By Kim Wrona
4/11/15 – DeKalb, IL | Huskies junior forward Max Finley represented Team USA in the 18th Winter Deaflympics in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia from March 29 – April 5.
When all was said and done, Finley returned home with a bronze medal in hand.
It was the first time the 20-year-old participated in the Deaflympics, but had previously represented USA Hockey in international play.
“I had played 2 years ago for the World Championship team when we were in Finland,” Finley said. “So, this is my second time on the team and I was in more of a leadership position as one of the older guys; we had a lot of younger guys. But it was my second time playing on the team, first time in the Deaflympics.”
The opportunity to don a USA sweater in international competition is special for the Peoria native.
“It’s always a great honor to represent your country in whatever you’re doing,” Finley said. “To be able to put on a hockey jersey and do something that I love is a great feeling in knowing that you’re representing everybody back home and everybody that has helped you get to that point in your career.”
“Getting to play on the international level and getting to play teams that you’ve seen the NHL athletes in the Olympics play when you were growing up–like Finland and Russia and Canada–and to be able to see those rivalries continue, even at this level, and to be able to actually play in those games against those teams is really, really a cool feeling. I think that was probably the coolest thing of my trip. I enjoyed the guys on the team, too. It was a really close group of guys. We got to know each other really well and we had a lot of fun. I think just being a part of a great team like that, a great group of guys, and then being able to play on the international level is the coolest thing.”
Finley had never laced up the skates in Russia before; his 2013 Finland trip was as far east of the States as he had been previously.
“That was a long plane ride over there,” Finley said. “It was a good time though. It was a new experience, new place to travel to and see. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to go to somewhere like that. The chances of me going back to Russia are probably pretty slim, so it was a cool experience.”
Playing hockey on the other side of the globe has its perks, but it also lacks some familiar aspects of the game.
“The atmosphere was great,” Finley said. “Even the rink, there were lots of fans for all the games, packed house in a big KHL arena, so that was cool. Even at the hotel and out in the streets, there were people from all over the world and athletes from all over the world. We got to interact with them and it was great to meet new people and kind of see people that you haven’t seen in a while. It was an overall good experience and we got to meet a lot of new people and see a lot of cool things.”
“The trip got put together a few months before we left and a lot of our parents and families that wanted to go on the trips couldn’t make it because of money or other obligations. So, being that far and not having the support in the arena is a little bit different, but you know that everybody back here is cheering you on and you have a lot more support than it seems like.”
Even though Team USA set out to win gold, the team was happy to win bronze. Its gold medal hopes were dashed when Team Russia defeated the U.S. by a score of 6-5 on April 1. The U.S. nearly tied the game up in the waning seconds, but the puck crossed the line just after the final buzzer sounded.
“It was easily the most entertaining game of the tournament, for sure,” Finley said. “We took the Russian home ice advantage away from them for a little bit of the game when we went up. Every time we scored, the place got really quiet. … At the end there, we had a controversial call over the puck. It looked like it crossed the goal line before time ran out, but when they went and reviewed it, it ended up being way after the whistle and the review went Russia’s way.”
If the American goal had counted, the game would have been tied at 6 and it would have gone into overtime.
The U.S. then had to focus on the bronze medal game at hand against Finland on April 5. Team USA claimed the victory by a score of 6-5.
“We went into the bronze medal game with a little bit of fire in our stomachs because of the close game we had against Russia and the controversial call that would have put us in the gold medal game,” Finley said. “We were a little mad at the way that game ended, but we knew we had a chance to play for a medal and we had to put all that controversy behind us. We wanted to make sure we went home with a medal rather than empty handed, so we put all our focus into that and ended up winning the game.”
Finley and Team USA were more than happy to return home on April 6.
“It was nice to return with a bronze medal,” Finley said. “We still kind of had that Russia game in the back of our minds, even when we got off the plane. But just being back in the U.S. and knowing that we came back with something and the trip wasn’t a loss is a good feeling. Just being back on American soil after 2 weeks of Russian culture was pretty exciting. I know everybody, right when we stepped off the plane, was really excited, even though we were in an airport. They couldn’t believe we were back home. Everybody was waiting for that first McDonald’s or Subway when we got back.”