Under the Big Top

The Hockey Life Can Be A Circus, But The Pastujov Family Wouldn’t Trade It For Anything

For George and Janis Pastujov, it's hard to remember when life was "normal" and they weren't living the hectic existence that is familiar to hockey families everywhere.

You know the feeling-nightly races to the rink and weekends gobbled up by tournaments. Meals consumed inside the car and birthdays celebrated in hotel rooms. A washer constantly going with sweaty under-gear and hockey equipment constantly strewn about the garage, or the basement, or the living room.

But the Pastujovs, of Bradenton, Fla., have enjoyed a more intense ride than most. They have three hockey-playing sons. For the last seven years Janis has lived in an apartment in Michigan, as the boys, one by one, moved north to follow their hockey ambitions. George has held down the fort in Florida, while racking up Delta miles flying to Detroit.

"It's a lifestyle. It's not just a sport. Our lives revolve around hockey," George mused one evening from Florida, fresh off a weekend jaunt to Michigan. "Thanksgiving isn't dinner at home. It's going somewhere and having a tournament in Detroit or Boston."

Far from lamenting the strains of going all in on hockey, George and Janis now marvel at how their sacrifices have paid off.

Their oldest, Nick, 22, won a USA Hockey national championship playing Tier I hockey in Michigan with Honeybaked, skated for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, and spent four years at the University of Michigan.

Mike, a year younger, was on the same Honeybaked championship team. He followed Nick to the NTDP, where he won a gold medal in the 2017 IIHF Under-18 Men's World Championship, and then joined his brother at Michigan.

The youngest Pastujov, Sasha, 17, also played Tier I hockey in Michigan. When he was chosen for the NTDP in 2019, the siblings became the third family in the program's 24-year history to have three sons make the national team.

The Shore brothers-Drew (2007-09), Nick (2008-10) and Quentin (2010-12) were the first trio of siblings to suit up in the red, white and blue. Quinn (2015-17) and Jack Hughes (2017-19), cut their teeth in the program before making their mark in the NHL, and their younger brother, Luke, joined this year's U17 team.

But back to the Pastujovs. Sasha is now in his second season in Plymouth. But he's cutting his own path. Forget Michigan, Sasha is set to suit up for Notre Dame next fall. He'll be eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft.

"We've enjoyed every single minute," Janis said by phone from the home away from home she's set up in Plymouth to be near her sons. 

There are plenty of moments, she admitted, when she pinches herself to comprehend all that has come to her sons-elite training, outstanding coaching, role models, international experiences, hardship, challenges, triumphs, college educations.

George started teaching Mike and Nick to skate when they were 3 years old, and coached them for years. 

"I never thought any of this would happen," he said. "It's been, like, a crazy journey."

It's actually crazier than you can imagine. George came to the United States from Russia in the early 1990s, and landed a job in Florida with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, translating for the show's many performers from Russia, Germany and elsewhere. It was the perfect job for a man who speaks four languages. 

There George noticed a dancer from New Jersey, and she noticed him. Soon George and Janis were a couple, traveling around the country by rail, in the Ringling Brothers mile-long train, living out of a six-by-six-foot compartment where the bed also served as their kitchen table and couch.

Their unusual nomadic union under the Big Top was portrayed in a 2015 New York Times feature story. After Nick was born, they settled into a home in Bradenton. When Nick and Mike were toddlers, an ice rink opened in nearby Ellenton, and it was a godsend.

George had grown up in Tula, an industrial city outside of Moscow. There, it was soccer in the summer and hockey all winter long. He was a big fan of Soviet hockey and the greats like Fetisov, Krutov, Makarov and Larionov. He was watching in 1980 when the United States upset the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice" game in 1980, albeit rooting for the other side.

The rink in Ellenton solved a problem. 

"I couldn't show them how to throw a baseball or catch a football because I never did that," George explained. "But I have a love and a passion for hockey."

Soon they had a routine-skating at 6 a.m., then back home for a quick breakfast and off to school. After school, it was homework and then hockey practice in the evening. A net was set up in the driveway, and the front lawn was torn up from all the shooting and 50-50 battles on the grass. More than a few pucks ended up next door.  

"I swear one neighbor moved because of all the pucks he hit with his lawn mower," Nick laughed.

George didn't want to force Sasha into hockey and initially steered him to other sports-tennis and soccer. But the pull of his older brothers was strong. 

"They're a huge influence," Sasha said. "We're always competing with each other."

Nick and Mike, playing Tier I for the Florida Everblades, traveled all over to tournaments and caught the eye of coaches from the powerhouse Honeybaked program in Michigan. 

One Honeybaked player had a famous father-Igor Larionov, "the professor," a former Red Wings star. He placed a call to George and the result was Nick moved to Michigan at 13, billeting with a local family.

Having her 8th grade son living 1,200 miles away was a heavy load on Janis. 

"As a mother, I wanted to be there for those formative years, but I just had to let him go for his dream," she said.

The following season, Mike joined Honeybaked and Janis moved to Michigan. It wasn't easy financially. George worked full time and Janis had three jobs herself. Sasha too moved onto Tier I hockey in Michigan as his brothers were pulling on the NTDP's red, white and blue jerseys.

There have been plenty of highlights along the way. Nick and Mike in Michigan's exhilarating run to the 2018 Frozen Four, Mike scoring a late goal that almost sent them to the national championship game. Sasha and the NTDP U17s playing in Russia last year, defeating the home team to win the Four Nations tournament.

When Sasha heads to Notre Dame next year, Janis will move back to Florida but the journey isn't over. Nick, drafted in the 7th round, 193rd overall, by the New York Islanders in 2013, is itching for the AHL season to start. Mike is in his senior season at Michigan. Next spring Sasha will play in the U18 Worlds, and likely will be chosen by an NHL team in the 2021 draft.

"We are blessed," Janis said, pausing a moment before going further. "Wouldn't trade any of it."

 


 

Neal Boudette is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

 

Issue: 
2021-01

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