Finland won gold at the World Junior Championship for the first time in 16 years on Sunday, their first tournament in three years without Olli Maatta.
He’s okay with missing out on that, though, because Maatta is going to have the chance to help Finland win another gold medal in an even bigger tournament – the Olympics.
Maatta, 19, was named to Finland’s Olympic roster along with Penguins teammate Jussi Jokinen on Tuesday – another tremendous accomplishment for the rookie defenseman’s very young career.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Maatta said. “I know it’s a dream come true. As a little kid, you only think about playing in the Olympics, scoring goals, wearing a Finnish national team jersey. The feeling is great.”
This whole year has been a dream come true for Maatta, who could have played another season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League but instead impressed the coaches and staff so much that he made the Penguins’ roster out of training camp. The steady, reliable blueliner then earned a permanent spot because, as Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma likes to say, he gives them best chance to win hockey games when he’s in the lineup.
“I think Olli is a guy that has had a lot of surprises, opened a lot of eyes this year as a 19-year-old making an NHL team and playing so well for our team,” Bylsma said. “I think as you look at the Finnish national team and their defensemen, he started to get mentioned in the equation pretty early. But it’s great to see him make that team and be a part of that team with Jussi.”
As Maatta spoke with reporters, he sweetly paused to acknowledge everyone who has helped him get to this point – even though he’ll be going head-to-head with many of them in Sochi.
“You know what, I’ve got to really thank the Penguins organization for giving me a shot to play here and all the other guys in the locker room just kind of leading the way and teaching me a lot of things,” he said. “That has helped me a lot to make the jump.”
Maatta’s time in Pittsburgh these past few months will certainly help him in Sochi, as will his experiences representing his country in high-profile international play since age 16, when he became the youngest player since 1998 to skate for Finland at the 2011 World Junior Championship.
All being said, the Olympics are a whole ‘nother animal – especially in Maatta’s native Finland. It’s what many young hockey players aspire to, over playing in the NHL and winning Stanley Cup championships. It’s a big deal, and Maatta admitted he’s going to feel appropriately anxious for it.
“(The Olympics are) once every four years and probably because we didn’t get as much NHL on TV, the Olympics were the biggest thing,” said Maatta, who grew up idolizing longtime Jets/Coyotes defenseman Teppo Numminen, who won two silver medals (1988 and 2006) and a bronze representing Finland at the Olympics. “They always have the best players in the world at the Olympics. I think it’s the best international hockey tournament in the world.
“I’m not going to say I’m not going to be nervous when I go there,” he continued. “I probably will. It’s going to the same as when I came (to Pittsburgh), might be worse. But you know, I’ll just try to do my best.”