Five years after brush with cancer, Olli Maatta still remembers surreal experience

Maatta was miraculously back playing less than three weeks after a 2014 operation to remove a cancerous tumor. But he knows many others aren’t so fortunate.

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Olli Maatta

AP

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Kings-Blackhawks matchup Sunday will be more than just another game for Olli Maatta.

As part of the Hawks’ Hockey Fights Cancer night, five children battling cancer will join the team on the ice during the national anthem after many more are honored with a pregame Purple Carpet walk.

For Maatta, five years removed from his own brush with cancer, meeting them will make it hard to focus on hockey.

“It just blows your mind,” Maatta told the Sun-Times recently, choking up before each sentence. “Obviously, they go through rough days, but from what I’ve seen, they’re always kind of happy and still going and trying to make the best of life.

‘‘So it’s pretty inspirational. It gives you perspective in life that hockey might not be everything.”

Maatta was only 19 himself, an up-and-coming defenseman with the Penguins, when a routine physical at the start of the 2014-15 season found a lump in his neck.

The period that followed was a whirlwind, an experience that lasts years, if not a lifetime, for many.

After discovering the lump, the Penguins’ doctors and Maatta initially thought little of it. But they nonetheless decided to do a biopsy a few weeks later, just to be safe. In late October, the results indicated the tumor had an 85 percent chance of being cancerous — as it later proved to be — and Maatta was blindsided.

“Hearing the word ‘cancer,’ it’s really scary,” he said. “A lot of things go through your head the first two days like, ‘What’s -going on? What’s happening?’ until I found out the information. I was lucky where I was because I had a lot of good doctors around me, and they were really willing to answer any questions I had, and I did have a lot, -actually.”

He spiraled into a period of self-doubt, convincing himself that he must have done something wrong — eating poorly, not sleeping well, stressing too much — that led to the tumor forming.

The doctors had no way to determine the actual cause, but they did have one answer: The tumor had been detected so early that removal would require only thyroid surgery, not chemotherapy.

Maatta played three games for the Pens — all wins, in fact — between his diagnosis and operation, then missed only 17 days recovering before returning to the lineup.

Pittsburgh won that game, too — same as before. But Maatta wasn’t the same.

“For me, that was a turning point,” he said. “I started really paying attention to the way I eat, the way I sleep, just take care of my body and all the other things. Obviously, I don’t know what caused it, but I think, for me, if I could prevent even a little bit, I’ll do it.”

Maatta has played in 283 games since, including 11 with the Hawks, and established his leaguewide reputation as a reliable defensive defenseman. And the five-year anniversary of his operation is next weekend, marking the end of a five-year post-cancer schedule of regular checkups.

The early discovery of the tumor was vital for Maatta. He knows it could’ve been so much worse, and Sunday’s experience will be a poignant reminder.

“The scare that I got gave me a little more perspective on what other people are going through and how it can affect your life,” he said. “You [battle] a serious type of cancer . . . I’m out of words, I don’t know how to describe how admirable that is.”

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