When he was traded to the New York Rangers close to the 1993 NHL trade deadline, Esa Tikkanen ranked seventh all-time on the Edmonton Oilers with 178 career goals. In October 2003, Ryan Smyth scored his 179th goal as an Oiler, dropping Tikkanen down a spot, but for more than 17 years, the Finnish forward remained in eighth place.
On March 4, 2021, Tikkanen woke up in ninth. A few days later, he was down to 10th, and now he is out of the Top 10.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid all passed Tikkanen on the Oilers’ all-time goal-scoring list in 10 days; Nugent-Hopkins did so on March 3, Draisaitl was next on March 8, and McDavid delivered the final blow on March 12, in Edmonton’s 6-2 home win over the Ottawa Senators, scoring goal No. 179 to drop Tikkanen to 11th place.
It took nearly three decades and an uncanny alignment of today’s stars to end Tikkanen’s standing among the all-time greats; five of the seven players with more goals as an Oiler than Tikkanen are in the Hall of Fame (Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey).
It’s fitting that it took so long to get rid of Tikkanen. He was, after all, the ultimate pest. One of hockey’s top shutdown forwards, the left-winger shadowed the opposition’s big guns all over the ice, driving them up the wall like an incessant mosquito they kept swatting at and missing. A self-described “crazy Finn”, Tikkanen existed in another world, population him, where the inhabitant speaks “Tikkanese“.
But whether the conversation is in English, Finnish, or some unintelligible hybrid of the two, Tikkanen isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Edmonton’s elite scorers. Yet, he scored more game-winning goals as an Oiler than Coffey, more shorthanded goals than Anderson, more playoff overtime goals than Messier. Heck, he’s even got more Stanley Cup rings (five, including one with the Rangers) than Gretzky (four) and as many as his countryman, Kurri.
He’s not just underappreciated for his scoring ability, he’s underappreciated, period. So, as his name becomes a bit harder to find in the Oilers’ record book, it’s time to (re)introduce Oil Country to Esa Kalervo Tikkanen.
Coming to North America
The Oilers selected Tikkanen with the 80th pick in the 1983 NHL Draft. He spent two years with HIFK in Liiga, the top pro league in his home country, before signing with Edmonton in May 1985. He arrived from overseas in time for the Stanley Cup Final.
The Oilers’ newest import made his NHL debut in Game 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers and drew into head coach Glen Sather’s lineup again for Games 3 and 4 in Edmonton’s 4-1 series victory. The 20-year-old from Helsinki hadn’t even played a regular-season NHL game and was already a Stanley Cup champ.
After splitting the 1985-86 season with the Oilers and their American Hockey League affiliate in Halifax, N.S., Tikkanen became a full-time NHLer the following season. He slotted in on a line with Kurri at right-wing and Gretzky in the middle, creating the “Finnish Sandwich” that is still considered among the great forward lines in NHL history.
”I think Tikkanen has what it takes to be a tremendous hockey player. He can skate and shoot and he`s a tenacious son-of-a-gun.” `– Glen Sather (from “‘Super Finn’ May Join the Oilers’ Super Line”, Chicago Tribune, 05/23/85)
In 1986-87, Tikkanen had 34 goals, 44 assists, and 120 penalty minutes in 76 games during the regular season, and seven goals and nine points in the playoffs as the Oilers won their third Stanley Cup by beating the Flyers 4-3 in the final series.
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Tikkanen played all 80 games in the 1987-88 regular season, racking up 74 points (23 goals, 51 assists) and 153 penalty minutes. He played a huge role in Edmonton’s successful Stanley Cup defence, totalling 10 goals and 17 assists in 19 playoff games, including six goals and three assists in the Oilers’ sweep of the Boston Bruins in the final series.
It was Edmonton’s fourth Stanley Cup in five years, with a team of superstars still very much in their prime. At 23, “Tikk” was a three-time champ and playing alongside the best player on any planet. This was supposed to be a good time, for a long time, but then August 9, 1988, happened.
Gretzky’s Worst Nightmare
When he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, shaking the NHL from its foundation, Gretzky went from being a linemate to an inmate. As in, Tikkanen had him locked down. On Gretzky’s first trip back to Edmonton in the 1988-89 season, Oilers coach John Muckler asked Tikkanen to shadow Gretzky, and The Grate One was born.
Every time the Oilers and Kings met, there was Tikkanen, on Gretzky’s back, stick in his face, denying him the puck, chirping non-stop. In Tikkanese, of course.
“I just felt like telling him to shut up. I said, ‘Tikk, I never understood you when I was playing with you, and I don’t understand you now.”– Wayne Gretzky (from “Time for New King Fans to Brush Up on That Hockey Talk”, Los Angeles Times, 03/16/89)
In the 1989 Playoffs, Los Angeles rallied from a 3-1 to beat the Oilers in seven games in the Smythe Division Quarterfinal. It was the final time the Great One had the last laugh.
