This morning I am gravely worried about the condition of Ethan Hall of Chaska, Minnesota. According to Big Joe Finley of the Washington Capitals, Hall last Saturday, during a purely recreational skate, took a slash from Big Joe — accidental, of course — that was worse than any stickwork by Finley on any Capitals’ prospect over the past two days. Making matters worse, Ethan Hall is just five years old.
Hey, they don’t call it the State of Hockey cause the shinny there is mild-mannered.
Finley was taking a final skate at the Blake Ice Arena in Hopkins, Minnesota, on Saturday, about five minutes from his parents’ home, before departing for Washington on Sunday. It was the rink he learned to play hockey on, beginning at age six. Young Ethan and Joe know each other well.
“Ethan never goes to bed without some manner of [North Dakota] Fighting Sioux gear on,” said Finley, a Fighting Sioux alum, as he made quick work of a plate of sushi after his first formal skate of the Capitals’ 2010 Development Camp.
About 15 minutes into my lunch-hour visit to Development Camp on Monday I was already seated in a Ballston sushi restaurant across from the rink, across a table from Big Joe Finley. I’d scooted over to camp’s first day for a hurried visit, with little more than the intention of saying hello to Joe and snapping a few photos to use with his OFB diary entries this week. Instead, he invited me to lunch. And instead of a routine trip to the rink I found myself at lunch with a gentle giant talking serious hockey injury, serious rehab, strength training, his year of maturity while sidelined, his favorite hockey movies and favorite iPod tracks, his favorite locker room pranks, and the year ahead in pro puck with my new bloggermate.
It was a lunch hour Joe Finley was supposed to have spent with his camp groupmates, who were seated at tables adjacent to us. Instead, Big Joe Finley spent the entirety of it with me, answering every question I had. Having lunch with Big Joe Finley, one of Ethan Hall’s hockey heroes back in Minnesota, was oh so much more fun than lunching with lobbyists. Again, by the silly and surreal luck I enjoy being a hockey blogger in this town, I was accorded yet another reward, yet another memory for my mental hockey bloggers’ scrapbook, from covering this great game as this venture and this hockey organization allow me to.
The term ‘Gentle Giant’ is especially apt for Joe Finley. Physically, and especially with an ornery on-ice demeanor, Big Joe represents a commodity in gravely short supply in the Washington Capitals’ organization: a thumper, a crease-clearer, an intimidator. But off the ice Big Joe is anything but adversarial.
Joe Finley is six-foot-eight, two hundred and sixty two pounds of genial giant. He’s a jolly sushi-eating giant. I needed just 40 minutes as an unexpected lunch partner with him on Monday to learn this.
Confession: I got tipped off about Big Joe, about his being an All-Star performer in the niceness department in a sport renowned for the niceness and humbleness of its athletes, by a member of the Capitals’ organization, some months ago. When a career guy in pucks makes a point of detailing the niceties of a specific personality in his vast population of nicety, I take notice.
Joe Finley on Monday made me think about all those big media outlet beat reporters across the street at lunch typing out day one’s script, most of them about more recent first-round draft picks who’ve known no setbacks in their development arcs, as Big Joe has, and as such are the lead storyline pursuit at the start of this camp. I understood perfectly why the media were pegging their filings on Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. I’m interested in them, too. But the Capitals’ Nate Ewell likes to remind media that every camper has a story to tell (he’s so right), and during Monday lunch, I got a litany of fun and interesting and even a few off the record hockey stories.
And life stories.
Joe suffered a freakish and devastating injury early last hockey season. Joe being Joe, he crosschecked an opponent in a game in November, but he suffered a ruptured aneurysm of the main artery of his forearm on the play.
The Patriot News’ Tim Leone like me on day one of camp was thinking Giant thoughts, and wrote this about what Finley confronted next:
[The injury] cut off blood flow to his ring finger and pinky. Reconstructive surgery on Nov. 23, which included a graft of a vein from his left forearm, saved the full use of the fingers but wiped out his season.
It was easily the most severe injury of his hockey career. He was in a cast for three months.
“It was six months before I could put a stick in my hand,” he noted.
The Capitals responded commendably.
“I can’t give enough thanks to [Caps’ physiology guru] Jack Blatherwick and the work he did with me in Minneapolis,” Finley said. “We put in some long days, some long hours, in the weight room, on the ice. It turned into very much a mental game, to stay positive.
“Jack and I watched tons of hockey games — there was high school, college, junior games, and as far as I’m concerned Jack is one in a million as a hockey mind goes. The way he thinks about developing hockey players — he was able to help train my mind away from hockey. We analyzed so much of what we watched — what makes this guy good, what do you like about this?”
Big Joe was never small, but this summer he’s hulking huge. He’s about an inch taller (now 6’8) than when the Caps drafted him 27th overall in 2005. But what you really notice about him is his chiseled muscular frame and how it fills a very large shirt: at his first-ever Development Camp Big Joe was tall alright, but he seemed somewhat gangly — insomuch as someone 6 ‘7, 240 could be. In his draft year Finley was a lot closer to 230 pounds, and when Paul Bissonnette rudely welcomed him to the American League early last fall Finley wasn’t much bigger.
He is now.
While healing from hand surgery over much of the 2009-10 season Finley worked hard to increase his leg strength. In a Kettler Capitals Iceplex elevator Monday afternoon Big Joe told me he arrived at camp this week at 262 pounds. He looks primed for battle.
He comes from terrific athletic stock. His father was a two-sporter at the U; mom was a Golden Gophers cheerleader (they met there). Two sisters will have both earned D-I hoops scholarships soon.
Far from being an afterthought of a prospect, Finley is still very much monitored and mentored by the Caps. George McPhee, Finley told me, very much expects his big bruising blueliner to win a job in Hershey this fall. It occurred to me: because a prospect is relatively slow in developing, and then gets seriously hurt, quickly does such a kid get labeled “failure” or “bust.” Think Eric Fehr. It’s both inaccurate and unfair.
We don’t yet know whether Joe Finley one day will be rudely patrolling the Capitals’ blueline. What we ought to know after Joe Finley’s 2009-10 season is that the Capitals are lucky to have him in their employ, trying.