For a pair of Pittsburgh Penguins’ products, their participation in the Toronto Maple Leafs’-sponsored rookie tournament took place right in their own backyard. And while Olli Maatta looks to have more games wearing the London Knights’ green and gold, for Scott Harrington, it’s a bittersweet ending to his time in the Forest City.
“It is. It is. I’m obviously really excited to be back here and I was really looking forward to it when I found out that this is where the tournament was,” Harrington said. “I drove around the city a little bit [Friday] night. It kind of sunk in. I hadn’t really thought about it. I knew that this would be the last time for me playing in this rink in a meaningful game.
“It was definitely — I don’t know if sad’s the right word, but I’m definitely going to miss coming to London.”
Of course, no matter what colour of jersey a player may don once they leave the OHL, the familiar green-and-gold confines of the Knights’ dressing room offers many happy returns. There are a number of players, both from the city of London and those who have played for the Knights, who return each summer to train. Harrington said his sojourn in the Forest City has shown him why that’s the case.
“I’ve really enjoyed my four years in London. It’s a great hockey town and it’s really just a great city,” he said. “I think that if you look at the guys in the NHL who weren’t actually born in London, but played three or four years here, they make this their summer home. I think it speaks volumes about their experience in London and how much they enjoyed it, and they realize that it’s a good spot to spend their summers and continue their development.”
The Penguins are making the most of Harrington and Maatta’s familiarity with their surroundings. Not only are the high draft picks (Harrington, second round, 2011; Maatta, first round, 2012) playing before long-time fans in the Budweiser Gardens, but they’ve been matched up with each other as a defensive pairing during the games.
“It’s awesome. It’s difficult in these tournaments when you’re playing with guys that you’re unfamiliar with, in different systems, with different coaches,” Harrington said. “For everybody, except for the eight of us [eight players who are current or former London Knights are participating in the tournament], this is a different building.
“It’s always nice whenever you have guys on your team that you’ve played with or that you’re familiar with or have developed friendships with. I think they paired Olli and I together because we’re comfortable with us and it might give us a better comfort level.”
Maatta said the familiarity level truly helps during the games. “It makes it easier. I know Scott very well. I’ve played with him for two years now,” he said. “You feel more comfortable out there when you know your partner already. I can trust him, I know that he does his job and he knows that I’ll do mine.
“Mistakes happen, but we’re there for each other and we cover each other’s back.”
And, as Maatta explained, it’s no coincidence that the two Penguins’ prospects are seeing some other familiar faces in this tournament, including former Knight Reid McNeill, who is a sixth-round selection of the Penguins and is appearing in this tournament.
“Eight guys that play in London shows that the organization is really professional,” he said. “The goal is to make NHL players here. That’s what the Hunters do and it’s been, from my experience, I’ve really enjoyed it and learned a lot here.”
Playing against other elite prospects helps everyone gauge where they are developmentally or where they need to get better, Maatta added.
“Guys that are here are the top junior players and players from the AHL that are trying to make their NHL team. The tempo’s high, the skill level’s high. I think everyone’s enjoying playing those games,” he said. “Getting ready for main camp, it’s our first games of the season. For us it’s lessons learned. All of these guys are playing in their first games of the year, they’re all playing for NHL teams, so for us you can see where you are and what you need to improve upon.”
For Harrington, this tournament represents a great opportunity to shine within a team framework, something he’s done for years, either wearing the Knights’ green and gold, or Team Canada’s iconic red and white. And he hopes to take that attitude with him as he leaves his junior career behind and takes his first steps into the world of professional hockey.
“Everybody just wants to make a good impression on the brass and the coaches that are here,” he said. “I think that you want to stand out in a tournament like this — it is a team tournament and a team concept, but away from that you have to play your game and you have to be the best player of your style on the ice.
“I just want to get an invitation to main camp and go in with the same mindset.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard