Friday September 16th, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C—When Olli Maatta recaps his two days with the Stanley Cup, before he reaches the elementary school and the hospital and nighttime family gathering, he starts where he figures all Finns should. “I went to a sauna with it, obviously,” the Penguins' defenseman says. “That’s a cool thing, a really Finnish thing. I always thought, if I actually win the Cup, I want to take it to a sauna.”

The steaming sojourn was brief, maybe 10 minutes or so—not enough time for the alloy bowl to sweat but plenty long to savor the moment. After all, among the glut of feel-good stories on Pittsburgh’s championship roster—Matt Murray’s rookie rise, Phil Kessel’s redemptive tour, Pascal Dupuis’s behind-the-scenes influence, to name three—Maatta’s journey still stood out for all he had endured before his 22nd birthday. “He’s had some hard times,” says Joonas Donskoi, once a Cup Final opponent on San Jose and now a World Cup teammate with Finland.

But look at him now. He became only the third Finnish-born blueliner to win the Cup, joining Reijo Ruotsalainen and Kimmo Timonen. He ranked just slightly behind top-pair partner Rasmus Ristolainen for the team lead in time on ice through Finland’s three exhibition games. Perhaps most importantly, he brushed aside three healthy scratches in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay, the result of some defensive miscues that threatened his confidence.

“I wasn’t happy with my play,” Maatta says. “Actually the whole season, I wasn’t playing that well, until the last couple games of the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final. If the season ended in the conference finals there, it probably would’ve been one of the worst seasons I had. And then…”

He smiles.

“…it really changes the whole season.”

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Not that those close to Maatta doubted his resolve. They saw this in how he calmly handled the cancerous mass found in his thyroid in Oct. 2014, and the bout with the mumps endured shortly thereafter, and the two shoulder surgeries underwent in an eight-month span. They saw this in his off-ice ethic, too. Before a recent practice at Verizon Center, while his Finnish teammates hooted during a soccer kickaround, Maatta was down the hall, grunting out one-legged squat jumps against a brick wall. “It’s fun to see how hard he works all the time,” Donskoi says. “It’s not a surprise how good a player he is.”

The journey crested back in Jyväskylä, Finland, two months after Maatta notched three assists in six games against Donskoi and the Sharks. “It was important,” he says. “It’s not as concrete a thing, thinking about the Stanley Cup back home. It’s so far away. It’s overseas. Games are at night time, you don’t really see them that much. I wanted to bring that thinking, that from a small town like that you can get to the NHL and win the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t matter if it’s hockey or something else, but you can do it.”

At one point, Maatta brought the Cup to his old elementary school, where the children surprised him with their knowledge of NHL customs. “There was a lot of screaming,” he says. “I think they were really excited. It was awesome to see how excited they were about the Stanley Cup coming in. Some of the kids even knew they can’t touch it. They were really cautious about being around it, not getting any closer than five inches.”

After an evening out with the Cup, Maatta visited another school the next day, and then a local hospital. The visit ended with a private gathering for family and friends. “That was a big thing,” he says. “I wanted to share it with my close friends and my family. It’s more like saying thank you for all the years in the past. They really helped me get where I am right now.”

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Between the pleasantly late end to the 2015–16 season and the early head start for Finland’s training camp, Maatta found no time to chip away at his mandatory military service. He says he passed physicals conducted at a military office but reached a mutual decision with officials to defer his stint for three years rather than cram another obligation into an already hectic summer.

“We talked about it and I said there’s always something at the end of the season, it’s so short of a time, so we didn’t think it was smart to get there and reinjure something,” he says. “It was better to take some time off, and then we delayed it for a bit. In three years, I go back and we’ll take the physicals again. If I’m fine, I’ll go and do it. You still have to do it. We just have to delay for a bit—wait so there’s no risk involving—so when I go there, there’s no risk getting injured and it’s not affecting my hockey.”

But those are matters for another time. Finland begins round-robin play Sunday against Team North America, and within a month Pittsburgh will open its quest to become the first repeat Cup champions since Detroit in 1997 and ’98. Maatta will almost certainly return to the Penguins’ top-four, whether beside Kris Letang or Trevor Daley, confident after an off-season that could have twisted in a far different direction.

“You can’t think of the game too much,” he says. “If you go out there, thinking what you’re going to do next play, how you’re going to get the puck, you think about it too much. I think you just have to play with your instincts. I went out there and I had fun.”

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