In the next three years, Edmonton knocked L.A. out of the postseason. In the 1990 Smythe Division Final, Gretzky was held to one point as the Oilers swept the Kings. Normally portrait of composure, Gretzky became so infuriated during the series that he leaned over the bench and shouted angrily at his former teammate.
The Oilers reached the Stanley Cup Final, where they defeated the Bruins 4-1 to capture their fifth championship and Tikkanen’s fourth. With 24 points and a plus/minus of plus-12, Tikkanen was outstanding in the 1990 Playoffs. He scored 13 times, ranked second in the league with nine even-strength goals, and had at least one goal in six consecutive games.
As Edmonton’s top scoring threats left town – beginning with Coffey, then Gretzky, followed by Kurri and eventually Messier and Anderson – Tikkanen’s offensive contributions became more critical to the team’s success.
The six-foot-one forward hit the 30-goal mark again in 1988-89 and 1989-90. He had eight short-handed goals in 1988-89 (tied for 10th in NHL history for a single season) and set a league record with two shorties 12 seconds apart against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 12, 1988. In 1990-91, Tikkanen became the first player in franchise history not named Gretzky, Messier, or Kurri to lead the team in points, notching 27 goals and 42 assists.
And like perennials, he rose to the occasion each spring without fail.
If there’s one Tikkanen performance most remembered, it’s Game 7 of the 1991 Smythe Division Semi-final against the hated Calgary Flames in the hostile Saddledome. Edmonton had gassed a 3-1 series lead (blowing a chance to close out the series at home in Game 6, which ended with Theo Fleury scoring in OT then sliding across the Northlands’ ice to the eternal contempt of Oilers fans).
In the deciding game, Edmonton fell behind 3-0 16 minutes into the first period and appeared to be done for. Then Tikkanen took over.
He scored before the first intermission to pick his team up off the canvas. Early in the second, he fired a blast on the power play that Anderson redirected past Flames goalie Mike Vernon to cut Calgary’s lead to one. A few minutes later, Tikkanen scored again to tie the game 3-3. The teams traded goals in the third period to set up do-or-die overtime.
More than six minutes into the extra period, Tikkanen circled back with the puck at centre ice, then accelerated, leaving future Hall-of-Famer Doug Gilmour in his dust. He hit the Flames’ blue line, darted left to avoid another future HOFer, Al MacInnis, then beat would-be HOFer Vernon for his hat-trick goal and the series winner.
Tikkanen had an incredible seven goals (two game-winners) and three assists in the series, which, 30 years later, remains the most recent playoff edition of the Battle of Alberta.
Less than a week later, Tikkanen scored in OT again, in Game 3 against the Kings, to give Edmonton a 2-1 lead en route to winning the Smythe Division Final 4-2. The Oilers were eventually eliminated in the Campbell Conference Final by the Minnesota North Stars. Tikkanen led his team with 12 goals and 20 points in 18 playoff games.
After the Oilers
Within a couple of years, Edmonton was in a rebuild. On March 17, 1993, before the Oilers played the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, Tikkanen was traded across the hall for Doug Weight. The two switched dressing rooms and suited up for their new teams that night, a 4-3 overtime win for Edmonton.
“It’s hard. I have lots of good friends there. I see Wayne Gretzky go — they said they’ll never trade Wayne Gretzky, and now he is in L.A., Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr … they were great teams there. Now I’m gone, too.”– Esa Tikkanen (from “Oilers trade Tikk to gain some Weight,” The Edmonton Journal, 03/18/93)
The next season, 1993-94, Tikkanen won his fifth Stanley Cup as part of a Rangers team that featured seven former Oilers, including Anderson and Messier.
Tikkanen bounced around the league in his final few seasons, playing with the St. Louis Blues, New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers, and Washington Capitals, with whom he reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. He made a brief return to the Rangers in 1998-99, before finishing his NHL career with 244 goals, 386 assists and 630 points in 877 regular-season games.
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Tikkanen was back in Edmonton to take part in the alumni game during the inaugural Heritage Classic in 2003. He also suited up for the Oilers’ old-timers at the 2016 Heritage Classic in Winnipeg. He still ranks fifth all-time in franchise history with 21 shorthanded goals, and seventh in game-winners with 30; although he’s already been passed by McDavid (37) and is about to be overtaken by Draisaitl (29) in game-winning goals.
His position among Edmonton’s all-time playoff leaders (fifth in goals, seventh in assists, sixth in points) is far more secure; today’s Oilers haven’t seen enough postseason action to get close. But, overall, Tikkanen’s place in Oilers history transcends numbers. It transcends words, too (in English anyway, maybe it can be explained in Tikkanese). So, let’s just call him the GOAT: Gratest of All Time.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.