Former Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers forward Esa Tikkanen never had any trouble motivating himself during an NHL career that spanned almost two decades. Now that he’s pushing 40, the Helsinki native has found a whole new reason to come to the rink.
Tikkanen is a player-coach with South Korean team Anyang Halla Winia in the brand new Asia League, and is hoping his experience in the Far East will someday lead to a coaching job in the NHL.
“I signed with this team for the opportunity to get some coaching experience,” Tikkanen said Saturday at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Arena. “I’d like to coach in the NHL someday and this seemed like a good place to get a start.”
In the NHL, Tikkanen had a reputation as a pesky agitator who could goad his opponents into taking bad penalties. In his new role as playing coach, the five-time Stanley Cup winner spends more time yapping at his teammates than at the opposition.
In Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Japanese team Oji, Tikkanen assisted on Halla’s first goal with a pinpoint pass to teammate Marco Poulson, but spent much of his time on the ice directing his teammates.
Whether the South Korean players can understand his infamous “Tikkanese” is anyone’s guess but the message seems to be getting through.
The eight-team Asia League is made up of clubs from Russia, Japan, South Korea and China. While Russia and Japan have the strongest teams, Halla is fifth overall with a respectable 16-13 record.
“The skill level here is pretty good,” said Tikkanen, who is on a one-year contract. “The players are fast and technically sound, but they don’t play enough games and that’s something that I think is holding them back a bit.”
Each team plays 42 regular season games.
Tikkanen said he also likes doing his part to help the game grow internationally.
“I also get motivated by doing what I can to help in the development of South Korean hockey,” added Tikkanen. “I’ve seen improvement in the team since the start of the season and the players are now benefiting from playing against stronger teams in Japan and Russia.”
There is already one South Korean player in the NHL (Richard Park of the Minnesota Wild) and Tikkanen thinks more will follow.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Tikkanen. “There are some very good players here and this league will help to create more good players.”
Aside from the occasional cross-check, Tikkanen said not being able to speak the language is one of the biggest drawbacks.
“Obviously the biggest obstacle is communication,” said Tikkanen. “But we have a good translator and I think the message is starting to get through to the players.”
Tikkanen last played in the NHL for the Rangers during the 1998-99 season. After a couple of seasons in Europe, he signed with Halla.
As for the current NHL lockout that is threatening to wipe out an entire hockey season, Tikkanen thinks the owners share most of the blame.
“Sure the players make too much money but it’s the owners who pay those salaries,” said Tikkanen. “Nobody forced them to pay that much and it will be terrible for the game of hockey if the entire season is lost.”
As he plays in the hockey outpost, Tikkanen says he often thinks about his glory years with the Oilers and tries to stay in touch with his former teammates as much as possible.
“I still talk to Wayne (Gretzky),” Tikkanen said. “And it was great to see guys like Kevin (Lowe) and Jari (Kurri) at the Heritage game in Edmonton.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.