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Bug Off! Playoff series allow the NHL's pests to really get under the skin of the stars they shadow, and all four remaining teams have a notorious nuisance

June 01, 1998
June 01, 1998

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June 1, 1998

Catching Up With...

Bug Off! Playoff series allow the NHL's pests to really get under the skin of the stars they shadow, and all four remaining teams have a notorious nuisance

Esa Tkkanen waited until the moment every fiber of his being
told him Dominik Hasek had just poured the milk on his
cornflakes before he punched in the phone number.

This is an article from the June 1, 1998 issue

"Hello."

"Mr. Hasek? Mr. Dominik Hasek? Goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres?"

"Yes."

"My name is Esa Tikkanen, and I represent the Washington office
of Acme Telemarketing and.... "

Click.

Oooh boy, that was a good one, Tikkanen thought, admiring his
handiwork. He was off to a fine start. But he knew he couldn't
stop at Hasek's soggy cereal. After all, these are the playoffs.
Not only do you have to play in pain, but you also have to be a
pain. That morning he had left the toilet seat up and then
thrown all the newspapers for his paper route into the bushes.

Tikkanen took noisy slurps from his coffee, plotting his next
move. Let's see, he could drive to the mall, doing 40 in the
left lane with his right-turn blinker on. Accost strangers in
the food court with photos of his family vacation. Then duck
into the cineplex and talk through the movie, though it seemed a
pity to be indoors on such a nice day. Maybe he could squeegee
windshields at an intersection instead.

So many annoyances, so little time.

In the NHL lexicon Tikkanen and players like him are pests, a
sterile word that doesn't begin to convey what these players do
and how significant they are. A mosquito is a pest, but a
mosquito doesn't taunt you, surreptitiously jab a stick into
your ribs or reenact Mimi's death in La boheme every time you
swat back at him. These guys aren't pests as much as a hybrid of
some of the world's great irritants--secondhand smoke,
emergency-broadcast-system tests, James Cameron. They're
especially valuable in the postseason, when teams can face one
another almost every other night for two weeks and pests can
make life unremittingly miserable for the opposition's stars.

Each of this year's conference finalists has a pest of its own,
and each of these playoff pot-stirrers has his own style, a way
of doing You Got Me Under Your Skin as differently as Frank
Sinatra and Frankie Valli. There's the Washington Capitals'
Tikkanen, who, after winning five Stanley Cups as a member of
the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers, needs no
introduction, but his unique blend of syntax-stunted English and
Finnish, which linguists call Tikkanese, needs subtitles.
There's Matthew Barnaby of the Buffalo Sabres, who rants, dives
and preens; until he retired his silver false front teeth--with
the Sabres' logo engraved on one--after last season, he was as
close as the NHL comes to caricature. There's Martin Lapointe of
the Detroit Red Wings, who's strong and snide and sticks his
nose into everything. And there's bite-sized Bob Bassen of the
Dallas Stars, who leads with his face and repeats more than a 2
a.m. pepperoni-and-anchovy pizza.

"You need guys like these, especially in the playoffs,"
Washington coach Ron Wilson says. "If you're, say, [Ottawa
Senators star] Alexei Yashin and it's the regular season, you
only have to worry about Tik tonight because in two nights
you'll be seeing somebody different. In the playoffs you'll be
facing him every night, and he has the capability of getting to
you in the first game. That almost has the effect of cutting
your heart out early in a series."

In Game 2 of the Sabres' first-round series against the
Philadelphia Flyers, Barnaby and teammate Rob Ray caused $3,200
in damage to the visitors' locker room after being ejected for
verbally abusing the referee. During the rampage, Barnaby picked
up Ray's broken stick and smashed it to splinters. "What, it
wasn't broken enough for you?" Ray asked.

"I didn't want to ruin any of my own," Barnaby replied.

