Sunday

Esa Tikkanen

"How many Cups you've got?" That is Esa Tikkanen's favorite question, no matter what language he's speaking.

Esa, who spoke in the multicultural tongue of Tikkanese - a combination of Finnish, Swedish and English all at once plus a few words he made up himself - has five. Not too many people can equal that.

Tik was one of hockey's most colorful characters. He was one of those guys you love to have on your team, but you can't stand playing against him. He's a pest, an aggravator and a troublemaker, yet at the same time an electric teammate who brought tons of life to a team. He shadowed the opposition's best forwards and at the same time came up with big goals himself.

He was perhaps as perfect a defensive specialist who ever played in the NHL. An aggressive forechecker with great anticipatory skills, Tik literally shadowed the opposition's superstar on a nightly basis. Not only did he successfully smother that player, but he aggravated the hell out of him too. He would do almost anything - yapping his not-always-clean mouth, using his stick in a unceremonious fashion, or physical abuse bordering on mugging charges. He hounded his assignment relentlessly. The better the name, the better Tik played. Not only did this get the superstar off of his game, but it got the whole opposition off of their game. The team became more worried about protecting their superstar and getting even with Tikkanen. Tik thrived in that role, and so did his team, who would then proceed to take apart the opposition offensively. While Tik never won the Frank J Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward, he was a finalist on 4 occasions.

Tikkanen was a good offensive player for most of his career as well. A three time 30 goal scorer, Tik play all forward positions plus the point on the power play (although he was best known as a LW). He was a good skater early in his career, but a bad knee slowed him down and eventually cost him his NHL job. Tikkanen provided grit, leadership and energy, as well as timely goals and big wins.

Esa initially took an unconventional route, for a European anyways, to start off his hockey career. He left Finland at the age of 16 to come to Saskatchewan where he played in Regina with the SJHL's Capitals. He also appeared in 2 games with the WHL's Pats He returned to Finland after that season as he was quite homesick and he dominated the Finnish junior ranks.

Tik was the 82nd overall pick by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1983 Entry Draft. However he didn't arrived in the NHL until the end of the 1985 Finnish League schedule. Amazingly his first NHL game was in the Stanley Cup finals! That is only fitting as Tik became known as a great playoff player.

Before long Tikkanen found a permanent home on Wayne Gretzky's left wing. The Gretzky-Jari Kurri combination never really had that perfect left winger until Tikkanen came along. He had the speed and offensive savvy to keep up with Gretzky and Kurri, but also was more than willing to sacrifice and do the dirty work by going into the corners and playing defensively responsible hockey.

When Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, Tikkanen, a veteran of just two years at the time, became a household name. During Kings-Oilers games and playoff series, Tikkanen became Gretzky's shadow. He was quite effective, often agitating The Great One. He also became a big part of the Oiler's post-Gretzky success. He scored 13 goals and 24 points in 22 playoff games in 1990 to help the Oilers capture the Cup despite not having Number 99.

His robust style of play was bound to catch up with him, and by 1991-92 injuries (namely his shoulder in this season) really started to bother Tikkanen, and he only played in 40 games. He was never quite the same offensive player after that, only scoring more than 20 goals once since.

Yet he remained a clutch player. Tikkanen would developed a reputation as strictly a playoff player and a poor regular season player. Because of his injuries he had slowed down considerably and didn't play full out every game. Instead saving himself for only the big games. Tik had basically become a part time player who had a knack of turning it up come playoff time. More often than not his goals came at crucial times or in crucial games. Eleven of his 72 career playoff goals were game winners.

In 1993, Tik was traded (for Doug Weight) to the New York Rangers, and, with a host of former Oilers like Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson, Jeff Beukeboom and Craig MacTavish, helped the city of Manhattan to celebrate their first Cup in over 50 years in 1994.

Tik bounced around the league wildly after the 1994 Cup, playing for 5 teams in 3 years. Tik went to St. Louis as compensation for the Blues signing of Mike Keenan, and then was traded to New Jersey. The Devils kept him for nine games before shipping him to Vancouver. Tik stayed there until last season, when the Rangers once again grabbed him for the playoff run. After the season, he signed on with Florida. Tik was shipped to Washington towards the end of the season where his veteran leadership helped take the Capitals to their first ever Conference Championship and Stanley Cup appearance. Unfortunately, the Caps lost and Tik was denied a sixth Cup.

Tik returned to the Big Apple in 1998-99, signing a one year contract with the Rangers. However by mid-season he was placed on waivers. There was a clause in his contract that would have paid Tikkanan a large amount of money had he remained on an NHL roster past the half way point of the season. Tik had only 3 assists in 32 games and was basically a mere shadow of his old self. The Rangers didn't want to pay the big bucks for the washed up player and no one else did either as Tik went through the waiver wire untouched.

Tikkanen finished his career in his native Finland with Jokerit and the with the bronze medal Finnish national team for the 2000 World Championships. The proud Finn was no stranger to international play as he represented his country on numerous occasions. He played for Finland in three World Junior Championships (1983, '84, '85) and five World Championships ('85, '89, '93, '96 and 2000). He also participated in two Canada Cups ('87 and '91). He helped Team Finland knock off Canada for the bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Tikkanen tried to make a comeback with the Oilers in 2001 on a try-out contract. While Tik's knee wouldn't let him play anymore, it is somehow fitting that he was able to end his career in an Edmonton Oilers uniform.

1 comments:

Papa Grande 7:15 AM  

Nice story, 16yrs old young boy from small country Finland, came to Canada/USA and got all together 5 Cups in NHL, during his career.
Only Jari Kurri #17, from Finland as well, can do it better.

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