PITTSBURGH – Two Octobers ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins gathered inside their locker room, sat down at their stalls and listened to the youngest member of their ranks explain that a tumor had been located in his thyroid. Several already knew, only because Olli Maatta had confided in them. But most listened in shock as the quiet defenseman, then 20 years old, explained the diagnosis.
According to team doctors, there was an 85 percent chance that the mass, discovered during an exam in training camp before Maatta’s second NHL season, was cancerous. He would soon undergo surgery, though not before playing three home games that week, and could return before the end of November without any threats to his future health. Removing the tumor would not require radiation or chemotherapy. He spoke calmly, insisting he felt fine, a message he would later relay at a press conference. If anyone felt rattled by the word hanging in the air—cancer—Maatta’s demeanor soothed their nerves. “We were more scared for him than he was, I think,” says former Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin. “But he didn’t show it.”
Now skating on Pittsburgh’s second defensive pairing during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final against Martin and the Sharks, a lifetime of ailments and roadblocks already behind him, Maatta reflects on that stretch without much emotion. “No, no,” he said at media day, shaking his head when asked if he ever felt the tumor might threaten his career because, really, it never did. “It really wasn’t as heartbreaking for me as it sounded like. It wasn’t as bad…I know there’s people that have way worse than I had it, and I can’t really compare what I had to what other people had.
“I felt like I had a target on my back. But it’s done and over with. There’s nothing I can do now. I’m just trying to live in the moment. I’m trying to enjoy this. I’m playing hockey. I’m in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s the biggest thing. I can’t think about what happened last year.”
And yet, few in professional hockey have experienced more than Maatta, the youngest participant in this Stanley Cup Final, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday in late August, around one month before he begins the World Cup of Hockey with Team Finland. A long, straight bruise above his kidneys still hasn’t faded, the product of an unfortunate hit into an open bench door against Minnesota last November. Before that, Maatta underwent two surgeries on the same shoulder in eight months, having re-injured the exact spot in a freak occurrence. And if those weren’t enough, two months after news of the tumor went public, he tested positive for the mumps.“It’s kind of freaky what happened to him, one-two-three,” says J.P. Barry, one of his agents at CAA.
All the while Maatta never appeared fazed, even if colleagues felt wrenched on his behalf. “The s--- he’s been through has been f---ing enormous,” defenseman and close friend Ian Cole says. For instance, after the thyroid operation, the organization threw its full power into helping Maatta. “We were making dinners for him, asking if he wanted to stay certain places, bring his family around, he was like, ‘Nah, I’ll be fine. I’ll be good on my own,’” assistant general manager Bill Guerin says. “I don’t know. Just taking care of himself. He didn’t want the extra attention. He just wanted to get the procedure done and move on. I think he was very appreciative of that, but it was almost like, ‘I’m okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m good.’”
To those Penguins who know Maatta best, this comes as no surprise. From the moment he reached Pittsburgh in 2013–14—a former first-round draft pick, standout prospect for the OHL’s London Knights and experienced international participant on three Finnish world junior squads—Maatta carried this maturity. “This kid is as stoic as stoic can be” Barry says. “He’s a piece of Finnish lumber.” On more than one occasion, veteran players like Sidney Crosby have approached strength coaches and front-office officials to ask that someone—anyone—convince the baby-faced blonde to leave the weight room, lest he tire himself out. Forty-five minutes after everyone showered and left, Maatta would still be cranking out sets, insisting, “Okay, just one more. I’m almost done.”
“He’s never going to stop,” Guerin says. “He won’t stop unless someone tells him. He’s a workhorse, man. He might be tiring himself out. He’s got to make sure he maintains his energy levels. But that’s what he is. Win, lose or draw he’s in that weight room every single game. This is an age where everybody works out and everybody’s crazy about fitness, and these guys are saying pull him back.”
The adversity continued into this postseason. In the second round, Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik decked Maatta in the head on a late hit that ultimately commanded a three-game suspension. Maatta eventually returned for the clinching Game 6 at Consol Energy Center, but got burned by Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn on a long stretch pass in the series opener of the Eastern Conference finals, which led coach Mike Sullivan to scratch Maatta for Games 2 and 4.
“A wakeup call,” Maatta later called his benching, and once defenseman Trevor Daley’s broken ankle opened a spot in the lineup, assists in Games 5 and 6 made it clear that Maatta had received the message. “He mentally got over the hump of being a healthy scratch,” Guerin says. “It’s hard. You always come back nervous. You don’t want to make a mistake. He came back almost more aggressive and almost said screw it, I’m going to stop worrying about things, and he played fantastic.”
It is partially for this resilience that Pittsburgh hustled to extend Maatta for six years and $24.5 million in late February, locking up the defenseman who averaged almost 20 minutes this season. And perhaps it is why Maatta has so thoroughly endeared himself to Penguins faithful. Cole estimated that Maatta ranks fifth on the list of most recognized Penguins behind, in no particular order: Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang. During his rookie season in 2013–14, when he and Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff were both staying in a local hotel, Maatta often rode to the practice with the goaltender. Upon leaving the rink, it wasn’t uncommon for fans to ask Maatta for a picture and hand the camera to Zatkoff. “Sir, can you take a picture?” they would ask, and after a few clicks Zatkoff would say, “Let’s go Olli,” shooing him into the car. It happened so often that Zatkoff started joking he had become Maatta’s personal chauffeur.
Now paired with Lovejoy, Maatta wasn’t at his best in Game 1 against the Sharks. Matched primarily against San Jose’s second line of Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joonas Donskoi, Maatta’s 36.1% shot attempt rate at 5-on-5 was the lowest on the team, according to hockeystats.ca, and he had front-row seats for both of San Jose’s goals. On the penalty kill early into the second period, Maatta knelt down to block Tomas Hertl along the goal line, but Hertl jammed the puck underneath Maatta’s bent knee. Then, less than two minutes before intermission, Couture wiggled away from Maatta along the wall to start a sequence that ended with Marleau’s equalizer.
Asked Tuesday after practice about Maatta’s performance, Sullivan took a big-picture approach. “Well, I think sometimes we forget how young he is with the role we’ve put him in on our team,” he said. “He’s been a top core defenseman for us all season long. He’s played some really important minutes for us in key situations, he’s still a young kid. He’s always dealt with some tough injuries over the last couple years, but he’s a determined guy. He works extremely hard. He’s got a tremendous work ethic. He’s a terrific team guy. He brings a lot to our team.”
In other words, don’t worry about him. He’s good.