This showed a stunning level of forethought for the 25-year-old
Barnaby, who last summer said he would run Hasek, Buffalo's
star, in training camp because of what he perceived as Hasek's
role in former coach Ted Nolan's departure from the Sabres last
July. Barnaby, who led the NHL with 335 penalty minutes in
1995-96, seems to have been born without a pause button--his
thoughts hurtle straight from his brain to his tongue or his
hands. At the urging of Nolan's successor, Lindy Ruff, the
6-foot, 188-pound Barnaby is working on self-control and was
extraordinarily disciplined in Buffalo's 2-0 win in the opener
of the Eastern Conference finals in Washington last Saturday. He
got an assist and engaged in nothing more incendiary than a
little jawing with the Capitals' Chris Simon and Dale Hunter.
Barnaby was on his best behavior again in Game 2 on Monday and
scored an unassisted power-play goal with 56 seconds left to
force overtime. His shot was accidentally directed past
Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig by Tikkanen, but the Caps came
back to win 3-2 and even the series.

Barnaby doesn't have feet of clay, but he does have a mouth like
Andrew Dice Clay's. "I can't believe some of the things he says
out there," Sabres defenseman Mike Wilson says. "There's no line
he won't cross. Something about your wife, your girlfriend, it
doesn't matter."

"The one that amazed me last year was when he told [Philadelphia
defenseman] Paul Coffey that if he came over the red line in
warmups, he'd break his ankle," Ray says. "You wished he hadn't
gone that far, but he didn't care. He was looking to get into
Coffey's head."

The other place Barnaby often looks toward is the penalty box.
Even before the decision to enforce obstruction calls in the
second half of this season revived the art of diving, Barnaby
was an expert. In overtime of the fifth game against Philly in
Round 1, he turned a slight knock on the head from the stick of
his archenemy, Chris Gratton--whose skin Barnaby has gotten
under for years--into a near-mortal blow, drawing a penalty.
Miraculously he recovered in time to see Michal Grosek score the
series winner during the Sabres' ensuing power play. Before
joining the celebration, Barnaby turned to the crowd in
Philadelphia, jumped up and down, and gave a hearty
nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.

"He's a bit of a hot dog," Wilson says, "but he uses it to his
advantage. He's got something like a Dennis Rodman persona: the
teeth, showboating after goals, embellishing every hit he
receives. Maybe in the '70s and '80s you wouldn't play the game
his way, but today it works. I respect him."

Bassen never showboats. He's a black-with-no-sugar player, whose
approach is as old-fashioned as Barnaby's histrionics are
modern. When Bassen played for the St. Louis Blues, Brett Hull,
the Blues' star, called him Scar Tissue because of the roadways
under his eyes that meet at a junction on the bridge of his
nose. Sometimes he's referred to as the Eighth Sutter, a
member-in-spirit of the rugged hockey-playing clan. Like the
Sutters, Bassen steeled himself in battles against his siblings,
notably his sister Sandra, who was a year older. "He's
fearless," Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock says of the 33-year-old
Bassen, who is listed generously at 5'10" and 185 pounds. "You
never get an easy shift when he's on the ice. You're always
skating back to the bench saying, 'Damn, that was hard.'"

Bassen wouldn't phrase it quite that way. He's a Christian, and
not a born-again Christian, because religion stuck the first
time with the churchgoing son of Hank Bassen, a backup goalie in
the NHL from 1954-55 through 1967-68. Bob helps run Christian
hockey camps in the summer and organizes chapel services for
players during the season, although he also is well-versed in
hockey's black arts. Some years back Bassen's then team, the New
York Islanders, was scrambling to protect a lead late in the
game and had already used its timeout. Bassen created another
one by purposely dislodging a pane of plexiglass with a check,
giving Islanders defensive center Brent Sutter a breather.
"Bassen," says Dallas teammate Brian Skrudland, "is a kamikaze."

Lapointe didn't become an effective player until he converted
from a Juniors goal scorer to an NHL flea-in-the-ear, a
transformation that wasn't completed until last season, his
sixth in the league. "Once he stopped thinking of himself as he
used to be," Detroit associate coach Barry Smith says, "he began
to understand the positive role you can have by being disruptive."

While Barnaby disrupts with presence and Bassen with
persistence, the 5'11" Lapointe, who had a goal and an assist in
Detroit's 2-0 victory over the Stars in Game 1 of the conference
finals on Sunday, does it with strength. He has bulked up to 215
pounds and last season bench-pressed 200 pounds a team-record 37
times. "When he leans on you in practice, you come to a stop,"
Red Wings center Igor Larionov says. "Every time you break away,
you have to do it from a starting position. The first step from
a starting position is always hard. It makes you more tired."

