Growing up in Charlestown, Mass., hockey was in Aaron Titcomb's blood.
His uncles played the game. His late father played the game.
"I was basically born on the ice," Titcomb told me this week. "My grandmother took me out there when I was two on a milk crate, and the rest is history from there."
Titcomb, a 25-year-old defenseman, is now in his first professional season with the Nailers after four years at Merrimack College. But it wasn't the easiest journey from that milk crate to Wheeling.
While playing in high school, Titcomb suffered two serious injuries. His first was a broken collarbone that sidelined him for three months. His next came after a dangerous hit from behind. Titcomb sustained a concussion and broke his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae in his neck, an injury that put his hockey future in jeopardy.
"I was in a neck brace for eight months," Titcomb recalled. "I was out of hockey. I wasn't supposed to play. But I made the choice that it was a passion of mine and I wanted to keep going. I was pretty resilient when it came to that and I was lucky to have a good foundation with my family around me to help me through it. It was a scary moment, a check for me just how fast the game can be taken away. There's other aspects to life than just hockey. I was almost actually fortunate to go through it because I saw a lot of different sides of life that people wouldn't get to see."
Titcomb recovered, and kept going. He joined Merrimack, just half an hour from his hometown, in 2014. It was there that he continued to grow his hard-working, physical, shutdown style of play -- one that he believes is a byproduct of his background.
"Growing up outside of Boston, it was almost like you had to be a little tough and show a little fight," he said. "I kind of pride my game on that, it't gotten me this far so it's worked out for me."
Titcomb has shown those same qualities in the beginning of his professional career. He's skilled at using his big, 6-feet-4, 220-pound frame to knock opponents off of the puck and create space and chances. He delivered these two crushing hits this week:
He's sound defensively, and one of the team's penalty killers. He's singlehandedly saved a few goals this season with moves like this at the goal line:
"I think I bring a lot of things to the team that other guys probably don't bring," he said of his game. "I take a lot of pride in penalty kill, just being a good defensive defenseman."
With a role like that, Titcomb doesn't expect to see his name on the scoresheet too often. He scored one goal through his four years of college hockey, with the lone tally coming in his sophomore year. His next goal wouldn't come for another 1,152 days -- last week, Jan. 16 in Adirondack.
The goal didn't come in an ideal circumstance, it was in the final minutes of a 5-3 loss. But it was still such a rewarding moment for him.
"Obviously getting the loss it was a bittersweet moment for me, I couldn't really show my emotions on the goal," he said. "But it felt good. Internally I was really excited, really happy for myself. I haven't scored in over three years, so it was a pretty good experience, and I have the puck. It was a lot of fun for me."
Titcomb is already becoming a pretty popular guy in the community. He volunteers his time to work with children and D.A.R.E. programs to educate others about the dangers of drugs, and drinking and driving.
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) December 11, 2018
For the rest of this season, Titcomb wants to work on fine-tuning the smaller details of his game. As it turns out, playing in the Pittsburgh organization is an ideal place to do that. Pittsburgh sends skills development coach Ty Hennes to Wheeling to help out with some practices. Hennes works with all players in the system, not just those on NHL contracts.
Being able to work with someone like Hennes is a luxury that prospects in other systems don't typically enjoy. Proximity is a factor -- most ECHL teams aren't an hour drive from their NHL affiliate, so most teams don't get to work with NHL coaches as often, if at all. Many teams also don't even have a designated development coach for skills work. Pittsburgh invests in the future all through the system, which makes Wheeling an attractive destination for college free agents like Titcomb.
"(Hennes) is working with the guys at the highest level, some of the best guys in the world" Titcomb said. "To have him around and pick his brain and ask him questions, that's teaching that I don't think you can find anywhere else. I'm definitely lucky."
Titcomb's focus is to do "whatever it takes to help the team win." He's not worried about individual accolades. Still, he hopes that his hard work this season will lead to an AHL contract in the summer. In the meantime, he knows how blessed he is to be where he is now.
"I don't take any day for granted," he said. "I know how lucky I am to be here, I know all the hard work I've put in. It's a pleasure to wake up every morning and play a game for a living. I'm very fortunate."
THE ROSTER MOVES
• Wilkes-Barre/Scranton signed defenseman Danny Fick to a well-deserved professional tryout contract on Saturday, and Fick made his Penguins debut that evening against Hershey. Had Fick played for Wheeling on Saturday, he would have become the Nailers’ sole all-time games-played leader. This is Fick’s second stint in the AHL following a two-game tryout with the San Antonio Rampage in 2017.
• Defenseman Tommy Davis, 25, was signed ahead of the game on Jan. 19 due to the Nailers' injuries on the blue line, and he was released following the game. Davis had not played since last season, he has been working as Princeton's Director of Hockey Operations this year. Princeton is about 90 minutes from Reading, likely why it was Davis who got the call.
• Forward Mike Fazio was injured on Dec. 31 and remains on injured reserve … defenseman Brien Diffley was injured on Jan. 5 and is week-to-week.
