By Jason Mackey
Wearing a gray-and-black, V-neck hoodie and with his blond hair swept to one side, Olli Maatta stepped to the podium Monday looking every bit like a 20-year-old kid.
And that's about where any references to Maatta's youth come to a crashing halt.
What came next — an acknowledgement that he will undergo major surgery, and that he could potentially have cancer — was handled much like how Maatta plays hockey: in a way that belies his age.
“I feel healthy, and I feel fine,” Maatta said inside the media room at Consol Energy Center. “The only thing that's different is that maybe I have cancer. It's tough news, but I don't think it has affected me much.”
Maatta will have surgery early next week to have a tumor removed from his neck, a tumor UPMC doctors believe could be a low-grade thyroid cancer.
Penguins team physician Dharmesh Vyas said Maatta will not require radiation or chemotherapy. He put the likelihood of the tumor being cancerous at 85 percent.
Approximately four weeks is Maatta's timetable, Vyas said, and he'll play in the Penguins' three home games this week before having surgery.
“Watching a young man continue his life and play the way he's played is absolutely amazing,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “It's amazing that he can still concentrate and continue on.
“I can't say enough about Olli and how he's handled this news.”
The mass, discovered during preseason physicals by Eric Anish, has not impeded Maatta's play.
Not even close.
Maatta arguably has been the Penguins' top defenseman this season, with one goal and four assists in seven games.
In addition to averaging 20 minutes, 12 seconds of ice time, Maatta four games ago was added to the No. 1 penalty kill, three games ago to the No. 2 power play.
“He's a strong athlete mentally,” coach Mike Johnston said. “He's always been an exceptional player. He's very confident, and we're very confident that he's going to be able to rebound from this.”
Captain Sidney Crosby was the only one of Maatta's teammates to know about his condition until a team meeting held at 12:30 p.m. Monday, about 30 minutes before everyone else found out.
Asked whether he has talked with co-owner Mario Lemieux, who was diagnosed with a Nodular Lymphocytic form of Hodgkin's disease Jan. 12, 1993, Maatta said he has kept this mostly to himself.
On Thursday — strange as it sounds — the Penguins are holding their Hockey Fights Cancer Night, which is something every NHL club is participating in. The team will host the Los Angeles Kings.
“It is rather ironic that we're announcing this about Olli this week,” Rutherford said.
Vyas said additional testing was done via ultrasound and biopsy. DNA testing also was performed, though Vyas stressed that the potential type of cancer is not “heritable,” or not of a genetic trait.
Any additional operations, Vyas said, would be done at the end of the season as long as it makes sense medically.
“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.”
Which the Penguins certainly wouldn't mind given how important Maatta, a second-year pro, has been to their defense.
In the interim, Robert Bortuzzo likely will take Maatta's spot. He has been recovering from a lower-body injury suffered during a preseason game Sept. 25 and could be ready as soon as Thursday, Johnston said.
“I've been talking to the doctors and trainers and trying to find out everything I can about the cancer,” Maatta said. “I know I'm going to be fine. I know we have a great medical staff here. They're going to take care of me.”
Note: Johnston said forward Beau Bennett will participate in Tuesday's morning skate, then remain on the ice for additional, individual work. Bennett has been out since late September with a lower-body injury.
Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.
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