Penguins Report: London Trip
After covering the opening of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s training camp last weekend, the Pens website crew made a trip up to London, Ontario to check in with Penguins draft picks and London Knights defensemen Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta.
After spending a couple days with Harrington (second round, 54th overall, 2011 NHL Draft) and Maatta (first round, 22nd overall, 2012 NHL Draft) and talking to the Knights staff and head coach Dale Hunter, it’s easy to see why the Penguins think so highly of the two young blueliners.
Not only are they fantastic talents on the ice, but they are great people as well. Knights head coach Dale Hunter was right when he said, “Pittsburgh has two kids there that have great character.” (More on their character and personalities here).
Harrington and Maatta were just a joy to be around. They’re both full of youthful enthusiasm and easy-going charm. And maybe their most endearing quality is their love of hockey. They play hockey for the simple love of the game. To them, there is nothing better than skating on a sheet of ice with a stick and puck.
Harrington is always the first person on the ice for before practice, sometimes spending a half hour by himself before his teammates join him. After practice is over, Maatta likes to linger on the ice working on various aspects of his game. They spend a lot of time on the ice, not only to improve their games, but because they truly find joy in hockey.
Both Harrington and Maatta are very mature for their ages,19 and 18 respectively. Their professional and business-like demeanors will make you forget that they’re still just teenagers. Only subtle reminders key you in to their youth – like Maatta’s excitement over receiving his driver’s license.
There’s a lot to love about Harrington and Maatta, especially their play on the ice. Here are some thoughts and impressions from Michelle Crechiolo and myself after our London trip.
It’s hard not to think highly of a player like Scott Harrington. He has a complete package of intangibles that make him an excellent hockey player and person.
Physically, he has filled out his 6-foot-1 frame with muscle. Harrington is workout freak, spending a lot of time in the weight room building and maintaining his muscle mass. His hard work is paying off. You can see just from looking at him that he’s cut.
“He’s a strong guy, has great legs, is a powerful guy,” Knights head coach Dale Hunter said. “He just needs to get stronger.”
Harrington’s on-ice abilities are also obvious when you watch him play. His success is a blend of smart hockey sense and the physical tools to execute. He won’t end up on the highlight reels with a lot of flashy plays. But he reads the play well and thus consistently makes smart decisions with the puck, with his positioning and with his stick work. And because of that, he is matched up head-to-head against the opposing team’s top scoring line.
|Scott Harrington at practice|
“He’s our shutdown guy,” Hunter said. “Right now he’s average 27-30 minutes a game. Last year for Team Canada as an 18-year-old, he was their shutdown guy, and that’s the best in junior in the world. We expect a lot from Harry and he’ll deliver because his character and work ethic are outstanding.”
But what really stands out about Harrington is his leadership. There’s a reason his Knights teammates selected him as team captain. And he also wore the “C” for Team Canada in the Russia-Canada Challenge.
“It’s a huge honor to see the guys that have worn the C in London in years past,” Harrington said. “Whenever I first came to London I wanted to one day be the captain. That was a goal of mine. Last year being an assistant was special, especially being an assistant to Jarred Tinordi. There are a lot of things that I made note of that he did last year in case I was able to be the captain this year, stuff I want to incorporate into my game and my leadership.”
Harrington is truly a cerebral player. He’s always observing and learning, not only from Tinordi. Harrington takes mental notes of everyone around him. Harrington observed the way the Pittsburgh Penguins conducted themselves during last year’s training camp.
“I remember for weeks after I got back (from Pittsburgh’s training camp) that was all I was thinking about, even on the ice, trying to remember what the pro guys were doing at practice and stuff,” Harrington said. “I watched all the defensemen. They’re all special players to be on the Pittsburgh Penguins roster. I watched guys like Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang.”
“He’ll learn from that. He absorbs a lot,” Hunter said. “Being an intelligent person like he is, he takes everything in.”
For now, Harrington is concentrating on leading his team to another OHL championship and redemptions in the Memorial Cup. But down the road, his ultimate goal will be to end up in Pittsburgh wearing a Penguins sweater.
“He wants to play in the National Hockey League with the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Hunter said. “There are steps to get there and he knows and understands the steps. He will mature and prepare himself well for Pittsburgh.”
“That’s where I want to end up one day,” Harrington said. “Everyday I try to better myself so that one day I will be there full time.”
