College hockey runs in Ben Finkelstein’s blood. His dad played college hockey at former ECAC rival UVM, and Finkelstein grew up in South Burlington. Just minutes away was Gutterson Field House, where he learned to skate and spent his childhood cheering on the Catamounts.
It was this affinity for college hockey that led the sophomore defenseman to forego any chance of playing Canadian juniors in favor of the NCAA route. His ties to UVM, a great hockey school in a great hockey town, drew him to a similar place in St. Lawrence.
“I grew up going to pretty much every UVM game, so I was around the college atmosphere. My dad, and all his friends played at UVM, so I knew that aspect of it,” said Finkelstein. “I always thought it was the coolest thing, getting an education and playing at the highest level.”
Prior to arriving in Canton, Finkelstein played at Cardigan Mountain School, as did Gavin Bayreuther, before playing prep hockey at Kimball Union Academy. Much like UVM and Gutterson, both schools boast rich hockey traditions and play out of classic barns, much the way St. Lawrence does, and those similarities drew Finkelstein to the North Country.
“Gutterson is five minutes from my house, and that’s where I learned to skate, and I love that old barn. It’s the same thing with KUA and Cardigan, the old barn and a small community, I love it. I got those same feelings at SLU with Appleton being such a great barn. Rinks like that are kind of like a holy grail to their communities.”
Finkelstein credited former Saint Tim LeRoy and former UNH Wildcat Robbie Barker, his coaches at Cardigan Mountain, as well as former Maine head coach Tim Whitehead, whom Finkelstein played for at Kimball Union, in helping him in his transition to defense from forward.
“I was fortunate to have great coaches at Cardigan, and a great coach at KUA in Tim Whitehead, who really helped me get better and coached me well at the defensive position,” said Finkelstein, who made the switch a few years before starting at Cardigan.
Not only did he have a late start to playing defense, Finkelstein also has to play against players who are usually taller and heavier than he is. However, his exceptional skating and high hockey IQ allows him to overcome both challenges and be a game-changing player for the Saints.
“Because I’m not the biggest guy, I have to use my other strengths to play well, like my skating to close gaps, or using a strong stick to maintain my gap. I grew up watching Kimmo Timonen, who was an undersized defenseman for the Flyers. He never really hit guys, but was always using his strengths well to be a shutdown defenseman.”
His ability to defend well and transition to offense quickly is what caught the eye of NHL scouts, and ultimately, Finkelstein heard his name called by the Florida Panthers in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL draft. That experience is something he’ll never forget.
“It was a tremendous honor to hear my name called. It’s a dream come true, and the support I got from family and friends who made so many sacrifices so that I could chase my dreams, it’s unbelievable.”
This also gave Finkelstein the chance to attend several development camps with the Panthers, which he says was eye opening and helped him understand exactly what is required to reach the NHL, and stay there.
“One thing that I took away from those camps is how to treat yourself as a professional, what it takes to be a pro,” Finkelstein said. “You look at all the veterans, there’s a reason they’ve been in the NHL for so long, the way they take care of themselves away from the rink.”
“Once I got back from development camp, I saw what it takes. I buckled down, changed my lifestyle to focus more on training and nutrition and taking care of my body, and once you get invested in it, it really is night and day,” Finkelstein continued.
While the season has been difficult for the Saints, who are battling through a depleted lineup and difficult schedule, Finkelstein and his teammates continue to work hard every day. He has 8 points in 14 games so far in his sophomore campaign after a rookie season when he posted 23 points in 37 games, and is sure to be a crucial player for the Saints, and perhaps one day the Florida Panthers.