Learning To Fly: The Quiet Rise Of Ryan Finnerty

“It does not matter how strong your gravity is, we were always meant to fly.”
Sarah Kay

The EIHL is a tough mistress when it comes to coaching. With clubs traditionally perhaps not having quite the budget to go out and obtain experienced coaches from outside the league, promotion often comes from within, with every team in the EIHL now being coached by a player who has played in the league at some point, and many of them being run by “player-coaches”. Almost without exception, even the non-playing coaches have pulled on the jersey of the team they currently oversee in a playing capacity, too.

There’s only one exception to the “team coached by a former player for that squad” rule in the EIHL currently, and that team is currently top of the table…the Braehead Clan are coached by 33-year-old Albertan Ryan Finnerty, who over the past few seasons has used a baptism of fire in the Sheffield Steelers coaching meat-grinder that would have already broken some novice coaches to quietly become one of the best coaches in the EIHL.

Finnerty is no stranger to the British game-he first came to the UK in 2007 from Kaltern/Caldaro in Italy’s Serie A…instantly winning friends with his hard-working, fearless play at both ends of the ice. In 278 games with Sheffield and Cardiff (as Devils captain) he scored at a rate of nearly a point a game, with 91 goals and 168 assists for 259 points, winning one EIHL league title and two playoff titles during his time in the league

Finnerty in action for Sheffield

In 2011, Finnerty became Steelers player-coach, and although he didn’t win any titles during his two-season tenure in Sheffield, he finished 2nd and 3rd in the EIHL and a results record of 71-28…not too shabby at all for a rookie coach, especially one working in the goldfish bowl of Sheffield.

However, as the Steelers are wont to do, the decision was made to relieve Finnerty of his duties at the end of the 2012/13 season by owner Tony Smith…a decision that was seen by many as the Lethbridge native being made a scapegoat for the Steelers being beaten by Nottingham to trophies. After all…how often do you see a coach who’s won nearly three times more games than he’s lost and finishing in the top three in the league both seasons as a rookie getting fired? Not that often.

Fortunately for both Finnerty and the Braehead Clan’s future in the UK, the Scottish team were looking for a coach to lead them forward after a decent but not spectacular few years which had seen them led by several coaches over their three year existence. They needed stability and a coach familiar with the EIHL who’d served his apprenticeship…and so they snapped Finnerty up.

Ryan Finnerty as Clan coach. The Lethbridge native is doing great things in Glasgow

It was a move that’s now paying off better and more quickly then (probably) either party could have hoped for. Last season, in his first year in Glasgow, the Clan made it to the playoff semi-finals for the first time off the back of a comprehensive quarter-final victory over Nottingham (the previous season’s treble winners) and continued to grow off-ice to the point where they were selling out their 3500-seat arena.

Finnerty himself proved his coaching credentials beyond question-many had wondered if his success in Sheffield had been down to being “parachuted” into one of the top jobs in British hockey and given a budget to play with that would be the envy of many other teams…indeed he wasn’t helped massively by an ownership that thought nothing of publicly putting pressure on the coach towards the end of the season and effectively saying “if he doesn’t win a title we’ll sack him”…an experience which may be familiar in sport but is still something that will tend to sour a relationship a little.

However, up in Scotland, given time and space to implement his philosophy, Finnerty is building something pretty special. His teams are tight units, built in the mould of Finner the player…gritty, hard working and demanding the best from each other night after night. It’s a system that’s come to the fore this season as the Clan currently top the Elite League table and look like a team who would die before disappointing their coach.

There’s also very rarely talk of any “personal” issues in Braehead. Finnerty himself has fast become a truly-loved figure among the Purple Army for his passion and communication on the bench, and is known by the hockey media in the UK for being an open, accomodating head coach when it comes to media (perhaps the best example of this is a story told by Premier Sports people, which saw him respond to an interview request before a live game with “sure…oh, and by the way, since you’ll be at the rink all day, if you want to use my office to sort yourself out/freshen up/whatever, feel free. Make yourself at home”.

In everything he does, Finnerty is proving that he’s taken the trial-by-fire of his Sheffield experience and applied it in Braehead to massive benefit. After three years building to this point, it seems that he’s now ready to take his place among the “elite” of the EIHL coaching group, and what’s more astounding is that he’s done this so quickly and quietly.

In short, after a successful career as a player, Ryan Finnerty has completed the transition from a player every EIHL fan secretly wanted on their team to a coach that many teams wish they had. Certainly there are several squads in the EIHL who could benefit from his no-nonsense, team-first style at the moment.

For the foreseeable future, though, it looks like Braehead will be the team to do so. The rest of the EIHL should envy them.

For the man known to all as “Finner”, it seems great things could lie ahead.

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