Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tikkanen Incident

Living overseas in South Korea and in Russia would seem like two completely different experiences, and until now they have been different, until two of my students took me to a Korean restaurant last week.

Meeting these two students is in itself a strange coincidence. They are a young man and woman, and they both study Korean language at University. The young man spent some time studying Korean martal arts at a Buddhist temple in Incheon and Seoul last summer and the woman is going there in the spring. They have an intimate knowledge of Korea and we have been swapping stories and comparing life there with life in Moscow.

When we walked into the Korean restaurant, about four blocks away from the last metro stop on the bottom of the red line, it was like I had been transported back to another period in my life. The restaurant was complete with in-table Korean barbeques, menus in Korean, Russian and English (and the awesomely hilarious Korean attempts at English, like the "Fried Friend Dumpling") and Korean, or possibly Chinese, staff who barely spoke Russian or English. We ordered delicious dwae-ji kalbi and it came with generous servings of kimchi, lettuce, pickled carrot slices and big chunks of fresh garlic to cook with the meat. There was also that delicious orange-brown chunky sauce that goes on the meat.

As I sat there eating kimchi and kalbi with metal chopsticks, I felt transported back to Korea, and I began replaying adventures and incidents I had enjoyed there in my head. For some reason, perhaps because I am in Russia, which is a hockey country, and perhaps because Moscow is only a 10-hour train ride from Finland, my mind settled on one particular incident: the Tikkanen Incident.

There's a bar in the Itaewon district of Seoul owned by two Canadian brothers. It's called the "Rocky Mountain Pub" and is an homage to Canadiana, complete with license plates and 24-hour hockey replays. It is a popular spot as it serves up delicious western food with proper western customer service, and is one of the few places in Korea where one can buy Molson Canadian on tap. Needless to say that my colleagues and I spent a fair amount of time there.

On one occasion a group of us, including my ex, her sister, our friend Mr. Korea, a friend named Mr. San Diego and a couple of other English teachers, were sitting at the most comfortable piece of real estate in the joint, a corner table sunk low in the ground with windows to our backs and big blue cushions. The waiter approached us and asked us to move to a different table, as there was a VIP coming and he had requested that particular table.

We obliged, not without grumbling, and relocated. Then the VIP walked in. He was a large man in his late 50s and he had with him two healthy-looking young blonde men who stood over six feet tall. I didn't recognize him right away, but Mr. Korea did. "It's fucking Esa Tikkanen!" he declared.
"What?!?" everybody answered.

Esa Tikkanen is a retired NHL hockey player from Finland. He played for the Edmonton Oilers alongside Wayne Gretzky and later the New York Rangers. He was on two Stanley Cup championship winning teams and was known as an enforcer (a goon in layman's terms) who led the league in penalty minutes during the 1980s. Indeed, his record for spending the most time in the penalty box has yet to be broken. And here he was in the Rocky Mountain Pub in friggin' Seoul, South Korea.

"Tikkanen!" Mr. Korea shouted out to him as he and his entourage sat at our recently-vacated table. "Hey!"
Tikkanen looked over and smiled and shouted back. "Hello!"
Mr. Korea, as excited as I've ever seen him, grabbed the waiter by the arm. "Get that table a round of tequila shots and a pitcher of beer, on me." The waiter, one of the Canadian owners, shook his head. "It's not a good idea to get Tikkanen drunk." he warned us.
"It's fine! Trust me!"
"I'm really trying to warn you, DO NOT GET ESA TIKKANEN DRUNK!"
"Just do it, okay?" Mr. Korea pleaded. With a sigh the waiter/owner shrugged like Pontas Pilate, as if to say "Okay, but it's your crucifixion, not mine." and he went to the bar.

When Tikkanen and his two companions received their drinks they seemed delighted. "Where are you from?" Esa called out to Mr. Korea. "Canada!" Mr. Korea answered. "Well, don't just sit there, come over here!" Tikkanen called back.

We changed tables, the girls not as enthusiastically as the guys, and were soon seated at our own table, this time with a washed-up, although still impressive, sports celebrity. We cheered with our tequila shots, poured a round of beer and then began talking.

Tikkanen had been contracted to coach South Korea's first ever hockey team in the newly-formed Asian League Hockey, which consisted, at the time, of one team from South Korea, four from Japan, six from China, and two from Russia (who creamed the Asians in every game and won the championships every year). Tikkanen's companions were Finnish hockey players who played in the Russian KHL and on Finland's national team during world championship and winter olympics events. They were all there to get Korea's hockey team up and running.

The conversation was lively and interesting, and Tikkanen, despite his bad-ass reputation and massive bulk which even at his age still rippled with barely-concealed muscle, was a charming and funny man. He loved Canada, he told us, and enjoyed his time in Edmonton and Toronto much more than in New York where, he told us, the beer wasn't as good. When he had heard there was a Canadian bar in town, he had gone there immediately and since become a regular.

