SAN JOSE – Far too often, hockey players are described as warriors. In the case of Finnish players, that description actually fits. And that is why after Olli Maatta may very well end up going from being a Stanley Cup champion to a buck private in the Finnish military this summer.
Finland is one of the last bastions of mandatory military service. In fact, the penalty for refusing it can be up to 173 days in prison. All men 18 years and older are required to serve a minimum of 165 days, something Maatta plans to do over the next two summers. So shortly after the Cup final ends, which could be as early as tonight if the Penguins win Game 6 with Maatta patrolling the blueline, he’ll head to Santahamina, home to the Guard Jaeger Regiment, and report for duty.
The regiment at Santahamina is where all Finnish athletes go because the facility there allows them to do both their military training and off-season conditioning for their sports. All Finnish NHL players have done it, so Maatta can’t really fathom how anyone would figure it’s a big deal. But in the aftermath of the death of Muhammad Ali, who basically forfeited the three best years of his career for his refusal to serve in Vietnam, Maatta is not about to take the same stand. He’s a proud Finn, as all Finns are, and sees nothing wrong with his country conscripting him into service.
“It’s kind of cool,” Maatta said. “It’s your duty. Every Finnish guy has to do it. It’s kind of a patriotism thing. That’s what everybody does.”
There was a movement afoot as recently in 2013 to abolish the compulsory military service, or at least not make those who refuse subject to a prison sentence, but it didn’t get much traction. And hockey players such as Maatta don’t seem to have any problem with it. “I’m not the first NHL player who’s had to do it,” Maatta said. “Every single player here has had to do it. When you’re from Finland, it’s an honor to do it.”
For the time being, though, Maatta is devoting all his energies to winning one more game in the Stanley Cup final. Paired with Ben Lovejoy, Maatta has been a fixture on the Penguins’ second pairing, with the vast majority of his ice time coming at even strength.
If Maatta’s on-ice performance in a Finnish uniform is any indication of what he can do, the military stint should be a breeze for him. Despite being only 21, Maatta has a ton of international experience, including three World Junior Championships and one Under-18 World Championship. In fact, when he first appeared in the WJC in 2011, he was the youngest player ever in Finland to be named to the national junior team, a feat that would later be bettered by Aleksander Barkov. But Maatta saved his best international performance for the 2014 Winter Olympics when, at the age of 19, he was instrumental in helping Finland to the bronze medal. He scored five points in six games, including a goal in the 5-0 win over USA in the bronze medal game.
Once the summer is over, Maatta will trade in his Finnish military fatigues for a hockey uniform when he suits up for his country in the World Cup of Hockey. Finnish hockey is undoubtedly enjoying salad days at the moment and much is expected of the Finnish group.
“I can’t wait for that,” Maatta said. “It should be a lot of fun.”