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Titov gets his kicks playing hockey

Tuesday, December 14, 1999

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

German Titov didn't have a hard time deciding what to do back in the mid-1980s, when Soviet military authorities sent word they were holding a spot for him on a tank crew.

    More on the Penguins:

Penguins Report, 12/14/99


Hey, when the Red Army put in a claim on you in those days, holding out for a better offer wasn't an option.

But w while Titov had no say in whether he would spend a few years wearing fatigues to work, he did have a choice of careers. Fact is, he had made his decision long before he got his first look at the inside of a tank.

When he was about 15, Titov was a soccer player of considerable renown. A midfielder good enough to earn a spot on the Soviet national team. And, ultimately, he had to choose whether he wanted to pursue hockey or soccer as his life's work.

"It was a tough decision," Titov said. "I like soccer as much as hockey."

Perhaps, but his father apparently didn't, and that turned out to be the tie-breaker.

"I think I chose hockey because my dad liked hockey," Titov said.

Suffice to say, the Penguins are delighted that Titov bowed to his father's wishes. He is one of their best two-way forwards and, going into their game against Boston tonight at 7:38 at the Civic Arena, ranks fourth on the team in scoring, with eight goals and 16 assists in 27 games.

That's a 73-point pace which, if Titov can sustain it, would be a career-high. Titov's personal best is 67, set while playing for Calgary in 1995-96.

Titov's point total is, at least in part, a reflection of the quality linemates he has had most of this season. In the past two games, he has worked on a line with center Robert Lang and right winger Alexei Kovalev -- the Penguins' Nos. 2 and 3 scorers, respectively.

Factor in the power-play time he has been getting -- Titov picked up his second man-advantage goal of the season in the Penguins' 4-2 victory against Phoenix Saturday -- and it's not hard to understand why his personal numbers are solid.

Titov is far from preoccupied with his stats, though. Or even, it seems, particularly interested in them.

"It doesn't matter for me if I get points or assists," he said. "I like to play for the team. If my teammates lose, I'm not happy, even if I get points. Nobody's happy."

That's not something Titov says just for public consumption. Just a few hours before Kevin Constantine was fired as coach last week, he said there's never been any question about Titov's top priority.

"When you ask him individual things, his standard answer is, 'I just want to help the team win,' " Constantine said. "That's a really admirable trait. Probably the thing I like about him the most is his pride in his performance, and how it relates to the team being successful. Doing all the little things and doing it for the team. He's just such a great team guy."

Titov isn't a very flashy one, though. Efficient, yeah. Thorough, absolutely. But Titov's no human highlight film. He's not even a human highlight snapshot.

That's because there's nothing spectacular about playing defense like you mean it. Or being able to read plays as they develop, and anticipate what's coming next. Or being willing to sacrifice your body to break up a scoring chance.

No, none of that will get you time on the 11 o'clock news. It will just enhance the chances of your team getting two points.

"He grows on you," Penguins Coach Herb Brooks said. "He's a subtle type of a player. He's highly skilled, he knows how to play. He's got a good mind, hands and feet. He complements a lot of things, but always in a subtle way."

Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis played against Titov in the Russian Elite League nearly a decade ago, and said the essence of his game is the same now as it was when Titov wore the colors of Khimik Voskresensk.

"He's always worked hard and always played through injuries," Kasparaitis said. "He's the kind of guy who, you hit him and he goes down, then he gets up. He fights through it all the time. He always battles for the puck, never wants to lose it."

Titov, who turned 34 Oct. 15, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. He's being paid $1.2 million this season and, unless his game totally unravels over the next few months, should have no trouble getting another contract -- and maybe a nice raise -- when he goes on the open market next summer.

Certainly, he has no plans to call it a career when the 1999-2000 season expires.

"I'd like to sign for a couple more years to play [in North America], two or three years," Titov said.

While Titov said he hasn't had any talks with General Manager Craig Patrick about a new contract, the prevailing sentiment around the Civic Arena seems to be that Titov can be effective at this level for at least a few more years.

"I think he's got hockey left in him," Brooks said. "I think his legs are in their twenties."

"He's in pretty good shape," Kasparaitis said. "He could play four or more five years, easy. He's one of those guys like [Detroit center Igor] Larionov. They look young and they're in good shape."

And still kicking, so to speak.

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