I was there for London Knights defenseman Olli Maatta’s interview right after the Penguins took him in the first round of the NHL Draft back in June, and I remember the pure excitement emanating off of him, the youthful exuberance and enthusiasm of his answers and how the smile rarely left his face. It was the kind of interview that makes reporters smile back at them. I remember thinking he seemed like a genuinely happy kid.
|Olli Maatta works on his point shot|
This past week, I got to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Olli and spend time with him (and fellow Penguins prospect and Knights captain Scott Harrington) in London, and that lighter side of his personality is still there. He’s a lot of fun to talk with. We’ve definitely learned some interesting things about him – for example, that he loves country music and even owns a cowboy hat. But what we really learned about Olli over these last few days is that there’s also a maturity and work ethic beyond his (barely) 18 years of age.
When we asked Harrington, Olli’s coach Dale Hunter, and defense partner Tommy Hughes about Olli, they all said the same thing: he almost works too hard.
HUNTER: “Olli plays hard. His work ethic is outstanding. I talked to their coach (in Finland) and said we were thinking about drafting him. He kept saying, ‘He wants to come (to North America). He wants to play in the National Hockey League.’ He came and we had to tell him to slow down working out. He works too hard. He was getting tired for the (weekend) games. He didn’t know that part. He thought more work and more results. But when it’s a long season, you have to pick (your spots). That’s where he’s gotten better. By the end of the year he was one of the top D in the league. That’s a credit to him and his work ethic on and off the ice.”
HARRINGTON: “Olli is a really hard worker. I think sometimes they’re worried he might overwork himself just because he wants to get as good as he can. He’s a great guy to have in the room.”
HUGHES: “(Olli) is a really good guy. He’s got a funny sense of humor but he’s also really hard-working. He’s always in the weight room. He’s just a good person to have in the room.”
We certainly saw that as he was one of the last guys to get off the ice for practice before continuing to sweat and work hard in the weight room right after. And pairing that work ethic with his talent is something that’s exciting to see.
Olli already has an NHL-ready body at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, and is well on his way to developing his speed, puck-moving ability, poise, confidence and defensive reliability to NHL levels.
We got to see two Knights practices while in London. The team typically holds practice at their home arena, Budweiser Gardens. However, on occasion they must move practice at a local rink whenever their home facility is housing a concert or event.
In such instances, the players still get dressed at Budweiser Gardens. But then they get in their cars and drive themselves to the practice rink, sans skates of course. It’s quite a scenes watching the players in full gear and flip flops (some of them helmets included) walking to the parking lot and then driving off.
However, the players have to come back to Budweiser Gardens for their post-practice shower. So after practice they jump back into their cars in their sweaty hockey gear and drive back to the home building. That’ll ruin that new car smell pretty quickly.
“It was pretty fun at the beginning, then it's the middle of winter and you're freezing in your equipment and you're walking out to your car after practice," Harrington laughed. "It's a little different, but fun to change things up once in a while. I had to go get some car fresheners after the first couple of practices. My truck isn't overly big. It's pretty tight to fit four guys in there, but we do the best we can."
Harrington and Maatta pose.
Walking through the parking lot.
Loading up the car.
Scott at the wheel.
Scott getting mic'd up for practice.
As is his routine, Scott is the first person on the ice for practice.
Scott and Olli from the bench.
Some pics of Scott...
Some pics of Olli...
Maatta listens to coach Hunter go over a power-play drill.
Coach Hunter gives the players instructions.
All laughs at practice.
Scott does a sitdown interview with PensTV!
--Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo
After practice on Wednesday most of the Knights players took part in a game called “mini sticks” (a floor hockey game in the locker room with mini souvenir sticks and a foam ball). The players that didn’t take part in the game, which is a fun way for the teens to unwind after a tough practice session, stood by and cheered.
In fact, only two Knights players were missing from the mini sticks game: Harrington and Maatta. The two blueliners opted to hit the weight room instead for an intense workout. The two Penguins prospects worked up quite a sweat as they pushed each other with every rep.
Taking a breather during an intense workout session.
Scott ball push up.
Olli ball push up.
More pull ups.
--Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo
The story of the London Knights' success over the past 10-plus years is really the story of the Hunters. Hockey has always been a part of Mark and Dale’s life, dating back to their youth. They both enjoyed extensive NHL careers, and worked in the industry following retirement.
The brothers saw an amazing opportunity when the Tarry family put the Knights up for sale.
