It’s a long way from Jyvaskyla, Finland to London, Ontario, Canada — 6,663 kilometres, to be exact — but for Olli Maatta, not only is this the shortest route to the NHL, London, Ontario also now feels like home.
"I had heard a lot of good things about the game in Canada; it’s so much different. I also heard everything good about London, so why not?," Maatta said, adding that the transition has been eased by a solid command of the English language and the efforts of his teammates.
"My language skills are pretty good, so it hasn’t been too hard," Maatta explained. "I knew we’d have a good team, but I had no idea they’d be so good about taking me with them and teaching some things. They’ve made it very easy to adjust."
Maatta was somewhat of a surprise selection by the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights who traded up to obtain the first-overall selection in the 2011 import draft. While some thought the club would choose highly regarded Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko, they opted for the 6’1 blueliner with a complete game and impressive upside. And while Grigorenko (ranked second-overall by ISS) is expected to be a one-and-done CHL prospect, Maatta is more likely to stick around for a couple of years to help in the Knights’ playoff push.
Currently, ISS has Maatta ranked 16th for the 2012 draft. And while many actually rate the Finnish blueliner higher, Maatta himself is giving very little thought to the draft.
"I don’t feel very much pressure about the draft at all because I know that if I play a solid game all season, I will be drafted," Maatta explained. "So I’m just focused on helping my team win and doing my best. I’m not thinking about the draft and how high I’ll go — I just want to play."
Maatta has already played a key role for the Knights in a year where they’ve found themselves amongst the CHL elite. The club’s assistant GM/assistant coach Misha Donskov said that while the team has been trying to make things easier so that he can focus on the game, much of the credit goes to Maatta for his maturity and effort.
"He’s been handling [the transition] well, he’s a character kid. I think he’s really enjoying his experience here and he’s done very, very well with the language and the culture, and he’s off to a great start with the club so far," Donskov explained. "The first thing we try to do is get to know the family well, as well as the player to find out what they need and how we can best adapt. We work closely with their academic advisor.
"Olli’s at [a London-area high school] to ensure that his classes are conducive to where he’s at with the language. And then beyond that we’re in touch with the billets to ensure that he’s doing well and has the resources that he needs."
Of course, Maatta also did some early legwork to make sure that the OHL in general — and London in particular — was a good fit.
"I talked to Mika Partanen from Mississauga, we played on the same team and we had a few summer camps, so I talked to him a lot and asked a lot of questions about the OHL," Maatta said. "Then there were a few players from the WHL on that team, so I asked them a few questions. They all said great things about the OHL and CHL overall."
But despite how comfortable he is in his new home, he does miss his native Finland — especially his family. Fortunately, the Maatta clan recently made the trip to Canada and had the opportunity to watch their son in action and learn about his new Canadian surroundings.
"I Skype with them three times a week," he said, admitting that Internet chat paled in comparison to the experience of having his family in town. "For me I really felt like I was back home — it’s the first time I’ve been able to speak Finnish in a while.
"They had a great time — they really liked the rink, they liked the team, and they loved the city, so it was good for them."
While it was the first time that the Maattas saw their son play for the Knights in person, it’s certainly not the first time they’ve watched him live. In fact, his mother is a regular viewer of the live Internet feeds of any Knights games.
"It’s late when she watches — around 2 a.m., so she’s tired," he added, laughing.
And although there’s no Finnish presence in London to speak of — no restaurants or large community — he did recently experience a surprising reminder of home when an older Finnish woman brought a traditional dessert to a fan event. "It was some kind of sweet bread dessert. I was so happy," he said, beaming.
London is known as the Forest City and features a river running through its heart. Maatta said he sees some similarities to his home town. "We have a lot of trees in Finland, so it’s similar," Maatta said. "I miss the water a little bit. We have about 50 lakes in the city that I live in — they’re not that big, though. I miss that."
He said he loves the level of competition he’s experienced in the OHL. Despite playing in Finland’s top junior leagues at 16, where players also are up to 20 years old, he said there’s no comparison to the quality of play in Canadian junior hockey.
"There’s a big difference between the quality of junior hockey in Finland and the level of hockey played here," he explained. "The best players in the world in my age group are here."
And, to date, he’s fit right in. In 16 games, Maatta is a solid plus-10 and has accounted for eight assists. Donskov explained that Maatta’s make-up as a player has helped to contribute to his early success — and its his dedication to the craft that will help him during this draft-eligible year.
"First and foremost, he’s a decent-sized kid. He’s got great hockey sense and he sees the ice very well, and he’s a very disciplined and focused player," Donskov explained. "I think for him he needs to work on his skating and his shot. If you put all those things together along with his work ethic, then you’ve got a kid with a heck of a lot of upside."
Before the draft, however, Maatta has at least one more moment on the international stage ahead of him with the World Junior Championship. Maatta was the youngest player ever to crack Finland’s World Junior roster last year. At 16 years old and with an August birthday, his accomplishment came earlier than fellow historical 16-year-old Finns Reijo Ruotsalainen, Janne Niniimaa, and Mikael Grandlund..
While the young Finn didn’t see a lot of action in the tournament, but he did get his feet wet and should play a key role on the country’s WJC squad this season — although he’s taking nothing for granted.
"I hope I’ll be back this year," he said, modestly, adding that he’ll be better prepared for the unique challenges that this annual tournament offers. "The game is faster at the World Juniors and one thing about playing for your country is that we don’t have that much time together, so it’s harder to become a team — it’s hard to get the systems in place and learn how to play with each other."
Perhaps it’s playing to a stereotype, but Scandinavians are traditionally typecast as stoic. Maatta said that’s one thing he’s not seeing during his early experience in Canada — and he absolutely is thrilled by the passion that Canadian fans display for their hockey teams.
"The people here are crazy about hockey," Maatta exclaimed. "I love that."