Q&A: Former Detroit Red Wings team physician, a DO, scores with new memoir
At OMED 2012, former Red Wings team physician John H. Finley, DO, signs a copy of his new book, Hockeytown Doc, for Robert P. Luberto, DO, the team internist for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. (Photo by Patrick Sinco)
Back in 1997, when the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in more than 40 years, their longtime team physician, John H. Finley, DO, started writing down his memories of his time with the team, past and present. At first, he thought he’d have something fun to share with his family. But when Dr. Finley retired in 2003 after nearly five decades with the team, his casual collection of tales mushroomed into 1,500 pages of stories about surgery, hockey and teamwork. Dr. Finley got in touch with a publisher and a hockey journalist, who edited his work, and the result is the new book Hockeytown Doc: A Half-Century of Red Wings Stories from Howe to Yzerman.
At a book signing at OMED Tuesday, The DO chatted with Dr. Finley after he sold and signed 75 books. Following is an edited transcript of the interview.
How are hockey players as patients? They have a reputation of having a high tolerance for pain.
Actually, 99% of them did. This is particularly true during games. They had great pain tolerance. One of the problems we always encountered was some players wouldn’t let us know that they had an injury because they were afraid of being taken off the roster and not being able to play. So they would play over their injuries much of the time.
Our goal was to have the patients appreciate what we were doing for them and come to us immediately when they had a problem. And therefore we had a chance to see them as early as possible in the process of suffering from an injury. Sometimes when they were injured out of town, they would wait until they were home to see the home team physician rather than seeing a visiting team physician when they were on the road.
You wrote about Borje Salming, who took a skate to the face and required 300 stitches. Was that the most difficult injury you encountered?
It was certainly one of them. Another time, we had one player with a ruptured eye. This was before the days of helmets and face guards. He had facial lacerations as well. Despite immediate attention by our ophthalmologist, nothing could be done to save his eye. We went through weeks of treatment and attempts to help him recover, but they were unsuccessful. Another time a college player had an injury to the eye, and he developed a traumatic cataract and had to have eye surgery, but his vision was restored.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the Red Wings won three Stanley Cups. How did you handle the pressure of treating injuries during such high-stakes games?
You don’t even think about that. We tried to assess the nature of the problem as soon as it happened, before many effects of the trauma took place, so we could do the best job of making a diagnosis.
Hockey is known as a grisly sport. In your book, you write about the sport’s safety regulations and how they have evolved over time. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in terms of hockey safety?
I smile when I think of how [former Michigan State football coach] Duffy Daugherty used to describe football as being not a contact sport but a collision sport. I always felt that hockey was another collision sport. When you’re dealing with players who are playing a collision-type sport, you have to expect they’re going to have severe injuries.
The better the protection, the better it is for the players. But when we started, players didn’t wear helmets, and they wore cotton jerseys. So two minutes after their warm-up, their jerseys became very heavy from perspiration. And many of the protective devices had cotton padding underneath, and they would become heavy as well.
When players started wearing helmets, it was voluntary at first, then it became a requirement. Players would also use the same equipment year after year after year. But equipment has a life span because it weakens after being used game after game. Players appreciated the equipment they had already broken in, so it was hard to get them to use new equipment. Our job was to urge the trainers to make sure players changed equipment as often as necessary.
Are there any changes would you like to see in hockey safety in the future?
The team physicians would like to have all the players wear half-facial coverings, which protect their eyes, so they have a greater chance of avoiding a serious eye injury. The players call them visors. They wear them voluntarily now, but the team physicians association wants to create a mandate for players to wear visors.
Now, probably at most 40% of the team members wear visors. Those who don’t wear them, most of the time it is because they become fogged up and interfere with the player’s ability to see. They are constantly wiping down these visors. So the players’ association has been opposed to making this mandatory. But I’ve always been concerned because the danger of an eye injury is not just the injury to the eye, but the danger of developing double vision. A player who develops double vision would not be able to play successfully.
What was the most difficult part of your job?
Anyone tied up with professional sports gives up part of their life with their own family. We always had to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it was our style to be at the arena an hour before each game and an hour after each game. So we weren’t just attending the game itself, we were there before and after. A great deal of effort was required on the part of the individuals taking care of the team.
As team physician, what type of work did you find most satisfying?
I always tried to do the best job I could to repair any laceration. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. When you’re dealing with lacerations on competitive hockey players, if you just merely do a cosmetic repair, the injured area could break open again if it is struck in a future game. So we had to repair lacerations with that idea in mind, and repair them as carefully as we could so the repair could sustain the brute force of the game. And I always felt that that was one of the great contributions we could make.
You didn’t just close the skin, you would close all the tissue that was injured and reapproximate muscle and reapproximate underlying tissue, so the injury was supported as well as possible. Most of the players really appreciated that kind of work. And this was at a time when the players always were in a hurry to get back on the ice, and so you had to do it carefully and appropriately, as quickly as you could, knowing that you wouldn’t have a second chance to get it right.