Why was Wayne Gretzky screaming? It was late in the fourth game of the 1990 Smythe Division finals between the Los Angeles Kings and the Edmonton Oilers, and the Great One was leaning out over the Kings bench, shouting angrily. Who had reduced Gretzky, one of the most dignified athletes in all of sport, to the level of a petulant sixth-grader?
Who else but the Grate One, as Esa Tikkanen is sometimes called. The Oilers were up three games to none, on their way to a sweep. Now, having spent the entire series playing hapless safari member to Tikkanen's boa constrictor, Gretzky was venting steam. "You can blame him?" asks Tikkanen, his eyes twinkling. The answer, as is clear to anyone who has watched Tikkanen work, is no.
Tikkanen was not always a jerk in the rink. The most annoying hockey player in the world was made, not born. He has not always been the master of the sudden elbow; of kicking the skates out from under opponents; of using his stick, when the referee's glance is elsewhere, as a blackjack.
When he was 16, Tikkanen traveled from his native Helsinki to Regina, Saskatchewan. There he became, by several years, the youngest member of the Regina Pat-Blues of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. While the distance between Regina and Helsinki is 4,309 miles, the difference in the styles of hockey played in those cities is even greater. Tikkanen's speed, soft hands and blistering shot were developed in Finland. His NHL survival skills were picked up during that memorable semester abroad.
Becoming a Pat-Blue was a career decision. Tikkanen had virtually grown up in the Helsinki Ice Hall, of which his father, Pertti, was a caretaker. As a three-year-old team mascot, Esa would don the sweater of the home-team Helsinki Jokers and entertain crowds of 9,000 with his skating and shooting skills. The recollection bends Tikkanen's wide face into a winning grin. "When whistle come, I go to sit on bench, watch game with the boys," he says in broken English. "Was great."
By the time he was 14, Tikkanen was a hockey prodigy better known, even, than a talented player who lived 10 minutes across town, Jari Kurri. Though Tikkanen wanted to play in the NHL, he and his father were both familiar with the cautionary tales of the many wonderfully skilled European players who had washed out in North America—players who had crossed the ocean unprepared for the 80-game seasons, for the nightly splatterings at the hands of xenophobic Canadians who resented their "taking jobs" from Canadian lads. Tikkanen decided he needed a crash course in NHL-style hockey.
And that is what awaited him in Regina. The coach of the Pat-Blues was Bill LaForge, the infamous Canadian mentor who had once eaten a lizard to win a bet. On the first day of practice, the 5'8", 150-pound Tikkanen fought Garth Butcher, now a member of the St. Louis Blues, then the second-toughest guy on the team. Later in practice Tikkanen picked a fight with Al Tuer, a 6'6", 190-pound galoot who would go on to lead the league in penalty minutes. Afterward, LaForge draped an arm around the bleeding, grinning adolescent Finn. "Son,"' he said, "I think you can play for my team."
At 5'8", however, Tikkanen wasn't about to spend the season taking fighting majors. "He needed an equalizer," recalls LaForge. Before long Tikkanen had become a master of using his stick for purposes other than propelling the puck. "He was like Zorro with that damn thing," says LaForge. "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."
The end result of that indoctrination in Saskatchewan is that Tikkanen is now the least European European in the NHL or, as teammate Kevin Lowe describes him, "a Finn from Flin Flon."
When he wasn't annoying opponents, Tikkanen was peppering LaForge with questions. "How me get better? How me make NHL?" Now, guys like Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Craig Janney and Denis Savard are asking another question: What Jo we have to do to get this yapping, snaggletoothed Scandinavian oddment out of our drawers? Tikkanen grew to be 6'1" and has evolved into the game's most effective "shadow"—200 pounds of Liquid Paper. Put him on the ice with the other team's superstar and watch that superstar disappear.