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Heading West

By Joe Sindoni - PAH Broadcaster/Writer, 02/13/23, 9:00AM EST


Max Finkeldey, From Africa to the EHL

EXTON, PA -- “I called my family to tell them I'm moving to America to play ice hockey, and they thought I was crazy.”

Traveling the world is nothing new for Namibian hockey player Max Finkledey, but a move halfway around the world to play a sport he had never played? Yes, junior hockey players often leave home in hopes of achieving their dreams of playing at the collegiate level, but Finkeldey’s adventure involves him leaving his hometown of Swakopmund, Namibia behind for Exton, Pennsylvania — over 7,000 miles away.

So how does a 20-year-old from a coastal African city of 45,000 people who had never set foot on ice end up playing for the Pennsylvania Huntsmen in the Eastern Hockey League’s Premier Division?

Before taking on ice hockey, Finkeldey played roller hockey since he was 10 years old, skating for the Coastal Pirates of the Namibia Ice and Inline Hockey Association (NIIHA). As he got older, he progressed to the Open Division, and led the league in assists in the 2019 season and was third overall in scoring. After graduating from Private School Swakopmund in May 2021, Finkeldey moved to Munich, Germany, and a month later connected with a French team called France Pro Shop. He played for them in the Sparta Cup, a five-day roller hockey tournament in Spain, before returning to Munich.

Not long after that tournament, Finkeldey was back on his way to France, signing with the Ris-Orangis Phenix. He caught fire in the three-game championship series, scoring 11 goals and 5 assists to lead the Phenix to the French Senior N1 Division Championship. After the success in France, Finkeldey returned to Spain for another Sparta Cup — this time building a team with his friends called the Namib Sidewinders. They won the U20 Division and placed third in the Pro Division, but Finkeldey’s journey was just beginning.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, as Finkeldey was rising through the ranks of roller hockey, Pennsylvania Huntsmen management was planning for their inaugural season, visiting rink after rink to scout players, and always making calls. But in this instance, Huntsmen general manager Zach Overholtzer was on the receiving end of a call for an opportunity like none other — a call that came from Philadelphia area native Brian Sobel, who coached Finkeldey in Namibia.

“There was a three-second window on whether I considered it to be true or not,” said Overholtzer. “I got a text (from Sobel) saying, ‘I might have a player for you.’ So, I said, ‘Tell me about him.’ The second text says he's from Africa. My reply was, ‘I hope you're serious,’ and then my phone rang, and we went from there.”

“It’s always tough to leave home,” said Finkeldey. “Ever since I was young, my mom always told us that once we finish school you're going to travel and see what’s out there in the world. She loved to travel when she was younger and still does to this day and that’s where my love of travel came from.”

Though he excelled in roller hockey, this journey was another challenge in and of itself: It would require Finkeldey to move to America and play a sport he never played.

“I've always been the type of person to set myself up for new challenges and new experiences,” he said. “After my roller hockey journey in Europe, people would ask me if I ever played ice hockey. Based on my build and weight I thought to myself, ‘Why not try it?’ The idea sparked to move to the U.S. because it’s way bigger here, and I wanted to commit to ice hockey fully with 100% effort.”

“In general, ice hockey was very new to me. I didn't even know all the rules before moving to America,” continued Finkeldey. “I didn't know how to feel about it because I had no idea what the EHL was, and I was nervous that something would go wrong because this seemed too good to be true. I would talk to Zach (Overholtzer) and Blaise (Kilroy, Huntsmen coach) and they would answer any questions I had. I called them one final time and told them I bought a plane ticket, and they said to let them know when I land, and we will pick you up. That’s when I knew that it’s actually happening, and I was in shock.”

Finkeldey started off slow but quickly made an impact.

“The first time I saw him on the ice, I thought he was a public skater, and within two weeks he was making his way up the line chart,” said Overholtzer. “He's developing four years to every one year at this point. He's a physical specimen, and he is very mature for a kid his age. He's a leader on the bench and a leader in the locker room. He’s like an extension of the coaching staff and has strong communication skills. It’s like having a player/coach.”

As the 2022-23 EHL Premier season enters the homestretch, it’s clear that Finkeldey’s hard work has paid off.

“This has gone way better than I expected,” Overholtzer continued. “Initially, we had an understanding of ‘Let’s get you here and see how it goes.’ We were going to reevaluate everything near Christmas. We didn't even need to do that because it was clear in early October that he would be here for the long haul, and we would invest in each other. He has given everything to the organization.”

“At first, I thought this guy (Overholtzer) might be crazy and should I look for a new job. I was just shocked at first,” said Blaise Kilroy, who returned to hockey as the Huntsmen’s inaugural head coach after playing in the junior and NCAA ranks. “The first time he (Finkeldey) got on the ice, I thought, ‘This is going to be quite the journey.’ I worked with him a lot in the beginning, especially teaching him to stop since its obviously different from roller to ice hockey. He was picking it up really quickly, and I knew he would become a force. He's big, strong, and looks like a football player. Once his skating improved, I was excited to see him play. He has blown my expectations away. He's a glue guy in the locker room, and a natural leader. He doesn’t allow parts of the game that he doesn’t know about scare him. He's eager to learn.”

It has certainly been a unique hockey season for Finkeldey — from day one on the ice to getting ready for the EHL Premier Playoffs.

“It was slippery in the beginning,” Finkledey said, matter-of-factly. “When I jumped on the ice for the first time, I thought to myself, ‘This seems doable,’ even though I felt like Bambi on ice. It’s a very different skating style, but I knew once I got the skating style down, I’d be able to cruise into different positions. I have the skill from roller, but it was a big challenge to get the stopping down, and the edge work.”

He has spent many hours in the gym, on the ice and watching film, but what Finkeldey appreciates the most is the relationships and support from the team.

“Having a coach and a team that wants me to succeed made this whole journey way easier,” he continued. “I've been lucky to spend my time with this team. This is one of the best group of guys I’ve ever played with and spent time with. They are so helpful, and it makes the experience better, and every day I feel like I'm getting better.”

It’s been an amazing experience for Finkeldey, one he will never forget, and it all started from his childhood coach in Namibia: Brian Sobel.

“I know he won’t want me to say ‘thank you,’ but I will anyway. He would always say that it was my hard work that got me to where I am today, but I wouldn’t be as dedicated to a cause without him. He always pushed me to be a better player and always encouraged me to try new things. Thanks to him, I moved to Europe to play roller hockey. Even to this day, he texts me once in a while to see how I'm doing … he still really cares about me and my hockey journey. I'll always be thankful and grateful for what he's done for me, and I hope I can make him proud.”

Lastly Finkeldey thanked his parents. “I would love to thank my parents. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their constant love and support. I do this for myself but a big reason I live this lifestyle is because I want to make them proud, I love you mom and dad.”

It has been an incredible journey for Max Finkeldey. A 28-hour travel schedule over 7,000 miles all started with one phone call. You never know where your next opportunity will come from, but Finkeldey and the Huntsmen are taking full advantage of it.