Lapointe, 24, also uses his mouth to stop opponents. During this
postseason Lapointe says he skated by an opposing player--he
won't say whom--during warmups and asked, "How's Eddie?"

"Eddie who?" the player demanded.

"Eddie Hospodar," Lapointe said, alluding to the second-rate
roustabout defenseman who played in the 1980s. "He used to skate
only in warmups, too."

But the first-liner of one-liners is Tikkanen, the son of an
arena manager in Helsinki. There's the oft-told story of
Tikkanen, in Edmonton, yapping at linemate Jimmy Carson during a
shift and then continuing his harangue on the bench. A confused
Carson asked his other linemate, Finnish winger Jari Kurri, what
Tikkanen was saying. After listening a moment, Kurri turned to
Carson and said, "I have no idea."

Tikkanen, 33, came to prominence as a big pain in the 1990
playoffs when the preternaturally unruffled Wayne Gretzky, then
of the Los Angeles Kings, reacted to the shadowing by his former
Oilers teammate by conking Tikkanen on the head. "I knew I was
under his skin," Tikkanen says, his eyes narrowing, his
trademark smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. "I had
never seen him do anything like that."

Tikkanen is obnoxious because he tails his prey like a bad debt.
Unlike other shadows, he won't deny his man the puck. He
actually invites a pass, creating a false sense of comfort by
playing 10 feet from his man and then pouncing. Wilson used
Tikkanen on a scoring line in the first two games in Round 1 of
this season's playoffs against the Boston Bruins before having
him shadow center Jason Allison in the next four games (Allison
had only two even-strength points in those games). In Round 2,
Wilson matched him against Ottawa's Yashin, who had just one
point in five games at even strength.

Before Game 1 of the series against the Senators, in Washington,
Esa and his wife, Lotta, were eating in an Italian restaurant
when he learned that the Senators were about to arrive for a
team meal. The ever-calculating Esa arranged for a table next to
Yashin's, and both he and Lotta spent the evening yakking away
with the Ottawa players. The Tikkanens then returned to their
hotel--where Esa has been living since the Capitals acquired him
from the Florida Panthers on March 8--and were having a drink in
the lobby bar when the Senators, who were staying there too,
returned. "Hi, guys," Esa said, pretending the meetings had been
something other than happenstance. The next morning Ottawa
checked out. Senators coach Jacques Martin told Wilson, an old
friend, "That was brilliant coaching. You even had his wife on
Yashin."

When Esa brought his seven-year-old daughter, Sabrina, to
practice last week, Wilson announced, "We're going to put her on
Hasek's kids."

The Sabres have no star forward who demands personal attention,
and the forlorn Tikkanen never got to welcome Hasek in Game 1.
Indeed, the only goalie he got near was his own, Kolzig, who was
talking to referee Dan Marouelli early in the third period when
Tikkanen skated over and joined the discussion. After a short
blast of Tikkanese, Marouelli told Tikkanen that he was going to
converse only with Kolzig and, besides, he couldn't understand
him. They both laughed.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY GARY LOCKE [Drawing of Bob Bassen, Esa Tkkanen, Matthew Barnaby and Martin Lapointe as insects]COLOR PHOTO: PAUL BERESWILL FINNISHED When Tikkanen (11) isn't pressing an opponent on the ice, he's liable to be hassling him in a restaurant or a hotel lobby. [Esa Tkkanen pinning Donald Audette to ice in game]COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL INSECT ASIDE In Game 1 of the Western finals, the Stars' Bassen and the Wings' Lapointe wound up pestering each other. [Bob Bassen and Martin Lapointe crossing sticks in game]COLOR PHOTO: PAUL BERESWILL CROWD TEASER Egging on opponents and spectators alike, Barnaby (center) gets into his abrasive act as early as warmups. [Matthew Barnaby in scuffle with referee and Washington Capitals players]
Tikkanen has a unique blend of syntax-stunted English and
Finnish, which linguists call Tikkanese.
Lapointe didn't become effective until he converted from a goal
scorer to a flea-in-the-ear.
"He's a bit of a hot dog," Wilson says of Barnaby, "but he uses
it to his advantage."