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Hockey Fights Cancer

Maatta has special appreciation for Hockey Fights Cancer initiative

Blackhawks defenseman was 20 when he overcame disease in 2014

by Tracey Myers @Tramyers_NHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Olli Maatta hadn't even started his second NHL season with the Pittsburgh Penguins when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014.

But the defenseman, now with the Chicago Blackhawks, considers himself fortunate that his cancer was caught and treated early. He also appreciates the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative and admires those fighting their own battles. 

"It's really important," said Maatta, who has seven points (one goal, six assists) in 23 games with the Blackhawks heading into their game against the Dallas Stars at United Center on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, SN, TVAS, NHL.TV). "I know, even what I went through, it was minor, but I do think I have a little bit of a perspective on how tough it is and how tough people are who are going through it, who have a more serious type or later-stage cancer. They keep fighting."

 

[RELATED: Complete Hockey Fights Cancer Coverage]

 

November is Hockey Fights Cancer Month across the NHL. Hockey Fights Cancer is a joint initiative between the League and the NHL Players' Association that unites the hockey community in support of cancer patients and their families.

Maatta was 20 years old when Penguins physicians found a tumor on his thyroid in September 2014. Doctors told him there was an 85 percent chance that the thyroid tumor was cancerous. The news was difficult to take at first.

"The word cancer, always when you hear it, you have a picture in your head of what it means," he said. "For me, I was really lucky it was really early stage and it almost didn't feel like cancer at all."

But the 2014-15 season was a tough one for Maatta. He missed training camp in September 2014 after having shoulder surgery in May. He tested positive for mumps in December 2014 -- Sidney Crosby and Beau Bennett also had the mumps that season -- and had season-ending surgery on the same shoulder on Jan. 14, 2015.

"Coming into my second year, coming off a shoulder surgery, you have cancer, you miss a month and then get another shoulder surgery, so it was tough in general," he said. "When coming into the second season, you always expect a lot out of yourself. You expect you're going to have a great season. You just keep building. And when that happens, it's not ideal."

Video: Behind the Card: Olli Maatta

Mike Johnston, who coached the Penguins from 2014-16, said Maatta handled everything, including the cancer diagnosis, with a level head. 

"It was a situation where any person having to handle news like that it'd be difficult, challenging. But I thought he had great composure, had a really good focus and attitude," said Johnston, now vice president, general manager and coach of Portland of the Western Hockey League. "It was like, 'Hey I'm going to come out of this, going to move forward.' He is that type of person. He's a great kid." 

Maatta played 10 regular-season games before having the right side of his thyroid removed on Nov. 4, 2014. He started skating again on Nov. 11 and played 20:14 when the Penguins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 on Nov. 18, 2014.

According to the National Cancer Institute, thyroid cancer, the eighth-most common cancer in the United States, is, "typically slow growing, highly treatable and usually curable." The five-year relative survival rate for localized thyroid cancer (hasn't spread outside of the thyroid) is 98 percent.

Maatta, who still takes a daily thyroid hormone, credited the Penguins medical staff for helping him through it all.

"Obviously, the doctors in Pittsburgh, the training staff there did an awesome job," he said. "They helped me out so much, they found the best people to treat it. Anything I wanted to ask, I wanted to know, they talked to me. If they didn't know, they found the people who would know better. That's something you really respect."

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