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.