"He speaks better English than he lets you know," Bill LaForge (Esa’s juniors coach) said. "When he needed new skates, he let me know. But when I asked him why he was late for curfew, he’d start talking to me in Finnish."
Esa Tikkanen brought the world a hybrid of Finnish and English – dubbed ‘Tikkanese’ – that could befuddle players, coaches, and interviewers alike. Most of all he was ‘the Grate One’–an exceptional shadow, a skilled hockey player and a good man to have on your team. Mostly.
BEFORE THE DRAFT
PRE-DRAFT AWARDS AND HONORS
Finland Championship: 1983 (Helsinki IFK)
World Junior Championships: 1983 (sixth place)
European Junior Championships: 1983 (silver medal)
Finland Junior-A Penalty-Minutes Leader: 1982-83 (104 PIM)
Miscellaneous: Spent entire 1982-83 regular season with Helsinki IFK Junior-A team, but joined senior (men’s) team during 1983 playoffs. … Worked as stick boy for Team Canada in 1982 World Championships, which were played in his native Helsinki, Finland.
Chosen in the 4th round, 80th overall in the 1983 Entry draft
After his first practice with the Edmonton Oilers in 1985, Esa Tikkanen called his agent Don Baizley. "They put me with Gretzky and Kurri," he told Baizley. "Really?" said Baizley. "And what do you think now?" "Oh," Tikkanen replied, "they’re pretty good players."
Tikkanen dreamed of playing in the NHL, but he and his father felt he needed to become familiar with the physical part of the North American game and the long bus rides and schedules that are commonplace in Canada. So, Esa Tikkanen–like Juha Widing a generation before him–left his home and pursued his dream on the Canadian prairies.
Once in Regina and with the Pats, Tikkanen (5.08 and 150 when he arrived) stood up to all of the toughs in the league but also found his edge: stick work.
- Junior Coach Bill LaForge: "He was like Zorro with that damn thing. I remember nights in Prince Albert and Swift Current, where every guy on the other team and everybody in the stands wanted to kill him."
Tikkanen was also a yappy player, and seemed to find a way to get under the skin of everyone, including teammates. Perhaps the talk and the stick work obscured the obvious: Esa Tikkanen could also play the game.
- Marty McSorley: "You can belt Tikky, can knock him down, make him dizzy, but he never stays down." McSorley attributes this to Tikkanen’s stubbornness and to his ideal hockey frame, which former coach Tom Webster once likened to "a bowling ball with ears."
- Craig MacTavish: "Since he makes no sense, there’s no possible response. That bugs guys."
- Tony Granato: "When you’re thinking about how badly you want to hurt him, you’re not thinking about what you’ve got to do to win."
- Wayne Gretzky: "To shadow me, he’s got to have some ability. Also, to be an effective shadow, he’s got to play for a good team. Otherwise, I’d just stay on the ice, and his team would never score."
I’ve been watching NHL hockey since the 1960s, and Esa Tikkanen remains one of the truly unique players during that time. He really was one of a kind.
- Five Stanley Cups: 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1994
- Holds NHL record for fastest two shorthanded goals by one player in one game (12 seconds for Edmonton at Toronto on Nov. 12, 1988; goals at 10:44 and 10:56 of first period)
- Was runner-up to Guy Carbonneau for 1988-89 Selke Trophy
- Was runner-up to Dirk Graham for 1990-91 Selke Trophy
- Was probably the best LW to player with Gretzky-Kurri during their time (1980-88) together in Edmonton
- Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame: Inducted 2004.
Tikkanen’s unique qualities contributed to his value, and his trade to the Rangers might be the best trade in the team’s history. On March 17, 1993 Glen Sather sent Tikkanen to the Rangers for Doug Weight.
Paid in full.
During his career, Tikkanen has played all three forward positions, but he was predominantly a winger before his role-switching also made him a center. Tikkanen has amassed 630 points in his NHL career, many of them earned on the offense, where he wasn’t supposed to be playing. This total places him third among the all-time best Finns in the league. In Edmonton, where he played in four Stanley Cup wins, he’s been the most valuable Finn after Jari Kurri. The Oilers drafted Tikkanen in 1983 in the fourth round and he joined the team for the 1985 playoffs straight from the World Championship tournament in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Two years later, when the Oilers were looking for a third man to round out the team’s first line, he got the opportunity to play alongside Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. The three seasons between 1986 and 1989, when he occupied left wing on the line with his famous teammates, were his most productive in the NHL, earning him 78, 74 and 78 points respectively.
With the departure of Gretzky from the Oilers, Tikkanen’s role became even more important. In 1990, when the Alberta team captured the Cup a fourth time, their first without the illustrious number 99, Tikkanen had a truly great series with 24 points in 22 playoff games.
The next stage of his NHL career was with the New York Rangers. It started out in a rather dramatic fashion, with Tikkanen playing against the Edmonton Oilers. His old club had traded him only four hours earlier on March 17, 1993, in a swap for American center Doug Weight. In the Big Apple, Tikkanen was again in the right place at the right time, helping the Rangers end their 54-year Stanley Cup drought.
For me, Tikkanen’s skill, rugged style and passion for the game are the things I value. No one can argue any North American player cared more about playing the game than Esa Tikkanen. Whatever his shortcomings, real or imagined, Esa Tikkanen was a credit to the game every time he pulled on a uniform.