Defenseman Olli Maatta laced his skates, pulled on his No. 3 jersey and walked out of the Penguins’ locker room to the CONSOL Energy Center ice. Nothing seemed out of place in Maatta’s usual game day routine. But this night was anything but routine.
The night was Oct. 9. The Penguins were hosting the Anaheim Ducks in the season-opener.
Maatta, 20, was returning to the Penguins lineup after missing the entire preseason due to his continued recovery from shoulder surgery in May.
One can only imagine what was going through Maatta’s mind as his skate blade lacerated the ice. Was he thinking about his shoulder and how it would hold up in the game? Was he thinking about the many months of strenuous rehab over the summer that finally paid off with his return to action?
Perhaps. But Maatta also had something else on his mind that night. His neck.
Just days prior to the opener, Maatta was told by team doctors that a tumor was found in his thyroid gland that had an “85-percent chance” of being cancerous and needed to be surgically removed (read release here).
Head coach Mike Johnston stood on the bench alongside assistant coach Gary Agnew. Before the puck dropped to start the game Johnston leaned into Agnew’s ear and said, “Keep a close eye on Olli. This will be a tough couple of games for him to get through.”
Playing under the cloud of a tumor and the weight of possible cancer, not to mention his non-game tested surgically repaired shoulder, Maatta played the game of his life.
The Finnish blueliner recorded a career-high three assists, which doubled as his career high for points in a game, while skating 15:55 minutes of ice time. Maatta made a no-look breakout pass from the Penguins’ zone that led to a Sidney Crosby goal in the first period. Minutes later Maatta pinched into the circle and took a pass from Evgeni Malkin. Maatta had a clean shot at the net, but opted to feather a pass through two Ducks players and right to Pascal Dupuis for an easy tap-in goal.
Following the game, the media and Maatta’s teammates praised his game. They applauded his ability to overcome the shoulder injury, to adapt without playing a preseason game and his nearly flawless performance.
What they didn’t know at the time was those were the least of Maatta’s concerns. But Maatta has handled the news of possibly having low-grade thyroid cancer with aplomb.
“I felt the same as I did before I found out,” Maatta said. “I feel healthy and fine. The only thing that’s different is that now I may have cancer. It’s tough news, but I don’t think it has affected me much.”
If it has affected Maatta at all, it certainly hasn’t affected his play on the ice. Maatta hasn’t missed a game this season and has played at a top form all year, averaging 20:12 minutes of ice time while playing in all situations.
“He didn’t blink an eye,” Johnston said. “He was great in all the games. He played at the top of his game. Most nights in those games he was in our top-3 or 4 defensemen every single night. He’s a strong athlete mentally. He’s an exceptional player.”
Maatta may be only 20 years old, but his maturity is unflappable.
“Watching a young man continue his life and play the way he’s played is absolutely amazing,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “It’s amazing that he can still concentrate and continue on. He’s kept this to himself.
“I can’t say enough about Olli and how he’s handled the news.”
Every player undergoes physicals at the outset of training camp. UPMC physician Dr. Eric Anish found a mass on Maatta’s thyroid. Maatta underwent a series of testing, including an ultrasound, which suggested the mass was a tumor.
“It came as a bit of a surprise,” Maatta said.
“We ran a serious of sophisticated DNA testing after doing a biopsy on it, suggesting that he has a decent chance of having cancer there. It’s about an 85-percent chance that it’s cancerous,” said Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, the Penguins’ team physician. “We recommended that Olli have this taken out for definitive testing.”
Maatta kept this secret to a limited number of people in his tight inner circle. On Monday he told his teammates and then announced the news to the media at a media conference.
Maatta will play in the Penguins’ three home games this week. Next week he will undergo surgery to remove the tumor from his neck.
“Importantly for Olli, we don’t expect this to affect his health in the long-term,” Vyas said. “Secondarily, we expect him to do well from a hockey standpoint. We don’t expect him to have to undergo any radiation or chemotherapy at this time.
“If there are any additional things that need to be done we’ll do it at the end of the season.”
Maatta’s recovery from surgery will take approximately four weeks. It will take 7-10 days for the surgical wound to heal. Once healed, Maatta can begin working out. From there the doctors will monitor any possible symptoms – such as swelling.
“I’m not really that worried,” Maatta said of his health. “I’ve been talking to doc and the trainers a lot. I’m trying to find out everything I can about the cancer, but I know I’m going to be fine. 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.”
On Thursday night the Penguins will host the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. That night will be Pittsburgh’s “Hockey Fights Cancer” night, highlighted by the players wearing purple warmup jerseys to be autographed and auctioned off later with proceeds going to cancer research.
That night Maatta will follow his normal game day routine. But when he dons the purple warmup jersey and hits the ice, it will no doubt be more meaningful to him. Even if the tumor ends up being benign, it’s a reminder of the frailty of life.
“Obviously our first concern is for Olli and his health,” Rutherford said. “He is an outstanding young man and has a tremendous future ahead of him. The doctors tell us that this is a very treatable condition, and that it can be taken care of with the surgery. The Penguins organization will be there for him and support him every step of the way.”