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The Grate One
Austin Murphy
December 23, 1991
Oiler Esa Tikkanen may be the NHL's most annoying player both verbally and physically, but he's one of its best
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December 23, 1991

The Grate One

Oiler Esa Tikkanen may be the NHL's most annoying player both verbally and physically, but he's one of its best

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Tikkanen: "Yes."

Sather: "You want to skate with Gretzky and Kurri in the warmup?"

That night he played on a line with Gretzky and Kurri. Tikkanen had no points. His major contribution was to run Philadelphia's goaltender, the late Pelle Lindbergh, which moved him to the top of the Flyers' most-wanted list. "We needed somebody to distract those guys from Wayne, and that's exactly what happened," recalls Sather. The Oilers won that game and the following three to take the Cup. Gretzky and Kurri had eight goals and eight assists between them in the last three games of the series.

Outgoing fellow that he is, Tikkanen struck up a conversation with an attractive blonde on the charter flight back to Edmonton after Game 2. She turned out to be Pocklington's 18-year-old daughter, Jill. Shaving the heads of rookies is an NHL tradition, and Tikkanen—Pocklington surely approved—had his turn the next day at practice. Normally, rookies are shaved in training camp, but as one Oiler official says, "They were afraid they'd never see this——again."

They would. Sather liked Tikkanen's skills and loved the Finn's stubborn temperament, "his willingness to do what he had to do to win." When Tikkanen made mistakes, he made them aggressively. The fact that he was new to the NHL and spoke less than perfect English seldom prevented him from expressing strong opinions about how things should be done. Lugging the puck up the ice, he would take one hand off his stick in order to direct traffic with the other. He gave goalies helpful hints on how to cut the ice in their creases. His teammates found Tikkanen's wide-eyed zeal for the game endearing—up to a point.

"He was always going 6,000 rpms," says La Forge. "With Tik, it wasn't, Well, we got a game today, it was, Yahoo! Hockey game! For Tik, there were no unimportant games."

Once a year during a road trip to Los Angeles, Pocklington treats the team to a couple of days of golf in Palm Springs. Several years ago, at an informal ceremony there, the players were introduced one at a time to former President Gerald Ford, a friend of Pocklington's. Tikkanen, who thought he was being introduced to the top-ranked official of an auto company—"the president of General Ford"—sought to engage the former Chief Executive in a conversation about cars. "Bringing out the nice cars next year? Any should I buy?"

Ford looked at Tikkanen as if he had just stepped off a shuttle from Uranus. "Tikkanen," said Pocklington through clenched teeth, "go play golf."

Most NHL opponents did not shadow Gretzky during his tenure in Edmonton, which, at the time, pleased and gratified Sather. The Oilers would not be so obliging. In 1988, several days before Gretzky played in Northlands Coliseum for the first time as a King, John Muckler, who had succeeded Sather as Edmonton's coach, informed Tikkanen that he would be shadowing No. 99. "Think you can do it?" Muckler asked.

Now the entire NHL knows the answer, since shutting down superstars has become a cottage industry for Tikkanen. After the Oilers swept Los Angeles—and Tikkanen drove Gretzky to his memorable televised tantrum—in the second round of the 1990 playoffs, Edmonton faced the Blackhawks. Behind the dazzling play of Denis Savard, Chicago took a 2-1 lead in games. "He was flying," Tikkanen recalls, "so they put me on him. After while, he looking around all the time, maybe a little bit scared. Here is coming that crazy Finn!" The Oilers won the series in six games.

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