“We live not far from here,” Dale said. “We heard the owner wanted to sell. It was a good opportunity to get back into junior hockey, to own a team and coach and manage.”
However, there were many risks involved. The Hunters, who made a modest living from their NHL careers, took a huge financial risk with purchasing the team. They risked losing everything if they weren’t a success on and off the ice.
Needless to say, the gamble paid off.
Under the guidance of the Hunters, the London Knights have been a premiere Ontario Hockey League franchise. Mark, vice president/general manager, has put together a solid front office staff and pulled the transactions to put together a competitive roster season after season. The building constantly sells out with passionate Knights fans. And those fans have many reasons to cheer, particularly for the on-ice success of the franchise.
Dale, president/head coach, has led the club to 50-or-more wins three times and finished in first place in the OHL fourth times, made two Memorial Cup final appearances and won a Memorial Cup title in 2003-04. He was also named CHL coach of the year that season. Dale has also overseen the development of NHL talents like Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane and John Tavares (Nash, Kane and Tavares were all drafted No. 1 overall in the NHL Draft).
But the most rewarding part of the job for Dale is being able to watch these young teenagers mature into hockey players and men.
“It’s two jobs really, you want to teach them how to live properly and play on the ice so they can make the transition to where ever they go,” Dale said. “I treat all these kids like my own sons and daughters. I teach them and sometimes you have to discipline them. But they know I’ll treat them fair. I’m like a parent to them."
Dale doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He also participates as a billet for players, currently housing twin forwards Matt and Ryan Rupert.
“I treat them the same way I do with my own kids,” Dale said. “It’s a pleasure keeping them around. They keep you young and make you laugh.”
The Hunters also own Budweiser Gardens, which is one of the finest buildings in the OHL. From the locker room to the weight room to the training room, the accommodations are top-notch for a junior team. And the best part is the building is located downtown.
“The city built a great building and built it in the heart of the city,” Dale said. “That was an important decision. The fans love this building. A building like this is first class all the way. We teach the kids that this is what the NHL is like in a smaller portion, but we try to keep it as an NHL style.”
The Budweiser Gardens.
Door to the Knights locker room.
The sacred locker room.
Olli Maatta's corner stall.
The '05 OHL and Memorial Cup champion Knights.
That '05 championship team opened the season at 29-0-2. Not bad, eh?
Harrington's official game jersey.
The players can't wear their shoes on the locker room carpet. So they gotta leave them outside! (Note the sparse shoe rack).
Last season's Knights won the OHL title.
Sittler and Shanahan when they were just little guys.
Official game puck from last season.
--Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo
I’ve got to say, our staff really loved the city of London. It’s a great city that has a lot of cool, trendy and unique restaurants, parks, entertainment, sports and nightlife. They have a local university for higher education (University of Western Ontario) so there is a young feel to it. Plus, they love their hockey and love their Knights, and of the course the Knights love them back.
The Market. It's a popular spot for the players and coaches for lunch and dinner.
Saunders Secondary School (where the players learn).
The ballpark in London.
Looking down the cannon.
Victoria Park archway.
Tank. Yep, a tank.
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow...
--Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo
Before we wrap the blog for the day, I have to give a round of thank yous to a number of people with the London Knights. The first has to go to Natalie Wakabayashi, the team's marketing manager. Natalie was a huge help with facilitating all our overwhelming requests. She went above and beyond in ensuring that we had the best set up and opportunities to see the players beyond what's on the ice, as well giving us incredible background info on the players, coaches and team. All the great pics, stories and videos that we will be putting together over the next week are all due to her assistance, and we are very thankful.
A thank you to coach Hunter for letting us cover his team in the middle of yet another competitive season. He allowed us to have incredible access to his team and facility in the middle of their season. And he was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his day to sit down and talk to us. You can tell he's a very down to earth person with a lot of integrity and character. It really was a pleasure to speak with him. And his insight was remarkable and invaluable.
And last, we need to thank Scott and Olli. Both players were an absolute joy to deal with.They were genuinely enthusiastic and very welcoming. Hopefully, we didn't annoy them too much during the course of our stay. And hopefully they enjoy the fruits of their (and our) labor.
London was a great experience. I can't imagine a better city to live and play junior hockey. Good luck to Scott, Olli, coach Hunter, Natalie and the rest of the Knights during their quest to repeat as OHL champions and capture the Memorial Cup. Hopefully, one day we'll see you all in Pittsburgh and we can be as hospitable as you all were with us.
--Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo