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Penguins' Maatta to have surgery for thyroid tumor

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta will undergo surgery next week to remove a tumor from his neck that has an 85-percent chance of being a low-grade thyroid cancer, team doctor Dharmesh Vyas said Monday.

Maatta has been cleared to play until his surgery, and is expected to be in the lineup for each of the Penguins three home games this week. He has been one of the Penguins more efficient defenseman this season playing alongside Kris Letang. Maatta has one goal and five points in seven games, averaging 20:12 of ice time.

"I will say that this news came out about three weeks ago, when Olli was first made aware of it," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "And to watch a young man continue his life and play the way he's played has been absolutely amazing. It's amazing that he can still concentrate and continue on. He's kept this to himself.

"I know a couple of his teammates knew about it, but at the same time, I can't say enough about Olli, about how he's handled this news."

Vyas said the Penguins expect Maatta to make a full recovery and live a healthy life, with no detriment to his career long-term. Maatta will likely be able to return to the lineup within four weeks, Vyas said in a press release.

Maatta, 20, is not expected to undergo radiation or chemotherapy, Vyas said. He said a mass was found on Maatta's neck during training camp, and Penguins coach Mike Johnston said he advised assistant coach Gary Agnew to monitor Maatta in Pittsburgh's season opener against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 9, but that the defenseman "never blinked."

"I didn't feel any different," Maatta said. "I felt the same as I did before and right now, I don't feel any different than I did a year ago."

Maatta said he has been trying to find out as much information as he can about the cancer, but that he has not been overly concerned.

"Anything hasn't really changed. I haven't really been that worried," Maatta said. "I've been talking to the doctor a lot, the trainers, and trying to find out everything I can about the cancer, but you know what? I know I'm going to be fine and I haven't been that worried about it because I know we have a great medical staff here and they're going to take care of me."

Vyas said Maatta would need 7-10 days to heal after the surgery before the Penguins will allow him to start working out.

Vyas said Maatta's tumor is not hereditary.

"You look at Olli and his age, and your first reaction is that he's a young guy," Johnston said. "It's kind of news that catches your breath a bit … Olli has kept it quiet basically from everybody. He's talked to his family. I'd think that in the dressing room, until a half hour before we met here, most of his teammates had no idea.

"We did as a coaching staff, and when I talked to Olli, the first thing he said was the same thing he said to you. He said, 'I feel fine. I feel the same as I felt before I was told this and I know I'm going to be fine.'"

UPMC physician Dr. Eric Anish discovered the tumor during preseason physicals, Vyas said. Maatta underwent a series of "sophisticated DNA testing after doing a biopsy on it, suggesting he had a decent chance of having a cancer there," Vyas said.

"Depending on what the tumor turns out to be, if there are any additional things that need to be done, probably do it at the end of the season," Vyas said.

Vyas said thyroid tumors can be commonly found in young people and Maatta's was found during a simple examination, where a mass was found on his thyroid, which resulted in additional testing by ultrasound.

The Penguins will hold their Hockey Fights Cancer night Thursday when they face the Los Angeles Kings at Consol Energy Center.

"This isn't something new to the Penguins," Rutherford said. "Mario [Lemieux] has been through this and others, so this is a disease that everybody has been fighting for a long time and will continue to fight, but it is rather ironic we're announcing this about Olli this week."

Maatta said he wanted to keep his condition to himself and those close to him.

"I feel healthy and I feel fine," Maatta said. "The only thing that's different is that now I know that I maybe have cancer. And you know what? That's tough, but I don't think it's affected me much."

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