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Longtime Red Wings team physician dies at 88

Dr. John Finley treated Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Steve Yzerman, many more during 46 years as 'Hockeytown Doc'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

John Finley was like a small-town doctor. Only his town was Hockeytown.

He served as the team physician of the Detroit Red Wings for 46 years -- 23 at Olympia Stadium, 23 at Joe Louis Arena -- becoming part of their history and, more importantly, their family.

He handled in-game emergencies for players around the NHL with such calm and skill, they used to say if you had to get injured, you wanted it to be in Detroit. 

With a white coat and a warm smile, he helped his good friend Gordie Howe with a kidney stone and took out Steve Yzerman's tonsils; stitched up Mark Howe when Mark was Gordie's little kid and not yet a professional hockey player himself; had players and their families to his office for appointments and his home for brunch; and even made house calls.

After he retired in 2003, he and his wife, Genevieve, remained fixtures at Joe Louis Arena, seeing friends in the Alumni Room, watching games. He walked the red carpet during the ceremony after the last game at the Joe on April 9, then suffered a stroke a week later. He died Thursday at age 88.

It is another blow to the Red Wings, who lost Howe on June 10 at age 88 and owner Mike Ilitch on Feb. 10 at age 87. Finley was one of the people behind the scenes who made the Red Wings the Red Wings.

"From a player's point of view, he was a hero," Howe wrote in the foreword to Finley's memoir, "Hockeytown Doc," published in 2012. "He was our guardian angel, stitching our gashes, casting our breaks, draining our infections, straightening our spines and easing our pain enough for us to be able to rejoin the battle. He was our psychologist and confidante, helping us to navigate the demands of being fathers, husbands and sports figures."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: The #RedWings are saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. John Finley, who worked as a team physician from 1957-2003.

Finley joined the Red Wings in 1957, not long after they had won the Stanley Cup four times in six seasons. He and Genevieve married soon afterward. At first, she knew nothing about hockey. When she met Colleen Howe at a party, she asked, "What does your husband do?" The Finleys and the Howes became close, and Gordie used to tease Genevieve by asking her what her husband did.

Years later, Genevieve went into labor at a game. Someone else had to take her to the hospital, because goaltender Roger Crozier had been hit in the head with a puck and John had to work. By the time John caught up with Genevieve, their sixth child and fifth daughter had been born. They named her Colleen.

Finley went to church every day, ran a busy practice and served on medical committees. The Red Wings, he once said, were his "avocation." A doctor of osteopathy, he treated general ailments and lacerations. His forte was sewing up players rapidly so they could return to the game, but properly so they didn't scar too badly.

"In the Original Six days and early expansion era, nobody wore helmets, and nobody wore face guards," Finley once said. "Consequently, we had minor lacerations all the time. Some weren't so minor."

Ted Lindsay took 300 to 400 stitches from Finley during his career, maybe more. When the Red Wings honored Finley in April 1997 for having spent 40 years with the team, Lindsay appeared on the scoreboard screen at the Joe. He joked that he deserved some credit for Finley's skills because he had donated his body.

"I had complete faith in him," Lindsay said. "I knew that anything he did would be done perfectly."

Finley's signature work came in 1986. Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming was at the bottom of a goalmouth scramble when Red Wings forward Gerard Gallant was pushed from behind.

"His skate came down on my face," Salming wrote with Gerhard Karlsson in his book, "Blood, Sweat and Hockey." "The cold steel sliced the skin above my right eye, then cut deeply into my nose and along the side of my face. … This required the expert hand of a specialist. I was lucky to fall under the care of Dr. John Finley."

Salming was rushed to the hospital. Finley applied pressure to the wound the whole way. He couldn't control the bleeding.

"This isn't serious," he told Salming. "You'll be all right."

Finley began stitching at about 11 p.m. After what seemed like forever, Salming asked, "Almost done?"

"Young man," Finley said, "we've just left second base."

Finley took care to avoid nerve damage, so Salming would be able to smile normally again. When Finley finished at about 2 a.m., Salming had some 300 stitches running down his forehead, around his eye, down his cheek and to the corner of his mouth.

In the morning, Salming took off his bandage and looked in the mirror. He was aghast, worried he would look like that for the rest of his life. He struggled with his appearance for a long time.

But gradually, as if touched by the hand of a guardian angel, the wound healed.

"The red snake of a scar became smaller and smaller, until it nearly disappeared altogether," Salming wrote. "Dr. Finley, quite simply, had done wonderful work."

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