Kovacevic: Finns have 'been waiting' for Maatta
SOCHI, Russia — One would hope given Vladimir Putin's “Ring of Steel” security enveloping these Olympics that the paperwork for all the participants would have been thoroughly checked.
See, there's this baby-faced defenseman from Finland, goes by Olli Maatta, whose documentation shows “22 August 1994” as the date of birth. Which would make him 19 by any international standard. Except that his teammates on the national hockey team aren't buying it.
“I don't believe that,” Kimmo Timonen, another defenseman, was saying after Finland opened round-robin play with an 8-4 annihilation of Austria on Thursday. “I mean, just look at him.”
Good point. Maatta scored his first Olympic goal and, after a minus-2 start, settled nicely with veteran partner Sami Salo. As ever, poised beyond his years.
So how old do the Finns think Maatta really is?
“Old?” Timonen came back with a grin. “I said look at him. He looks like he's 12.”
“I'd say 14,” Salo offered.
“Looks to me like 15,” goaltender Tuukka Rask replied to the same question I threw by a bunch of the Finns, almost as if they had rehearsed the routine. Possibly at Maatta's expense.
“Yeah, I've been getting a lot of that since I've been here,” the kid said, fairly blushing. “But you know, these guys have been great. They've really taken me and Aleksander Barkov under their wing, talked to us a lot. It's been … wow, what an experience already.”
Barkov's only 18, but he's being forced to center the first line because of injuries to Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula. He and Maatta are being asked to do far more than most teens in this tournament that's loaded with 151 NHL players. And because of that, Finland coach Erkka Westerlund shrewdly has the two rooming together, buying them a little reprieve from all the gosh-wow of sharing the white and blue with Teemu Selanne and others they grew up idolizing.
“We're just here to play,” Barkov said. “But it's very different, of course, to be around all these great players.”
“I watched Sami play when I was a child,” Maatta said, and he meant it. Salo is 20 years his elder. “I can't tell you what that's like being out there with him. Really, I can't.”
Funny, but Salo had a far easier time with the reverse. And his assessment of Maatta might have been as strong as any I've heard.
“There's poise, there's talent and … I don't see the ceiling. I really don't. He's special,” Salo said. “And you know, it's good for Finnish hockey. It's good for all of us. We've been waiting for someone like him to arrive for a while.”
And you thought Maatta faced pressure in Pittsburgh.
Finland is a nation that lives and dies with its hockey heroes, beginning with Jari Kurri as Wayne Gretzky's ultimate wingman, extended through the great Selanne. No one, including Salo, is suggesting Maatta will approach that level. Nor should they.
At the same time, who would rule out anything at this age?
“Looks to me like the full package, and he's still so young,” Rask said. “He keeps it simple, doesn't try to do too much, makes the right play. His head is up all the time. He's strong on the puck, great passer, big shot … what's he missing?”
“I don't think a lot of us knew about him until this year,” Timonen said, confirming something Selanne spoke of earlier this winter in Pittsburgh. “But once you see him … it's all there. And for him to be here and be part of this experience at his age, I'm happy for him.”
Heard a lot of that, too.
Maatta had a rough start Thursday, or what you'd expect from a normal 19-year-old. Austria scored on his first shift, then again nine minutes later when a pass deflected off his skate and behind Rask. The Finns trailed 2-1.
To put that into perspective, Austria scored as many times on Rask in a half-period as the Penguins did in an entire playoff series.
“That wasn't too much fun,” Maatta said.
But Finland tied a couple minutes later and, at 19:25 of the first, Maatta deftly glided backward along the blue line and blasted a shot — unscreened — past Bernhard Starkbaum. The Finns never looked back.
“He really got a nice look for himself,” Rask observed.
And another souvenir.
“The puck's going to go right next to the one from my first goal for Pittsburgh,” Maatta said. “I'm sure I'll never forget it.”
On a personal level, he's trying to enjoy the Olympics “as much as I can, but we don't get much time.”
Favorite moment so far?
“Oh, the bikes, for sure,” he said.
The Finns are riding bikes in and around the Olympic Village, thanks to bright blue rentals flown here by the national federation. The entire hockey team, Selanne included, rode them to the game and back Thursday under 61 degree, sunny skies.
Maatta has attended events with Barkov, but he has mingled with the vets, too. He wants to show he “isn't intimidated” while also deferring. As is the case on the ice, he finds just the right mix of confidence (fancy Nicklas Lidstrom fakes) and humility (dump in, dump out).
“You know, I think sometimes Olli wants to come and ask me questions just to show respect,” Salo said. “He's already got the answers.”