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Courage, grace and no self-promotion

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By Doug Bell

Olli Maatta, a 20-year-old hockey player from Finland, was living the dream. A year ago, he broke into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup as a teenager and became one of their regular defensemen, and he was widely recognized as being among the National Hockey League’s top rookies.

But then came the nightmare. Doctors gave an 85 percent chance that a tumor found recently in Maatta’s neck was malignant, and surgery was scheduled for this week. Any speculation about how this young man would spend the days before the operation was put to rest at a news conference last week. A vacation in warmer climes? A determined effort to cross a few entries off his bucket list?

Not so much. Maatta’s plan, on which he calmly followed through, was to pack his lunch and go to work every day. He played in all three of the Penguins’ home games and participated in the team’s practices in the week before he entered the hospital.

It would be logical to believe that such calm courage in the face of life-altering adversity might be a very rare thing, except for one historical footnote to this story: The owner of the Penguins, Mario Lemieux, one of the most dominating athletes in the history of his sport, was diagnosed a generation ago with Hodgkin’s lymphoma after a lump was discovered in his throat at midseason. He underwent a month of treatments as his fans wondered if they would ever see his brilliance on the ice again.

Lemieux had his final treatment on the morning of March 2, 1993, and then took a charter flight to Philadelphia, where the Penguins were playing that evening. And after a month away from the game, after 30 days of cancer treatments, Mario Lemieux laced up his skates and appeared on the ice for the pregame skate. Cameras scanning the Spectrum recorded stunned faces in the crowd, but that disbelief soon gave way to a standing ovation when it became clear that Lemieux actually planned to play in the game. He finished with a goal and an assist, and the Philly fans cheered every time he touched the puck.

“He lit us up,” then-Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock has said of that improbable evening.

Pittsburgh is a tough town filled with tough people, but a recounting of Lemieux’s legend still makes eyes moist at any bar in the roughest part of the city. So, too, does the story of Rocky Bleier, a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War who returned home to win four Super Bowl rings to go with his Purple Heart. And there remains the mythical shadow still cast by Roberto Clemente, an otherworldly right fielder who died in 1972 in a plane crash while taking supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.

Unfortunately, at the end of another bruising campaign season, all this talk of heroes provides a jarring contrast to the many self-serving politicians who have bombarded us for months with half-truths and boastful balderdash. It is a sad truth that our nation’s political leaders frequently fail to exhibit any leadership at all in a time when heroes — and just basic decency — are needed more desperately than ever.

But heroes still walk among us. And as Olli Maatta recovers from surgery this week, I hope he heals more quickly knowing that, for many of us, he is one of them.

Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.