Olli Maatta’s Cancer Scare Shows the Human Side of Pro Sports


With the recent news of Olli Maatta‘s impending surgery to remove a tumor that may indicate thyroid cancer, the hockey community has been confronted by a shift in the reality of how we view professional athletes.

While we are accustomed to entrenching ourselves in the minute details of what we see on the ice – breaking down every scoring chance, every defensive breakdown, every strength and every weakness of the players we follow – we often forget to occasionally take a step back and remember that these players are more than just stat lines in scoring races or dollar amounts counting against a salary cap. Rather, they are people, with families and lives outside of the rink, and plenty to think about beyond their careers in the NHL.

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Such is the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ young defenseman. While Maatta’s four-week absence is sure to be a blow to the Penguins’ defensive corps, and could potentially lead to a stalling of their strong season thus far, the most significant thing to note from his news is that this 20-year old kid, already living in a country that is not his own and playing under immense pressure as a top-pairing defender on one of the NHL’s top teams, was just told he may have cancer.

Beyond how this affects his team or his season or his career, it’s a situation that affects Maatta firstly as a young man. It is incredible to think that, despite finding out about the tumor before the Penguins’ first game of the season, Maatta has not only dealt with the situation in a manner well enough to allow him to play, but he’s done so in such a way that has allowed him to in fact excel, putting together an excellent season thus far that has enabled him to move up to the team’s top pairing.

Playing alongside Maatta on this top pairing is Kris Letang, who dealt with a similarly life-threatening health scare earlier this year when he suffered a stroke, possibly due to the presence of a small hole in the wall of his heart. The situation was certainly problematic for Letang’s life on the ice, as he would go on to miss months of play and ended up taking the ice for only 37 contests.

Surely the most pertinent thought in Letang’s mind at the time, however, was that of how the situation would affect his family – of how it came far too close to taking him away from his young son, Alexander.

That is what was most important in Letang’s situation, and that is what is most important in Maatta’s. These players hold immeasurable value to us fans as titans of competition, as the defensive pillars of a hockey club that we love to immerse ourselves in, but this role of theirs pales in comparison to their other roles off the ice. They are not just athletes – they are fathers, sons, brothers, friends.

While they may belong to us fans on the ice, they belong to many in a much more meaningful way once they step outside the rink.

A situation like Letang’s or Maatta’s does more than simply shake up the roster of our favourite team. It brings about real emotion for real people, and brings with it a battle much more difficult than anything these players will ever face on the ice.