You don’t have to possess the biggest name, hail from the largest city or be a top draft pick to enjoy a solid career in the National Hockey League. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Jeff Finger is living proof of that.
While Finger brings elements of consistency and physicality to the ice as a key member of the Avalanche’s blue line, his ascension to the NHL wasn’t always a certainty.
Finger spent his childhood in Houghton, Mich. (population 7,000), a city which experiences upwards of 200 inches of snowfall a year, making the area ideal for aspiring young players to organize games of pick-up hockey on the snow-packed streets or at outdoor rinks from dawn until dusk. The city, which formed the International (Professional) Hockey League in 1904, is also credited as being the birthplace of professional hockey in the United States.
After playing two years of high school hockey in his hometown and another with a Midget AAA team a few hours up the road, Finger went on to enjoy a three-year stint with the United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers.
There, Finger led the Gamblers to the Clark Cup title and was named the USHL’s Defenseman of the Year during the 1999-2000 season, feats he accomplished one year after seemingly being an afterthought in the NHL draft as an eighth round pick (240th overall) by Colorado.
The gritty defenseman took his game to the NCAA level, playing three seasons at St. Cloud State University, before moving on to pursue a professional career. Finger began his venture with Reading of the East Coast Hockey League and would go on to spend nearly four full seasons in the American Hockey League, all the while waiting for a shot to prove himself.
Instead of getting frustrated that he hadn’t yet stepped onto NHL ice nearly eight years after being drafted, Finger took a proactive approach and kept a positive attitude throughout his tour of the minor leagues.
“The bottom line is that I always kept believing. I always told myself ‘Why not me?’ ” said Finger, who led all Avalanche defenseman in goals (eight) during the 2007-08 season.
"You have to keep believing and if you want it bad enough, you’ll get it. Don’t ever think it’s not possible."
“Sometimes you think it’s a lot further away than it really is. Growing up you always look up to guys at the NHL level and put them on a pedestal. To be here now is an unbelievable feeling.”
Upon finally receiving a call-up from the Avalanche in February 2007, Finger seized the opportunity and has yet to let go.
A virtual unknown prior to last season, Finger is just now beginning to garner some attention on an Avalanche defensive unit filled with big names. While the opposition may be preoccupied with the team’s other defensemen – including 2006 Olympians Jordan Leopold, John-Michael Liles and Adam Foote – Finger enjoys quietly filling the role of the unknown X-factor on Colorado’s blue line.
“I kind of like it actually. You can just fly under the radar and do your job,” said the 6-1, 205-pound defenseman. “I really like that role and hope it continues in just the same way.”
Finger’s rise from NHL afterthought to a key member of Colorado’s defensive corps was a long road, but one he feels helped him develop into the player he is today. It just goes to show that it’s not who you are or where you’re from, but rather what kind of attitude and work ethic you bring to the rink that matters most.
“Every old cliché you’ve ever heard is true,” said Finger. “You have to keep believing and if you want it bad enough, you’ll get it. Don’t ever think it’s not possible.”