When we visited Olli Maatta in London last September, his coach Dale Hunter and Knights teammates all said the same thing: that he almost works too hard.
“Olli plays hard. His work ethic is outstanding,” Hunter told us. “I talked to their coach (in Finland) and said we were thinking about drafting him. He kept saying, ‘He wants to come (to North America). He wants to play in the National Hockey League.’ He came and we had to tell him to slow down working out. He works too hard.”
Three years later, it’s all paid off as Maatta has accomplished his goal of playing in the NHL. The Penguins announced Thursday that Maatta would remain in Pittsburgh past his nine-game window instead of going back to London, which means his entry-level contract has kicked in and he will use up the first season regardless of how long he stays.
But now that he’s here, his work ethic hasn’t lessened at all. It’s just as robust, and Maatta’s NHL teammates have taken notice just like his junior ones did – and he has earned their respect and admiration because of it.
“He’s been really professional and you can tell he’s committed off the ice,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “He’s working hard in the gym and he’s really done everything he’s had to to give himself a chance to stay.”
Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik agreed.
“He comes in and he’s obviously a confident kid with the way he plays, but the confidence comes from his work ethic and how he prepares,” Orpik said. “For a kid his age, I've never seen a kid work as hard as this kid off the ice. And it comes with zero ego, which is refreshing.”
Something else we learned from our trip to London last fall that Maatta's new teammates haven't seen yet is that his Knights teammates voted him as one of the team’s top pranksters. And when he wasn’t punking his teammates, he was serenading them. Maatta is a fan of all genres of music – he listens to top-40, country, even Finnish death metal – and he didn’t shy away from singing out loud. He would belt out the lyrics to songs like Beyonce's "Best I Ever Had" and Shakira and Pitbull's "Get It Started" around anyone in his vicinity.
But so far, he’s been a lot more quiet and reserved in the Penguins locker room – which is to be expected. After all, he's 19-year-old kid who just got his driver’s license last summer, graduated high school in January and is now getting used to playing hockey as a full-time job, with stars like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang as his co-workers. He's certainly not in London, or Finland, anymore.
“He doesn’t talk too much, so we’re still trying to figure him out a little bit,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “It takes a little while, I think, for (rookies) to come out of their shell. I’m sure it will be the same for Olli, it will take a little time. But he’s a great kid and he’s very respectful for a young kid coming into the league, so we’re happy for him.”
Maatta said he just needs more time to get to know his new teammates. After all, we are only nine games into an 82-game season. It’s still early.
"I’m new here,” Maatta said. “I’ve got to get more familiar with the guys here. But you know what, they’ve been awesome. They’ve really got me in well and I feel comfortable around them.”
He may not have a lot to say right now, but that’s okay. His work ethic, demeanor and professionalism have been speaking for themselves. Plus, according to coach Dan Bylsma, words weren’t even necessary this morning during his meeting with the young defenseman.
“Olli hasn't said a whole lot in the first two months of training camp and into October. He's nodded and said a few words,” joked Bylsma. “When I told him he was going to play tomorrow night and be here through the 10th game, he didn't say a lot either. But his reaction was clearly that it was better than playing his next game in London.”