Esa Tikkanen, Indecipherable on Ice
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page D1
DETROIT, June 8 If there were a way to write a line of Tikkanese, that exotic stew of a language spoken by only one man on this planet Washington Capitals left wing Esa Tikkanen we'd do it right here. We'd do it as a reader service. We'd do it as an etymological exercise. But we can't. Sorry. How do you write an Etta James scat? How do you transcribe a Pentecostalist speaking in tongues? Like Tikkanese, they are of-the-moment, highly emotional words of art, unique and inimitable.
Tuesday night the Capitals face the Detroit Red Wings in the first game of a best-of-seven series for the National Hockey League's championship trophy the Stanley Cup. It's the first time the Capitals have played for the title in their 24-year-history. Halfway through this season, the team acquired Tikkanen for one reason: He's been on five Stanley Cup-winning teams. In his 14 years in the league, he's played for seven teams. And he's left a trail of shaking heads behind him, thanks to his multilingual motormouth.
The NHL is full of foreign hockey players; many with limited English skills say little. Not Tikkanen, 33, who was born in Finland, married a Swede and has played in Canada and the United States. In the middle of a hotly contested game, Tik, as he's known (it's pronounced "Tick"), will unleash a stream of words, sounds, barks and grunts that would confound a linguist, much less his teammates. Even his fellow Finns are of no help in translation.
When he played with the Edmonton Oilers, one of his teammates was Jari Kurri, Finland's greatest hockey player. On the bench, Tikkanen once let loose a particularly vivid outburst. One of the Oilers turned to Kurri and asked, "What did he say?"
Kurri shook his head. "I have no idea."
Tikkanen, whose father managed an ice rink in Helsinki, was a rink rat from age of 4. Ultimately known for his physical style of play, Tikkanen learned figure skating as a youth a sport anathema to hockey stalwarts but only to improve his technique. (Both of his daughters are figure skaters.)
On the ice, Tikkanen is usually assigned the other team's best player and trails him the entire game, trying to deny him the puck. His assignment against the Red Wings will probably be either Sergei Fedorov or Steve Yzerman, both of whom Tikkanen knows. And what will his strategy be?
Tikkanen grins that bad-boy grin of his, which crinkles the scars under his left eyebrow and on the bridge of his nose. His blue eyes flash. He's the perpetual junior high instigator whose smile usually gets him off the hook.
"I get in his ear. I ask him how his mom's doing," he says with a thick Finnish accent. Which sounds a little like a Swedish accent, only less lilting. "Or I ask if he has any sisters. I try to keep them off the hockey." Tikkanese tactics prove effective even if it's not clear the opponents understand the taunts. The first time Tikkanen shadowed Wayne Gretzky, the Great One dubbed the hectoring "Tikkanese."
But Esa, can't you, you know, speak Tikkanese a little? Just a little bit, please?
He grins again. He knows what the reporter wants. Heck, is begging for. And he'd probably help, if he could. The truth is, there's only one way to capture Tikkanese in its natural environment. You'd have to put a microphone on him during a hockey game and provide subtitles.
So you ask around. Capitals Phil Housley and Mark Tinordi were hanging out at the team press conference today. Guys: What's Tikkanese sound like?
"I'm outta here," Tinordi says, laughing and leaving.
Stranded, Housley says: "I can't remember all the things he says. No one can. And I wouldn't do it with a camera on me. You'd have to put your own 'bleeps' in there."
Pentti Lindegren is the host of a hockey show on MTV3 in Finland and has known Tikkanen all his life. Tikkanen has done commentary on his show and, uncharacteristically for guest athletes, he tells the truth. Lindegren claims to understand Tikkanese but cannot duplicate it.
"It's hard because it's up to him," Lindegren says. "It just comes out. It's words and words."
Finally, you try Capital Joe Reekie, known as a decent mime. Tikkanese is over his head.
"He's been over in North America for so long," Reekie says, laughing, "you'd think he'd know English a little better."
Tikkanen's yammering, though, is just an extension of his energy, which seems limitless. Which is what makes him distracting to opponents. Which is what makes him a great defender.
"He's somewhat like a little junkyard dog," Reekie says. "He just keeps scrapping. Once you get inside someone's head, you've won the battle."
And what's inside Tikkanen's head?
After the press conference, the Capitals hit the ice at the Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit, site of Tuesday night's game, for a practice session. Tikkanen opens with something that sounds like an Apache war cry. A coach leads stretching exercises and Tikkanen mocks his instructions in a high voice using words of no known language. Tikkanen knocks the stick out of Reekie's hand when he isn't looking, then laughs. He tries to flip a puck over the Plexiglas at a couple of reporters in the stands. He is, well, puckish.
Then he yells something at his teammates, who are skating in tight, elegant arcs, passing the puck from one stick to the next as though the black disk were guided by invisible force lines. Phonically rendered, Tikkanen's encouragement, or perhaps it is a scold, sounds like this:
"Hey, atta dinnin stick a who!"
It is unintelligible, but two teammates standing nearby nod in agreement.
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