More tequila shots followed, and more pitchers of beer. People became rowdier and livelier.

If anyone reading this has ever drank with English teachers living overseas, then you know that we are a fairly retarded bunch when we drink. Only overseas do we feel at liberty to do things we would never dream of doing back home. In this case, there was a small metal pail on the table filled with peanuts. Like at home, the concept is to munch on them and throw the shells on the floor, but somehow us ESL teachers in Korea had taken to whipping the peanuts, shells and all, at each other's heads when we were drunk (I won't bother explaining Mortal Combat Frisbee). Naturally this happened.

Tikkanen, red in the face and talking loudly and more aggressively after four pitchers of beer and three rounds of tequila, started to say "Hey, stop that." every time a peanut whizzed close to him. It didn't deter us degenerate teachers, however, and we continued to throw peanuts at each other while we chatted. In hindsight, Tikkanen had become silent, but nobody noticed it at the time.

Then my ex, a small blonde girl of about 100 lbs, whipped a badly-aimed peanut at Mr. Korea but nailed Esa Tikkanen square in the forehead by mistake, and Tikkanen snapped.

"DO YOU THINK THAT'S FUNNY???!!!??" he screamed at my ex. Veins were bulging on his massive and balding forehead. "IS THAT FUCKING FUNNY??!!??" My ex sat calmly and stared at him, saying nothing.

Tikkanen, red in the face and filled with rage, stood up so he was towering over her at the other side of the table. "YOU WANT TO FUCKING HIT ME IN THE EYE?" he screamed. The whole bar had gone silent. The waiter looked at us as if to say "I told you so". Tikkanen seemed to be getting angrier by the moment. "YOU CAN FUCKING KILL SOMEONE WITH ONE OF THESE! WELL? YOU WANT TO FUCKING KILL ME???" he screamed at the small girl, who sat and stared at him defiantly, no look of fear on her face.

Mr. Korea, trying to restore the table to the former joviality we had been enjoying, stood up and patted Tikkanen on the shoulder in a friendly manner. "Okay, let's just all stop throwing peanuts and calm down." He picked up Tikkanen's beer. "Here, I'll buy you another one."

Tikkanen turned on Mr. Korea, his massive body shaking in fury, looking for all the world like an angry bull. "SIT THE FUCK DOWN!" he hollered at Mr. Korea. "Okay!" Mr. Korea responded, and quickly sat down again. Tikkanen turned back to my ex. "YOU THINK THAT'S FUCKING FUNNY?" He shouted again, apparently the only phrase he knows when he gets drunk. She just calmly stared at him, saying nothing.

One of the young Finnish players grabbed Tikkanen by the arm and said something in Finnish to him (probably "Let's go") and Tikkanen, still fuming, allowed himself to be dragged away from our table. "FUCKING STUPID BITCH! IT'S NOT FUNNY!" he continued to holler. The other Finn joined them and they put their jackets on left the bar, Tikkanen still hollering like a madman. The bartender came over to our table. "More beer?" he asked, and we all started to laugh.

People from other tables came up to us. "Was that Esa Tikkanen? What did you say to him?" We had become minor celebrities ourselves, and I personally found it funny that my girlfriend was almost in a fist-fight with the feared Esa Tikkanen.

Naturally the next weekend we all flocked to the Suwon hockey stadium to see Esa lead team Korea in a game against Japan. The Tikkanen influence on Korea's team was obvious, as Korean players continued to smash the Japanese players into the boards, and despite having players spend nearly half the game in the penalty box, they came out on top. It helped that Tikkanen and the two Finns would occasionally hop onto the ice themselves during a line change, pass the pack through the legs of the opposing players and fire it into the Japanese net while the goalie dove for cover.

We went to a dozen more games, and in true hockey fashion, heckled the players to no end. "Tiiiikaaanen! Tiiiikaaaanen!" We would chant, to which Tikkanen, probably with no idea that we were the same people he had wanted to kill, would bow to us with a big goofy grin on his face, no doubt reliving his glory days when he played, and fought, alongside Wayne Gretzky in the NHL.

Tikkanen leads Team Korea to a bone-crushing victory


  1. Nice posts as usual. I don't know how you deal with confrontation so well. Maybe it helps when you're not a wimp. :(

    Any advice for someone moving to Seoul in a few months? I'm going the Hagwon route.

  2. Haha, thanks calf, except I don't deal with confrontation well, which is partly why it always happens to me!

    Advice for the hagwon? Make sure you have a big-enough stash of money for an emergency ticket home. A lot of hagwons rip off their teachers. Of course, a lot are good, too. Welcome to the ESL/EFL world!