SOCHI, Russia — During his first three months in Pittsburgh, Olli Maatta lived by himself in a hotel room. His parents were thousands of miles away in Jyvaskyla, Finland, his mother teaching kindergarten and his father working as a construction engineer, and Maatta was trying his best not to be bored.
Oh, the hockey was fun. There he was, at 19 years old, having already hit the big time with the Penguins. And across from him in the locker room was a man he’d heard about since he was a boy and his dreams were only in the formative stage. There were not many Finns in the NHL, but he knew the names of the players who had made it to the world’s best league. Those NHL games were not on TV like the national team events, so Maatta’s first goal was to play for his country. And, if he could play in the NHL like Jussi Jokinen, well, that would be pretty cool, too.
“Everybody knows him, for sure, back home,” Maatta said.
Maatta and Jokinen never had met before Maatta arrived at the Penguins training camp in the fall. But Jokinen immediately reached out and pulled in his fresh-faced fellow countryman, going out of his way to mentor Maatta on life in the NHL. Certainly, Jokinen was not going to let Maatta spend too much time holed up in that sterile hotel room.
“He’s been kind of a father figure,” Maatta said. “He took me out for dinners, drove me around a little bit, told me about things here. I didn’t really know any of the guys, and he was just making me feel like I belong here.”
Jokinen showed Maatta places where younger people often frequented. They dined in Shadyside at Umi, a highly-rated Japanese restaurant; and at Il Pizzaiolo, a pizza spot downtown. As time went by, and Maatta became a surprisingly dependable defenseman as a rookie, Jokinen began to talk to him about the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.
The Olympics? Maatta was in disbelief. No way that was happening, not this year.
“He was playing so well,” Jokinen said, “I kept telling him, ‘You’re going to make it for sure.’ He was like, ‘No, I don’t know, I don’t know.’ ”
Of all people telling Maatta he was a sure thing, Jokinen was not the most likely candidate. Jokinen had helped Finland to the silver medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics, was left off the 2010 team for reasons he still can’t fathom. He was having the best year of his career with the Carolina Hurricanes — he had 30 goals and 35 assists — but was the odd man out for Vancouver.
“That was a really tough pill to swallow,” said Jokinen, a native of Kalajoki. “Eight years ago in Turin, we won silver, and that’s probably one of my greatest experiences in hockey. In 2010, I didn’t make it, and that was one of the biggest disappointments of my career.”
Yet, Jokinen was convinced Maatta would make Team Finland. He’d be proven right, and, even better, Jokinen at age 30 would join the young guy for the trip to Sochi.
Maatta couldn’t believe it.
He was overwhelmed by gratitude to the Penguins for giving him the platform to show what he could do at the highest level. Before he could even legally drink in his new country, he was going to accomplish his greatest desire.
“As a little kid when you play roller hockey, you think, ‘I play in the Olympics,’ ” Maatta said. “You want to win golds for Team Finland. That’s the dream. It was a really special moment for me when I heard I’m going to make the team. I would have never thought during the summer I’d be playing in the Olympics this year. I took some time to realize what I’ve done. I was happy for myself. I was really happy.”
And Jokinen was happy for both. The relationship they have built over the past months only will help as Team Finland begins the process that all 12 teams are going through in Sochi — coming together as a group after six months apart just in time to make their nations proud.
Jokinen sees Finland as an underdog — most of the talk will be of Russia, Canada, the United States and Sweden — but he believes they have a chance to medal because of their hard-working mentality and team defense.
The stakes are high, but Jokinen will be there to make sure that Maatta finds time to soak up this experience.
“Every older player tries to tell the new players to enjoy it,” Jokinen said. “Your hockey career goes so fast. At a young age, sometimes it’s good to step back and enjoy what you’ve done.”
Of course, as with the Penguins, Maatta has the advantage of being able to just watch Jokinen and learn from the way he handles himself.
“He’s a really humble person,” Maatta said. “Every day, he wants to get better. Everybody likes him here. I did not know him at all, and him just taking an unknown guy and teaching him and helping him, that shows how good of a person he is.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.