The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia was NHL rookie Olli Maatta’s first Olympics, and possibly Jussi Jokinen’s last. And the Penguins teammates came out of it together with a bronze medal while representing Team Finland.
It had been devastating for them to lose a tight 2-1 game in the semifinals to Sweden, but the Finns were able to regroup thanks to an emotional players-only team meeting held by respected veteran leaders Teemu Selanne, Kimmo Timmonen and Sami Salo prior to their meeting with Team USA in the bronze medal game, which they won 5-0. Both Maatta and Jokinen scored in the contest.
“We knew it was (Selanne), Kimmo Timonen, and Sami Salo’s last game (with) the national team, so obviously we wanted to win that medal for them,” Jokinen said, “But I think every one of us realized that the biggest message in that meeting was that you get these chances so few times in life. And when you get the chance, you have to use it. It was an emotional meeting. Obviously we were still a little bit down losing that (semifinal) game, but at least after that meeting, all we could think about was (winning) the bronze medal.”
And while Maatta cherished the experience of winning his first Olympic medal, the young defenseman’s thoughts were also of those guys as they skated around the ice during the postgame celebration and ceremony.
“It was awesome. Felt really good,” he said. “At the same time, it was my first and many players’ last medal for us. So I felt really, really happy.”
He should be, as this is yet another tremendous accomplishment for the 19-year-old neophyte who wasn’t even sure if he’d be in the NHL this season, much less winning a bronze medal while playing for his country at the Olympics.
“It feels kind of surreal for me,” Maatta admitted. “I really never thought during the summer that I’d be even playing in the Olympics or playing in the NHL.”
Since making the Penguins out of training camp, Maatta has opened many eyes with his maturity both on and off the ice. But with the pressure of representing an entire country on an international stage like the Olympics, there was always the possibility that he might actually, for once, look his 19 years of age when he got to Sochi.
But to no one’s surprise, Maatta fit right in. Excelled, actually. Finland’s coaching staff entrusted him with a heavy workload, and he was up to the challenge – finishing the tournament as the team’s most consistent defenseman.
“I think how he played is going to help me, I don’t have to tell everybody how good he is anymore,” Jokinen joked. “Everyone in Finland understands now how good of a player he is. Before the tournament and during our season, lots of people were asking me what kind of player he is and how good he is, but I think he showed during that tournament how good of a player he is. I think we already know here in Pittsburgh how great of a player he is. He played a great tournament and I think this will give him lots more confidence. He knows that he can be one of the great players. I think that he’ll be a great player for us in Pittsburgh.”
Maatta played with confidence and was fearless in his decision-making, never hesitating to jump into the play when the opportunity presented itself. He finished the tournament tied for fourth in scoring among defensemen with three goals and five points in six games, and a couple of those scores came from crashing the crease and finding rebounds.
To be fair, Maatta wasn’t perfect. He had lows to go along with his highs. But Maatta displayed remarkable resiliency, recovering quickly from any mistakes that he made. And while overall Maatta was satisfied with his performance, he made sure to credit his teammates for helping to put him in a position to succeed.
“I felt good. Really good,” Maatta said. “But at the same time, I feel like the whole team played really well. That was a really big thing, that it was really easy for me to jump in there with the older guys, the leadership we had.”
That was our takeaway from Maatta’s play, but what was his?
“It was the best experience I’ve probably had in my life, being a part of the Olympics, and I think that’s something I’ll take out of it,” he said.
“(Now) I’m just excited to play the next game. (Fatigue is) more (in) your head. It’s more mental. All I am is excited to play the next game. I’m really proud that I’m here and I’m going to enjoy every moment.”
He’s certainly earned that right, as has the 30-year-old Jokinen. He and Maatta arrived back in Pittsburgh Monday, and Jokinen said it was wonderful to see his family and have the chance to enjoy his medal with them – which he’ll add next to the silver he won with Finland during the 2006 Winter Games.
“It’s very high up there, obviously,” Jokinen said when asked where this particular win ranks in his career. “I was in 2006 in Turin where we won silver. It’s a much better feeling right now than losing that game and getting that silver. But (since) you won your last game, you had a much better feeling. It’s right up there with that other Olympic medal I have.”
By Wednesday, all of the Penguins Olympians will have returned to Pittsburgh. And now, said Jokinen, it’s time for all of them to move forward. Together.
“Now come to the rink today and probably start to move your mental thinking process a little bit to the game on Thursday and the rest of the season,” he said.