JOENSUU, Finland – In all honesty, it’s a bit of a mismatch. There’s Joensuu, a mid-sized Finnish university town, 400 kilometres north of Helsinki, so close to the Russian border that stores have started to add Russian signs to help the tourists. It’s a sports town for sure, and a hockey town absolutely.
Then there’s Esa Tikkanen, a brash Helsinki native, the son of an arena worker, and a five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers.
When Jokipojat, the Joensuu team playing in Mestis, the division just below SM-liiga, found themselves in a losing streak, and chasing a playoffs spot from afar, the club fired their coach during the November international break, had the assistant coach take over for a while, and after two weeks of different rumours and speculations, named Tikkanen the head coach in December, two days after Christmas.
Tikkanen’s coaching career consists of stints in South Korea – where he was a playing coach – and Norway, and being an advisor to Finland’s junior national teams. But Tikkanen wouldn’t be Tikkanen if he didn’t think he has what it takes to coach in the big leagues in Finland – and even bigger leagues in North America.
“Now we’ll see if I know my hockey or not. I believe in myself, and I’m positive that Jokipojat will be pleased with me after the season,” he said when he was appointed.
The Joensuu dialect is slow, and one that’s twists words almost beyond recognition to any non-Finn, and even some Finns. Tikkanen, on the other hand, is famous for his Tik Talk, a combination of uninterrupted chain of words and mixed metaphors and languages that he uses in a freewheeling style. And it’s fast.
Sometimes too fast. Like when he explained to a reporter about the time difference between Vaasa and Joensuu, before correcting himself, saying that he meant the time it took to ride the 500 kilometres from the west coast to the eastern border of Finland on a bus.
Whatever he said to the team, and however he said it, it seemed to work at first as his team went on a three-game winning streak, and grabbed the last playoff spot. After ten games, Tikkanen’s win-loss record is 5-5, with one OT win.
Jokipojat is currently four points out of the playoffs, with a game in hand. With eight games remaining in the regular season, Tikkanen is optimistic about his team’s chances.
“If we win ten of the remaining games, we can still make the top four, and people will be ready to put my statue on the main square,” he said in the local paper’s interview when there were 13 games remaining in the regular season.
Tikkanen is not a big believer in rigid systems in hockey. His hockey philosophy is similar to his talk, which was similar to the way he played the game. He preaches unpredictable, fast-paced, relentless, and intense hockey.
“These days, there are 20 players trying to follow the coach’s instructions, whether it’s called 1-2-2, or a trap, who knows what, with five guys standing together in a fog. Now, once again, hockey in the NHL has become more straightforward, and you have to try to get around at the boards, because the players in the middle are so big, and can easily stop you there, creating a chance to the other end,” he said.
“You can’t score from the corners. If you spend a minute cycling the puck and the crowd cheers, is that great hockey? No, we’ll go to the net and shoot a lot,” he added.
Tikkanen is old school. He may not be the classic student of the game, but it’s simply because he hasn’t had the time to study. He’s been too busy to live hockey, first truly dominating the Finnish junior leagues, then playing in the Canadian junior league, making an SM-liiga debut in the final series as an 18-year-old, and joining the Edmonton Oilers for their playoff run in 1985, after the SM-liiga playoffs were over for him.
“I watched hockey already in the ‘60s, when it was dump and chase,” said Tikkanen, and it sounds a little bit of a joke. After all, he was born in 1965. Then again, he was the mascot for the Jokerit Helsinki team as a 4-year-old, and spent a lot of time at Dad’s work.
“Players play, and the coaches bring the attitude, the spirit to the bench. If you start to guide the players too much, they start to think whether they did the right thing or not on the ice,” he explained.
For Jokipojat, the Tikkanen experiment has probably already been worthwhile. The club had its best attendance figure of the season (3,011) in his first home game behind the bench, and that got beat in Tikkanen’s third home game. A playoff spot would make the season a success, even if it may not be enough to get that statue raised.
Turning the Joensuu team’s season around might also make people think of Tikkanen as a coach.
“It would be nice to coach in the SM-liiga or the NHL. I can’t leave the game, I’ve played it for so long,” Tikkanen said.