Jack Finley is only 19 and has already enjoyed some of the highs and endured some of the lows his sport can dish out.
In 2020, he experienced the elation of being picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round (57th overall) of the NHL Draft. Five months later, however, he suffered a freak shoulder injury in practice, only to be told he required major surgery to repair two tears in a labrum and a six-month rehab before he would be able to return to play.
Although he missed the entire 2020-21 season, the 6-6, 223-pound centre from Kelowna, B.C., is in a good place these days and making up for lost time.
"I think subconsciously your mind’s telling you to take caution when you’re going to hit somebody," said Finley as his Winnipeg Ice returned to practice this week after a four-day pause due to COVID-19 concerns. "That’s another thing you’ve got to work through (when you have) major surgery like that — it’s not just physical. It’s mental, too.
"So that was definitely something that was tough and it took time. But now you know, I have all the confidence in the shoulder and I think I’m past that now."
Finley’s rugged style has been a good complement for the Ice, which acquired him for veteran forwards Chase Bertholet, James Form and a second-round draft pick in early December from the Spokane Chiefs, cellar-dwellers in the WHL’s U.S. Division.
In seven games since joining his new team, Finley has four goals and eight points. Winnipeg head coach James Patrick has experimented with Finley as a shutdown centre and, most recently, on a top-six unit with right-winger Connor McClennon, who leads the WHL with 25 goals in 33 games.
"My sense is that he’s a good two-way centre — he’s a bull but he’s also good offensively," said Patrick. "With our lineup, I definitely want to see him driving the play. He definitely has the skills and the ability to play two ways as good as any centre in this league."
The long layoff contributed to a luke-warm start in Spokane, where Finley had been named captain.
"I missed the whole season, so when I came back, I was just practising and working out," said Finley. "Even though my skills got better and I got stronger, I just hadn’t played any games. The main thing was just making sure that in games I was progressing, developing and that came with time and playing games. I think recently in the last month or so it felt back to normal."
Jeff Finley, Jack’s dad and an amateur scout for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, is just starting to see some of the instincts and timing return to Jack’s game.
He never worried about his eldest son’s enthusiasm for game.
"My biggest thing always was to get them to develop their own love and passion for the game because I really don’t think you’re going very far if you don’t have that, right?" said Jeff, a 18-year pro who played 708 games as an NHL blue-liner before retiring in 2004.
"My biggest concern was just to let them do their own thing. None of them are defenceman. I didn’t force them to play defence so that I can teach them how to play defence."
The Finleys have a strong connection to the game.
In addition to Jack, Jeff’s middle son, Mason, is a 17-year-old rookie right-winger for the Calgary Hitmen, while Max, 15, plays for the Rink Academy’s Kelowna U15 Prep team and is expected to be one of the top picks in this spring’s WHL Priority Draft.
Jack, who passed Jeff in height when he was 14, was a student of the game even as he was compensating for major growth spurts entering his WHL draft year.
"He had a real good understanding of the game, even when he was really young," said Jeff. "But it was a work in progress because he was tall. There’s been a lot of awkward times, trying to catch up to his growth, you know, his co-ordination and his skating. His skating’s always been a work in progress and to his credit, he’s really worked at it to get where it is today."
Jeff is a realist when he considers Jack’s NHL future.
"If you projected him as a bottom-six (forward in the NHL), maybe his upside was only ever going to be a third- or fourth- line centre, which is OK," said Jeff. "You’ll take that on your team — just look what Adam Lowry is doing for the Jets. Teams love those guys. They’re hard to find. So, I think as long as the skating is gonna get good enough to be in the league, then you got an NHL player. Just how high is the ceiling?"
For now, a WHL title and a trip to the Memorial Cup is a more immediate goal.
"I think moving to Winnipeg and playing with these elite players is really going to help him gain confidence," said Jeff, who has already seen Jack play live several times while scouting Winnipeg’s sensational 17-year-old draft prospects, Matt Savoie and Conor Geekie. "You can see that already, playing with Connor (McClennon). He’s got a guy that can finish on his line. I think that’s been the most noticeable thing for me. It’s just that confidence with the puck on his stick."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.