LONDON, Ontario – On the floor of the locker room at Budweiser Gardens, a group of London Knights players gathered for a game of “mini sticks” Wednesday afternoon.
Armed with souvenir miniature plastic sticks, the teenagers whacked at a foam ball from their knees while trying to score into the “net” – or in this case the doorway out of the locker room. The players not participating in the hyper-competitive game stood by and cheered.
Playing mini sticks is a way for the youthful players to unwind and have some fun after a demanding on-ice practice session that lasted for over an hour.
Penguins defensive prospects Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta at London Knights practice
The hollering and cheering from the intense game spilled out of the locker room and into the weight room a few steps away, where sweat dripped down the faces of Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta. The two defensemen laughed at the mini sticks banter as they pushed themselves through a strenuous workout.
The two stalwart blueliners aren’t just London Knights teammates and workout buddies. They’re also fellow Penguins prospects. Pittsburgh selected Harrington in the second round (54th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft and Maatta in the first round (22nd overall) in 2012.
Harrington, 19, and Maatta, 18, have a long resume of success on the ice in junior and international competition (Harrington with Canada, Maatta with Finland). Together they helped the Knights win the Ontario Hockey League championship last season and earn a Memorial Cup final appearance.
But what makes these two defenders so great isn’t just their play on the ice. It’s their off-ice attitudes.
With Harrington, one word that keeps coming up is ‘character.’ Knights head coach Dale Hunter put it best when he said, “He’s one of these kids that you want to marry your daughter. He’s a kid that’s a leader and does everything right. The biggest thing about him is that he has great character.”
That character and leadership skills are the reason Harrington has the “C” on his chest this season. The coaching staff viewed him as the captain, but left it up to a player vote. And Hunter said that Harrington “won by a landslide.”
“We thought he’d be captain,” Hunter said. “I left it up to the team. They know who the leaders are. They voted him as team captain.”
Harrington certainly seems to have a serious and professional demeanor. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have fun, but you can tell he is a true professional in his attitude and the way he carries himself.
Harrington, who is in his fourth season with London, is always the first player on the ice for practice, sometimes skating by himself for a half hour shooting pucks and working on his footwork before he is joined by his teammates.
Maybe the moment that best symbolizes Harrington’s maturity and professionalism came from last season’s Memorial Cup run. After the emotional high of winning the OHL title, London fell in the Memorial Cup final in overtime, 2-1, to Shawinigan.
|Scott Harrington was Pittsburgh's second-round pick |
(54th overall) in 2011.
Inside the locker room the Knights players were devastated and heartbroken. But outside the locker room the media waited. Minutes following the toughest loss of his career, Harrington approached Knights marketing manager Natalie Wakabayashi and said, “Natalie, I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I will talk to the media and do whatever you need.” Harrington swallowed the bitter defeat and, with a heavy heart, stood tall as he spoke with the media about how proud he was of his teammates.
These instances, plus many more, are the reasons Hunter said of Harrington, “You love the way he carries himself. He’s always perfect with fans, coaches, media, other players, helping other players. That’s why he’s captain of the team.”
The players also voted for their assistant captains. And it’s no surprise that they selected Maatta to wear an “A” on his jersey.
Maatta left his home country of Finland to join the Knights for the 2011-12 season. He started the year adjusting to a new language, a new culture and a new style of play in North American. He ended the year as one of the best defensemen in the OHL, and was a driving force in his team’s Memorial Cup run – tying for the team playoff scoring lead.
“Two or three months in he was fine,” Hunter said. “(His English) was good, but wasn’t great. He took two or three months and got better every game and at the end of the year he was an outstanding player. … By the end of the year he was one of the top D in the league. That’s a credit to him and his work ethic on and off the ice.”
Harrington and Maatta have many similarities both on and off the ice. But they also have some differences, particularly their personalities. While their Knights teammates joke that Harrington is “Mr. Serious,” they voted Maatta as one of the team’s top pranksters.
When he isn’t punking his teammates, Maatta is serenading them. The Jyvaskyla-native is a fan of all genres of music, and is also a fan of unleashing his vocal chords onto anyone in his vicinity.
Even when he first arrived in Canada and had minimal grasp of the English language, Maatta didn’t shy away from belting out the lyrics to Beyonce’s “Best I Ever Had” around his new teammates. Maatta listens to an eclectic array of styles, from country to top-40 hits to Finnish death metal. But his new favorite is Shakira and Pitbull’s “Get It Started” – which he also enjoys singing.
And just in case you needed another reminder of how young Maatta truly is, just watch his face light up as he talks about receiving his driver’s license in Finland this past summer.
But make no mistake, for all his fun and youthful antics, no one will outwork Maatta on the ice or in the weight room. In fact, his work ethic was so high when he first arrived in London that the coaches had to have him scale it back so that he wouldn’t burn himself out.
|Olli Maatta was Pittsburgh's first-round pick (22nd overall) in 2012. |
"He came (to North America) and we had to tell him to slow down working out,” Hunter recalled. “He worked too hard. He was getting tired for the (weekend) games. He didn’t know that part. He thought, more work and more results. But when it’s a long season, you have to pick (your spots). In that he’s gotten better.”
Maatta’s best asset is his unique blend of skill and tenacity. He is a natural-born talent with the puck, but also has a battle level and competitiveness that rivals any of his peers.
Those assets were apparent to Hunter while he scouted the World U-18 Junior Championship.
“(Maatta) was battling with the US and Canada. He had no fear to his game,” Hunter said. “He plays hard. His work ethic is outstanding.”
The Knights brass were so impressed by Maatta that they traded blueliner Reid McNeill and first- (2012), second- (2013) and third-round (2012) picks in order to secure him with the No. 1-overall pick.
“We traded a lot for him,” Hunter said. “We knew that he’d be a special player. Anyone can have all the skill. But with him it’s the will to be a player.”
Harrington and Maatta have a lot of similarities to their games on the ice. They each can be shutdown defenders, both read the play extremely well, both play in all situations (even strength, power play, penalty kill) and both are workhorses – logging between 27-30 minutes per game. Harrington plays a mistake-free, smart game, and Maatta likes to jump into the play and attack.
It’s easy to see why scouts loved their play and potential. And the only thing better than their play on the ice is their character off the ice.
“Pittsburgh has two kids there that have great character,” Hunter said. “They push each other in the gym and on the ice. They’ve got a pair there that can play in the National Hockey League for a long time.”
|Harrington (left) and Maatta (right) working out in the London Knights weight room. |