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Original Issue

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

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.

What makes a good shadow?

•Resilience, says Marty McSorley, a former Oiler roommate of Tikkanen's who is now employed as one of Gretzky's bodyguards: "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 Kings coach Tom Webster has likened to "a bowling ball with ears."

•Chatter, suggests Oiler forward Craig MacTavish. Tikkanen subjects his victims to a relentless stream of polyglot nonsense. "We call it Tikspeak," says MacTavish. "Since he makes no sense, there's no possible response. That bugs guys." Indeed, despite his ample English vocabulary, Tikkanen's knowledge of verb tenses and syntax remains sketchy. Thus the second halves of his spoken sentences become a kind of lost-and-found for loose articles and free-floating pronouns, as in: "Shadowing these guys doing my part job win Stanley Cup was best for team, and I do to try exactly my thing."

•The Jerk Factor, offers Kings forward Tony Granato: "He's excellent at getting under guys' skins. 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."

•Talent, says 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."

Tikkanen's offensive skills have come into the spotlight since Gretzky was traded in 1988. With Mark Messier missing 27 games as a result of various injuries last season, Tikkanen led the Oilers in scoring, with 27 goals and 42 assists. During the off-season, team owner Peter Pocklington and general manager Glen Sather busied themselves auctioning off most of the usable parts remaining from Edmonton's dynasty teams: Messier was dealt to the New York Rangers; Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson were traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs; Steve Smith was sent to the Chicago Blackhawks. Tikkanen, however, signed a six-year deal with the Oilers for a million per. He has become the cornerstone of the Oilers.

Tikkanen's journey from curiosity to cornerstone has been a long, strange trip marked by inadvertent hilarity. From the earliest hours of his Oiler career, the self-styled "crazy Finn" has drawn attention to himself. During the 1985 Campbell Conference finals against Chicago, Tikkanen was contacted in Helsinki by Oiler chief scout Barry Fraser, on whose recommendation Edmonton had selected Tikkanen in the fourth round of the '83 entry draft. Be on a plane to the U.S. the following morning, Tikkanen was told.

Tikkanen's flight connected through Zurich. When he got to Zurich, however, "bad thing happening to me." Swiss customs agents wouldn't let Tikkanen board because he had no U.S. visa. The 20-year-old calmly checked into a five-star hotel in Zurich, ate a sumptuous room-service meal, picked up his visa the following morning at the American embassy, arrived in Chicago a day late and, with an apologetic grin, presented the Oilers with a $1,000 hotel bill.

The Oilers, who had beaten Chicago in the conference championship, lost the first game of the Stanley Cup finals to the Philadelphia Flyers. Tikkanen, who had yet to play in an NHL game, was approached by Sather at the morning skate before the second game. Their conversation, Tikkanen recalls, went like this:

Sather: "Are you ready to play?"

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.

Awaiting Edmonton in the Cup finals were the Boston Bruins, whose Janney-to-Cam Neely combination had done heavy damage in the playoffs. Muckler put Tikkanen on Janney, who after several games became known as Craig Who? In the five games it took the Oilers to win the Cup, Janney's totals were no goals, no assists, one free ride to the hospital. So dehydrated and exhausted had he become in trying to dislodge Tikkanen in Game 1—a 3-2 Oiler win in triple overtime—that Janney needed medical attention.

Besides transforming Janney into an erasure, Tikkanen popped three goals in the series. In the Smythe Division semifinals against the Calgary Flames last April, Tikkanen eclipsed Flame All-Star Theoren Fleury. Tikkanen scored seven goals, including a Game 7 hat trick, the third goal coming in overtime to end Calgary's season.

That result must have drawn a pained sigh from Gretzky. In the division finals, Gretzky had only five shots in the first four games and two puny even-strength assists for the entire series. The Great One's tormentor, meanwhile, complemented his own pestiferous defense with four goals, including another game-winner in overtime. "Tikky has now proven what we've known for a while," said Messier after the series. "He's the best two-way player in the league. It's not even close."

"One of these days," predicts Jim Matheson, who covers the Oilers for the Edmonton Journal, "Gretz is going to come downstairs for breakfast, and Tik's going to be sitting at his kitchen table, eating a bowl of Wayne's favorite cereal. Gretz will say, 'Tik, what are you doing here?' and Tik will say, 'You know, Wayne, I think I'd like to take a ride in your Rolls. Where are the keys?' "

"But before he takes a ride," says Gretzky, finishing Matheson's story, "he'll open the refrigerator and help himself to a Diet Coke."

Gretzky offered his prediction on a sunny Sunday morning last month. The night before, the Kings and the Oilers had skated to a 4-4 tie. Los Angeles had generated several fine chances in the final seconds, for naught. Then, as Edmonton mounted a rush in the other direction, Gretzky alertly put his arms around the Finn's waist. There they stood as the game ended, with Tikkanen wearing his trademark manic grin, Gretzky the lugubrious look of an unwilling dance partner.



As Gretzky knows, Tikkanen's maniacal grin is matched only by his Zorro-like use of the stick.





Tikkanen tutors neighborhood boys on hockey's finer points.



Vancouver's Ryan Walter fell for one of Tikkanen's masterly, though illegal, maneuvers.



For stars like Gretzky, the last tango with Tikkanen can't come too soon