He played for the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers, and the Washington Capitals in the National Hockey League and won the Stanley Cup five times in his career, including in 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990 with the Oilers, and 1994 with the Rangers.
Esa Tikkanen began his career in hockey as a little boy by being a mascot for Jokerit, a team based in Helsinki, Finland, and playing for the Jokerit junior team. After spending a year in Canada in 1981–82 with the Regina Blues of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, Tikkanen returned to Finland and signed with HJK and after a set of impressive performances signed a contract with Finland's leading team, HIFK. Tikkanen was drafted in the fourth round (80th overall) by the Oilers in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. In 1984–85, he played 36 games for HIFK in the Finnish SM-liiga before joining the Oilers for their 1985 playoff run. He played briefly in the American Hockey League for the Oilers' affiliate the Nova Scotia Oilers in 1985–86, before joining the team full-time.
In his early twenties Tikkanen began his pro career in big leagues while additionally working as a coach in South Korea. Tikkanen made his NHL debut with the Edmonton Oilers during the second game of the 1985 Stanley Cup playoffs. By playing one game in the finals that year, he was eligible to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup even before playing his first regular-season game in the NHL. He soon became an important part of the Oilers, playing on the team's first line with Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. Kurri and Gretzky's roles were to score goals; Tikkanen was the line's defensive player. Oilers coach and general manager Glen Sather once suggested that Tikkanen should be awarded the Frank J. Selke trophy (the award for the best defensive forward in the NHL). He was a finalist several times in his career, but never won the award. Tikkanen excelled at distracting and confusing opponents with his Tiki-Talk. Between 1986 and 1990, Tikkanen scored 30 or more goals three times and was on three more Cup champions. In 1991, he led the Edmonton Oilers in points in the regular season with 69 points.
In March 1993, Tikkanen was traded to the New York Rangers for Doug Weight, and he was part of that team's 1994 Stanley Cup victory, scoring 22 goals and 54 points in 83 regular-season games. In July 1994, Tikkanen was traded with Doug Lidster to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Petr Nedvěd.
The start of the NHL's 1994-95 season was delayed by a lockout, during which Tikkanen returned to Finland to play for HIFK Helsinki. After the lockout Tikkanen, played with the Blues during the shortened 1995 season, and appeared in 11 games in 1995-96 before a trade sent him to the New Jersey Devils. Three weeks later he was again dealt, this time to the Vancouver Canucks.
The 1996–97 season saw him involved in yet another midseason trade, back to the Rangers, in March. Although he contributed only one goal in 14 regular-season games with New York, he came alive in the playoffs, scoring 9 times in 15 games. Of the Rangers, only Gretzky, with 10, outscored Tikkanen. The Rangers eliminated the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals.
The 32-year-old Tikkanen became a free agent in the summer of 1997, and he signed with the Panthers, but this would also prove to be a short stay. By March 1998 he had appeared in only 28 games, and Florida traded him to the Washington Capitals for Dwayne Hay. He appeared in all 21 of Washington's playoff games, as the Capitals went to the Stanley Cup finals, where they were swept in four straight games by the Detroit Red Wings. Tikkanen is remembered for missing a wide-open shot on goal that would have iced Game 2, which has been described as a turning point of the Series. This was to be Tikkanen's last full season in the NHL. After becoming a free agent prior to the 1998–99 season, he signed for a third stint with the Rangers. However, he would only play in 32 games before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Before the start of the 1999–2000 season, Tikkanen attended the Edmonton Oilers' training camp and was offered a role of playing coach in the minors. Tikkanen declined the offer and returned to Finland, where he played a full season with Helsinki's second team, Jokerit. In 877 NHL games, he had scored 244 goals and 386 assists for 630 points, while racking up 1,077 minutes in penalties. In 186 Stanley Cup playoff games, he scored 72 goals and 60 assists for 132 points, with 275 penalty minutes.
In 1999–2000, Tikkanen played a season with Helsinki-based team Jokerit, a rival team of HIFK, with whom Tikkanen had played earlier in his career. Jokerit finished in second place in the SM-Liiga. In 2000–01, Tikkanen moved to Germany, where he played what was to be his last season in a recognized professional league for Moskitos Essen of the DEL. He retired in 2001.
During the 2004–05 season, Tikkanen resurfaced again, this time as a player-coach for the Anyang Halla, a South Korean team in the Asia League Ice Hockey. Though he predicted that he and his two linemates would finish 1-2-3 in scoring, he finished tied for fourth on his team, with 8 goals and 17 assists for 25 points in 30 games. He was 29th in the league in assists, and didn't crack the top 30 in goals or points. He did, however, lead Halla in penalty minutes with 58 (tied for 28th in the league). Halla finished fifth in the league and did not make the playoffs.
After one season in Korea, Tikkanen became the coach for Frisk Tigers of the Norwegian GET-ligaen. Tikkanen was head coach only for the 2005–06 season.
