someday from college to the professional ranks. Just the speed of the game is something that obviously picks up, and they really crank it up when you go from college to the pros from what I understand. Adjusting to the level of speed and understanding that the time you have with the puck closes up that much quicker. Making decisions with the puck gets harder. Those are the things I have to adjust to.”
Finley is a coachable kid, and is always looking to make himself a better player and get a jump on the competition. Just before coming to this week’s development camp, Finley hooked up with Oshie for some adjustments. During their time together, Oshie was interviewed for an article in a St. Louis paper that detailed the “stay in school” pact between the Fighting Sioux players.
“T.J. came down to my house this last week and we were working out and skating, kind of doing some touch-up work before we went to our respective camps,” relates Finley. “I was in the car with him when he was on doing his interview. They called me Joel Finley in that paper. I don’t know, maybe we’ll call him Tommy Oshie if we want to.”