• Forward Winston Day Chief was injured on Dec. 19 and returned to the lineup on Jan. 16. Forward Mark Petaccio was injured on Jan. 11 and returned on Jan. 16.
• Defenseman Dane Birks missed Jan. 16's game with an illness, but returned on Jan. 19.
• Johnny Austin was placed on reserve for bereavement leave on Jan. 16.
• Kevin Spinozzi, the Nailers' lone All-Star selection, remains in Wilkes-Barre this week and was not reassigned for the game. He was replaced with Cincinnati's Arvin Atwal.
• Cedric Lacroix has been fined an undisclosed amount for butt-ending an Adirondack player in the groin on Jan. 18.
• Petaccio was suspended for two games and fined an undisclosed amount for slashing an Adirondack player in the head on Jan. 18.
• Jan. 16: at Adirondack, 5-3 loss
The Nailers dug themselves into a 3-0 hole just 8:17 into the first period. Yushiroh Hirano scored his ninth goal of the year, a power play tally, to cut the Thunder's lead to two by the end of the period.
The Thunder regained their three-goal lead only two minutes into the third period. Michael Phillips cut the Thunder's lead back to two with his ninth goal of the season, another power play goal.
The Nailers pulled their goalie with nearly four minutes remaining in the game, and the Thunder scored an empty net goal. Titcomb's first goal of the season came less than a minute later.
John Muse stopped 32 of 36 shots in the loss. The Nailers' power play went 2-for-7, and the penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4.
• Jan. 18: at Adirondack, 6-2 loss
Troy Josephs opened the scoring on Friday, but the Nailers were unable to build any momentum off of the first strike.
The Thunder scored an even strength goal and a power play goal to close out the first period, and then added another even strength goal and three power play goals in the second period.
Hirano scored the lone goal of the third period on the power play, his 10th goal of the season.
Muse again took the loss with 14 saves on 20 shots through the first 33:14. Jordan Ruby made 9 saves on 9 shots in relief.
The power play went 2-for-4, and the penalty kill went 3-for-7.
• Jan. 19: at Reading, 4-3 win
The Royals led after 20 minutes after a power play goal.
Cedric Lacroix tied the game midway through the second period with his ninth goal of the season. The Royals took the lead again two minutes later, and then Renars Krastenbergs scored a power play goal to tie the game back up just over a minute later. It was his 12th goal of the season. Josephs gave the Nailers their first lead of the game before the middle frame was over.
The Royals tied the game just 1:29 into the third period, but Josephs' shorthanded breakaway goal midway through the period stood to be the game-winner. It was his team-leading 19th goal of the season.
While he didn't score a goal, Hirano led the team with seven shots.
Ruby took the win with 33 saves on 36 shots.
The Nailers' power play went 1-for-3, and the penalty kill went 2-for-3.
• Goals: Josephs, 19 in 23 games.
• Assists: Lynch, 29 in 40 games.
• Points: Lynch, 40 in 40 games.
Alex Rauter - Zac Lynch - Yushiroh Hirano
Troy Josephs - Michael Phillips - Winston Day Chief
Renars Krastenbergs - Cedric Lacroix - Mark Petaccio
Brad Drobot - Alec Butcher
Josh Couturier - Danny Fick
Robbie Hall - Aaron Titcomb
• After this week, the Nailers fell to fifth in the six-team Central Division with a record of 20-18-2.
• The Nailers’ power play sits in second place in the league at 21.8 percent, and the penalty kill sits 17th in the league at 82.3 percent. The Nailers are tied with the Kalamazoo Wings for the most shorthanded goals this season, with 12 in 40 games.
• The Nailers begin a six-game homestand with a three-in-three this week. They'll host the Brampton Beast (19-17-3-1) on Friday, the Reading Royals (17-14-3-5) on Saturday, and the Fort Wayne Komets (21-16-1-2) on Sunday afternoon.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Hirano unleashed this shot on Wednesday:
Lacroix scored this goal on a rush with Josephs on Saturday:
Josephs was off to the races for this shorthanded breakaway goal Saturday:
WHEELING FUN THING
Goaltender Matt O'Connor worked on his balance:
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One of my favorite things about goaltending is the challenging pursuit of balance. I have come to believe that an attempt to master goaltending is interchangeable with a relentless pursuit of balance. I think goalies are consistently in the zone and flow when they embody balance between: Aggression and Patience Quickness and Stillness Excitement and Tranquility Desperation and Control Focus and Awareness Strength and Flexibility Hunger and Satisfaction Strategy and Intuition Perfectionism and Acceptance Love and Fear When balance is present, peak performance is too. Goalies and former goalies out there, do you agree? Wishing everyone an abundance of balance in 2019! Well not too much of course...
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Lacroix, Krastenbergs, and Hirano went to New York:
— YushirohHirano 平野裕志朗 (@9yushi0) January 22, 2019
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