EDMONTON, Canada — What does it take to stop the greatest hockey player in the world?
The Shadow knows.
Left wing Esa Tikkanen of the Edmonton Oilers is making a career out of shadowing the Kings' Wayne Gretzky, stalking his every move on the ice, prowling and poking and generally disrupting the most productive offensive machine the game has ever known.
Since the day Gretzky was traded from the Oilers to the Kings, Tikkanen's primary mission in head-to-head meetings has been to guard Gretzky and upset his game: Stay on his back. Keep a stick in his face. Deny him the puck. Make a general nuisance of himself.
It's become the Great One against The Grate One. Tikkanen's tactics could get on anyone's nerves.
And it never worked better than Wednesday night, when the Kings opened the best-of-seven Smythe Division finals by losing to Edmonton, 7-0.
Gretzky was held without a shot on goal, largely because of Tikkanen.
And Gretzky's linemates, Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom, were also held shotless. That's zero production from the line that produced 15 points in one first-round game against the Calgary Flames.
The Tikkanen obstacle must be hurdled if the Kings are to rebound in Game 2 tonight.
"He is not a guy easily dissuaded from his task," King assistant coach Rick Wilson said of Tikkanen. "He's like a pit bull. He gets on your back and he's hard to shake."
A pit bull?
Tikkanen seems pleasant enough off the ice. A native of Finland, he has an easy manner and a soft smile. In the clubhouse, he plays table tennis good-naturedly with teammates and is happy to cooperate with the media.
But flash the number 99 in front of him and stand back.
Tikkanen, however, hardly salivates at the thought of facing Gretzky.
"It's the toughest job," he said, "because he is the best player in the NHL. Some even say he has eyes in the back of his head. But if he does not get the puck, he cannot get those passes off."
Edmonton Coach John Muckler doesn't worry about matching lines with the Kings. He sees Gretzky out there, he responds with Tikkanen.
Always. When the Oilers practice before a game against the Kings at Northlands Coliseum, one almost expects to find Tikkanen preparing himself by standing in the shadow of the statue of Gretzky outside the building.
"He does a pretty good job of following me," Gretzky said. "He's the one guy who does it. Nobody else in the league does it like that."
Stopping Gretzky would seem to be a pretty good priority for every team. But most clubs don't want to disrupt their lines by creating a designated Gretzky hitter.
Since Muckler is constantly changing his lines anyway, that's not a problem.
So he has done what the Lakers first did years ago when they started facing Larry Bird. Michael Cooper was put in Bird's face and stayed there.
Granato said he and Sandstrom didn't do enough Wednesday.
"We didn't skate well," Granato said. "We didn't hit the lanes. With Tikkanen all over Wayne, there should have been plenty of ice for us. Instead of worrying about how to help Wayne get away from him, we should have made space for ourselves. We did nothing. It's frustrating because we didn't take advantage."
It's not surprising that Tikkanen is so effective against Gretzky. He had a chance to learn the center's every move during the three seasons they played together on the same line before the trade.
During those years, Tikkanen said, a friendship was formed that still endures.
"What happens on the ice," he explained, "stays on the ice."
Tikkanen occasionally tries to keep that friendship going on the ice as well by making small talk. Or, as is more likely the case, Tikkanen is trying to distract Gretzky mentally while attempting to disrupt him physically.
"I ask him what's been happening," Tikkanen said, "how is his kid?"
And does he get a response?
"Only once," Tikkanen said. "He told me, 'Get lost.' "
When that story was relayed to Gretzky, he smiled and replied: "Guess I really lost my temper, huh?"
Gretzky said he holds no animosity against the man whose skates constantly grind in his ear.
"He's got his job to do," Gretzky said, "and I've got my job to do."
Gretzky's job was particularly difficult Wednesday. He revealed that he had jammed skates with Tikkanen in the third period, wrenching his back, which is still tender from the injury that cost him the first two games of the Calgary series.
"It's something I have to live with throughout the playoffs," Gretzky said. "I'm getting therapy, but the only thing that will really help is time."
Tikkanen noticed a difference in Gretzky's game Wednesday.
"I've never seen him so slow," Tikkanen said. "It's like he was thinking about something else."
Like how to escape from his own shadow.
At least it seemed to kill the Kings Wednesday night. The Oilers clearly out-skated them, beating them constantly from the outside.
Part of the problem stems from holes in the Kings' defensive unit created by injuries. Tom Laidlaw, out with a lower back problem since March 17, might not play the rest of the playoffs.
But fellow defenseman Tim Watters, sidelined since Game 4 of the Calgary series with a deep ankle bruise, could play tonight.
Coach Tom Webster has promised several line changes for the Kings tonight, but wouldn't reveal them Thursday.
One change he had no problem advocating publicly is in the turnover department.
"Watching the films," he said, "I counted 18 unforced turnovers by us. And I only saw two periods of the game. I couldn't watch any more."