On 27 December 2010 Jokipojat from Joensuu, Finland, announced that Tikkanen will be the head coach of the team for the rest of the 2010-2011 season. Jokipojat plays in Mestis, which is the second-highest league in Finland.
Esa Tikkanen played 81 games for Finnish National team.
Tikkanen participated in two Canada Cups, 5 World Championship tournaments and the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Tikkanen won the Stanley Cup four times as a member of the Oilers and once more as a member of the Rangers. His various acquisitions were by teams craving him for his playoff experience and success: in 877 regular season games he scored 244 goals, but in 186 playoff games he scored 72 goals which puts him 14th all time in NHL playoff scoring, and 38th all time in play-offs points with 132points. "Tik" was known for his ability to score clutch goals, but also for his general style of play—chippy and aggressive. He was nicknamed "The Grate One" (a pun on teammate Gretzky's moniker "The Great One") for his ability to irritate opposing players, often just by talking to them in his Finnish-English "Tikkanese" or "Tiki-Talk." His regular-season totals were 244 goals, 386 assists, and 1077 penalty minutes. In the playoffs, he added 72 goals, 60 assists, and 275 penalty minutes. Tikkanen also led the Edmonton Oilers with 69 points in the 1990-91 regular season. Tikkanen holds the NHL record for scoring two shorthanded goals in the shortest time (10 seconds apart). With 436 points and 178 goals as a member of Edmonton Oilers, he is rank 10th in points and 8th in goals in Edmonton Oilers all-time scoring leader. He's also 6th in Edmonton all-time scoring leader in team play-offs with 97 points, and 5th in goals with 51. He is also tied 20th all-time regular season short-handed goals leader with 29. He is also tied 4th all-time in play-offs overtime goals leader with 4 goals.
In the book 100 Ranger Greats (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) by Russ Cohen, John Halligan, and Adam Raider, the authors ranked Tikkanen No. 85 on the all-time list of New York Rangers.
His #5 jersey has been retired by Jokerit.
Tikkanen is famous for his Finnish-English, sometimes referred to as "Tikkanese" or "Tiki-Talk." Even members of his team often did not understand what he was saying. Wayne Gretzky once commented, "He brings something special. I don't know what it is, but if you ask him, you couldn't understand his answer." Former Edmonton Oiler coach and teammate Craig MacTavish said, "Esa talks twice as much as anybody else. That's because you can understand just half what he says."
Even fellow Finn Jari Kurri was not immune from the confusing language. During their tenure with the Oilers, Tikkanen let go with a particularly colorful pronouncement, after which another player turned to Kurri and asked, "What did he just say?" Kurri simply shook his head; "I have no idea."
Esa Tikkanen has been married twice. His first wife was Swedish Ann Charlotte (Lotta) Kraft and they have two daughters, Sabrina and Stephanie. Tikkanens separated after 17 years of marriage in 2000. Tikkanen got engaged to Finnish top model Marita Hakala in 2001. In 2004, Esa Tikkanen got married to Tua Backman. They have two sons and a daughter that were born in 2009. The couple divorced in 2014.1984–85 – NHL – Stanley Cup (Edmonton)
1986–87 – NHL – Stanley Cup (Edmonton)
1987–88 – NHL – Stanley Cup (Edmonton)
1989–90 – NHL – Stanley Cup (Edmonton)
1993–94 – NHL – Stanley Cup (New York Rangers)
Matti Keinonen trophy for best plus/minus in the SM-liiga – 1985
Tikkanen's number was controversially retired by Jokerit after the end of his career. The controversy stems from the fact that despite Tikkanen's extensive background in Jokerit juniors he only ever spent one season, his last in Finland, playing for Jokerit in the SM-liiga in comparison with four seasons at Jokeri's local rivals HIFK. The number retired was 5, although Tikkanen used number 10 during the most of his NHL career.
Tikkanen finished as runner-up for the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times.
The 1994 Breeders' Cup Turf was won by Tikkanen, a Thoroughbred racehorse named in Esa Tikkanen's honor by George W. Strawbridge, Jr., owner of Augustin Stable and an active director of the Buffalo Sabres NHL ice hockey club and a member of the team's executive committee for more than thirty years.  March 17, 1993 – Traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the New York Rangers in exchange for Doug Weight.
July 24, 1994 – Traded by the New York Rangers, along with Doug Lidster to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Petr Nedvěd.
November 1, 1995 – Traded by the St. Louis Blues to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for New Jersey's 1997 3rd round draft choice.
November 23, 1995 – Traded by the New Jersey Devils to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Vancouver's 1996 2nd round draft choice.
March 8, 1997 – Traded by the Vancouver Canucks, along with Russ Courtnall, to the New York Rangers in exchange for Sergei Nemchinov and Brian Noonan.
September 17, 1997 – Signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers.
March 9, 1998 – Traded by the Florida Panthers to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Dwayne Hay and future considerations.
October 9, 1998 – Signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers.