John Finley dies; was Red Wings’ doctor for 47 years

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — In recent seasons, Dr. John Finley would stride into the media lounge of Joe Louis Arena for the traditional pregame meal, in search of his hot Little Caesars Pizza.

An immaculately groomed, courtly presence, a couple of slices and a Red Wings game brought a big, bright smile to “Doc Finley’s” face.

In five decades gone by, however, Finley performed a far more essential role.

As the Wings team doctor for 47 years, from 1957 to 2003, he bound up players’ injuries, kept the team playing and contributed, often essentially, to their triumphs.

Finley died Thursday in St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Bloomfield Township. He was 88.

As Gordie Howe’s personal doctor for more than 50 years, he treated a constant stream injuries, sewing many of Howe’s 300 career stitches tending to many fractures. Howe once ignored Finley’s advice by leaving a hospital after passing a kidney stone, to score the winning goal in a late season game against the Rangers.

Finley attended to Kris Draper in 1996 after Claude Lemieux’s vicious boarding, putting 40 emergency sutures in Draper’s face and split gums, and installing temporary wires to stabilize his broken jaw for the trip back to Detroit.

He administered a “rib block” anesthetic to Sergei Fedorov between periods of the third game of the 1997 Western Conference finals, which proved pivotal.

The delicate injection into Fedorov’s ribs eased the pain, brought him off the trainer’s table when Steve Yzerman’s entreaties had failed to do the trick and allowed him to assist on both of Slava Kozlov’s goals, in a 2-1 win.

With the medical treatment on his bruised ribs continuing, Fedorov scored the winning goal in Game 6 to put the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final for their first Cup in 42 years.

In his long career, Finley also treated Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, and almost every other player, and he was team doctor while Sid Abel and Scotty Bowman coached.

“From a player’s point of view, he was a hero,” the late Howe, who passed away June 10, wrote in the introduction to Finley’s 2012 book, “Hockeytown Doc.”

“He was our guardian angel, 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 confidant, helped us navigate the demands of being fathers, husbands, and sports figures,” Howe wrote.

Finley’s career spanned eras of the NHL and Red Wings’ history.

His death, after a massive stroke that occurred a week after he attended the last game at Joe Louis Arena, came 10 months after Howe’s and two months after the passing of Red Wings’ owner Mike Ilitch.

“My service to the Wings was spent during the years of the Original Six, the first NHL expansion and the rise and fall of the World Hockey Association, the influx of European players and the league’s further expansion and beyond into the new millennium,” Finley wrote.

“I understand and appreciate what a huge step it is for anyone who plays hockey to reach the NHL.”

“And when something goes wrong, as it often does when these special athletes compete so fiercely, an immensely talented team of trainers, doctors, dentists and other first responders are there to patch them up and sometimes even save a life.”

Born in Syracuse, New York, Sept. 28, 1928, to Ada (Bevilacqua) and Dr. John H. Finley Sr., Finley attended Syracuse University and Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, which later became Midwestern University.

Finley is survived by his beloved wife of 59 years, Genevieve, and his children, Michael Finley, Mary Straffon, Maureen Kaplan, Bridgit Hermann and Molly and Colleen Finley, and eight grandchildren.

Visitation is at Lynch and Sons Funeral Home, 1368 N. Crooks Road, Clawson, 3-8 p.m., Sunday. A Scripture Service will be held at Sunday evening.

The Funeral Mass will be held at St. Hugo of the Hills Stone Chapel, 2215 Opdyke Road, Bloomfield Hills, 11 a.m. Monday, May 1. Friends might visit beginning at 10:30 a.m.

Twitter: @greggkrupa