International Ice Hockey Federation

Korean Hockey Magic

Korean Hockey Magic

Legendary Tikkanen joins Anyang Halla in 2004

Published 04.02.2018 07:19 GMT+10 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Korean Hockey Magic
Esa Tikkanen (pictured during a legends’ game in 2007), who won five Stanley Cups and an Olympic bronze medal with Finland, came out of retirement to join Anyang Halla. Photo: Mika Kylmaniemi / HHOF-IIHF Images
This Finn was as famous for his mouth and his antics as he was for playing on Wayne Gretzky’s line. Who would have guessed Esa Tikkanen would end up in Korea?

Leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, we’re looking back at some of the biggest developments in this sport in an ongoing series called “Korean Hockey Magic.”

In 2004/05, Tikkanen’s decision to suit up with Anyang Halla, Korea’s top pro team, came as a shock. The 1998 Olympic bronze medallist, who played 877 NHL games en route to five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers, had retired in 2001 after recording 29 points in 46 games with the DEL’s Moskitos Essen. Nonetheless, the 39-year-old Tikkanen wasn’t the first hockey star to migrate to Asian pro hockey after his prime NHL and IIHF days were over.

To cite just a few pre-Tikkanen examples, Olympic gold medallists Vladimir Shadrin and Yuri Lyapkin, who represented the Soviet Union against Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, both joined Japan’s Oji Eagles starting in 1979/80. Garry Monahan, the Montreal Canadiens’ first overall draft pick in the 1963 NHL Amateur Draft and a veteran of 748 NHL games with five clubs, also signed with the Seibu Bears Tokyo that season.

However, in Korea, there has never been a bigger ex-NHLer than the ever-colourful Tikkanen. (With due respect to Steve McKenna, who played two seasons in Korea from 2006 to 2008.)

Since the left wing’s scoring and physical fitness waned in the mid-to-late 1990s, not everyone remembers that this product of Helsinki clubs Jokerit and HIFK was the perfect foil to Gretzky and Jari Kurri when the Oilers captured the 1988 Stanley Cup, scoring 10 goals and 27 assists in that run. He was equally valuable when Edmonton won its lone post-Gretzky Cup in 1990 (13-11-24), and fans of both the Oilers and Calgary Flames will never forget his first-round Game Seven overtime winner on Mike Vernon, as Edmonton marched on to the semi-finals.

Tikkanen’s baffling “Tikkanese” babble was so annoying to opponents that Gretzky, after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, even wrote in his 1990 autobiography about how he’d like to score his final NHL goal: “Preferably, the puck would go in the goal after it bounces off Esa Tikkanen’s rear end, but I’m not particular.” It seems humorously appropriate, therefore, that there was some confusion about the terms of Tikkanen’s Anyang Halla contract.

He originally thought he was only hired to coach, but the deal stipulated he’d also play for the club, located in a city of 600,000 people just south of Seoul. Whoops! Doing double duty, Tikkanen notched a respectable 25 points in 30 Asia League games – and topped Anyang Halla with 58 penalty minutes. That was no surprise for a guy who tried to kiss both Dale Hunter and Keith Jones to irritate them during a 1994 Rangers playoff series against the Washington Capitals.

In a 2005 Associated Press interview, Tikkanen said he hoped this gig would be a stepping stone to an NHL coaching job and added: “The skill level here is pretty good. 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.”

Did Tikkanen’s presence kickstart the development of Korean hockey? That’s certainly up for debate. However, it’s undeniable that the very next season, Anyang Halla’s Dong Hwan Song became the first Korean-born player to lead the Asia League with 31 goals. In 2010, Anyang Halla was the first non-Japanese team to win the Asia League championship. And of course, the Korean national team is riding high in 2018 with both the PyeongChang Olympics and the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark on the menu.

You’d like to think Tikkanen – the fourth all-time leading scorer in World Junior history with a silver medal to his credit (1984) and a five-time World Championship participant with one bronze (2000) – had a little something to do with that improvement.

Put it this way: if Chinese hockey enjoys similar long-term growth after the brief stint of another legendary NHL agitator, Claude Lemieux, with the now-defunct China Sharks in 2008/09, the host nation will be very happy at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Previous stories from the series:

 

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