Pastujov became top 2021 Draft prospect because of circus-life work ethic

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Sasha Pastujov might not consider himself “The Greatest Showman,” but he certainly possesses the pedigree for what appears to be a very promising future in the NHL someday.

The left-handed right wing for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team is No. 18 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters and a projected first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

He’s the son of Janis and George Pastujov, who met and married while working for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus more than 25 years ago.

“It shaped our family in an interesting way,” Sasha said. “My dad is super determined and always working hard. My mom, being a dancer, gave me that perfectionist trait with trying to do things perfectly, so I think I have a good combination of my parent’s traits. It shaped our family really well.”

Janis, who grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, was a dance captain and later worked in public relations for the circus from 1987 to 1997. George, born and raised in Tula in the U.S.S.R., worked 12 years at the circus, first as a translator for the many performers from Russia and Mongolia, and then as general manager and talent scout.

The couple married April 8, 1994.

“It’s definitely a unique story,” said Sasha, who turns 18 on July 15. “The coolest was my mom rode elephants, so that’s pretty rare. My dad worked behind the scenes which gave a different perspective.”

Janis decided to stop working for the circus when she became pregnant with their first son, Nick, who was born in 1998. Their second, Michael, was born in 1999 and Sasha in 2003.

Each of their sons play hockey. There are times it’s felt like a circus all over again for the Pastujovs, who constantly are traveling to familiar venues across the United States to watch their sons play.

“We started to travel back to the cities we traveled to with the circus,” Janis said. “Madison Square Garden was special because I grew up going to Madison Square Garden and then performed there with the circus. George and I got married while we were playing at the Garden, and to go and watch Nick and Mike play hockey for [the University of Michigan] there (against Penn State on Jan. 26, 2019) … it was just like going full circle.”

Said George, “I have a different perspective. Walking into the old Boston Garden was like, ‘Wow, this is the place where Phil Esposito played.’ I watched that back in the U.S.S.R. on television and now I’m here and walking through the lobby, looking at all the pictures. It was so surreal for me in every old arena.”

George grew up playing hockey on ponds and ice rinks in what is now Russia; he enjoyed watching Hockey Hall of Fame forward Valeri Kharlamov and goalie Vladislav Tretiak as a young boy. After leaving the circus, he signed Nick up for ice hockey lessons and ended up coaching all three sons on a traveling team in Florida. 

“It was a full family affair,” Mike Pastujov said. “It just kind of shaped us because we didn’t really know much else; we were the only hockey players in our neighborhood. The only rink within an hour of us (in Bradenton, Florida) was the one that we played at so we kind of grew up a different childhood. 

“We weren’t the typical Florida boys.”

George and Janis drove their sons to the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex in Ellenton, Florida, for several years before making weekend trips to Germain Arena (now called Hertz Arena) in Estero when the boys began playing AAA hockey.

“Dad was my coach up until I moved to Michigan (to join the NTDP) when I was in the sixth grade,” Sasha said. “He told me to never be satisfied and that there’s always someone out there working just as hard, so you got to keep grinding every day.”

Sasha said if he ever had an opportunity to be in the circus, he would have probably joined mom in the entertainment field and perhaps attempt to be a motorcyclist in the Globe of Death.

Tweet from @NHLdotcom: It was a treat for @NHL Draft Class to have @USAHockeyNTDP forward & top prospect Sasha Pastujov join the latest episode. And if you didn’t already know, now you do, his parents met while working at the circus!Apple: https://t.co/cvHc0n3oWdSpotify: https://t.co/yWi16xtJY9 pic.twitter.com/3ST85fludM

“That’s interesting but that’s Sasha,” George said. “I can see that. When he puts that gear on, that’s what he’s like. He’s ready, determined and not going to give up. He’s all about going and getting it.”

Nick, chosen in the seventh round (No. 193) of the 2016 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, played four seasons at the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in economics in April 2020. Mike will spend a fifth season studying and playing hockey at Michigan in 2021-22, and graduate in May 2022.

Sasha (6-foot, 184 pounds) will play for the University of Notre Dame in 2021-22.

“I feel like everything I’ve done until this point has kind of been following my brothers, so I just wanted to take a step out of their shadow and Notre Dame was just second to none to me,” Sasha said.

Mike said he can’t wait to play against his younger brother next season; Michigan and Notre Dame both play in the Big Ten.

“It’ll be the first time we’ve ever done it,” Mike said. “I’ve never had the privilege to play with or against Sasha.”

Sasha led the NTDP U-18 with 52 points (23 goals, 29 assists) in 34 games and scored seven power-play goals this season. He also was named MVP of the 2021 BioSteel All-American Game on April 7 after he had two goals and an assist.

He’s the first player to score two goals in the All-American Game since Matthew Boldy (Minnesota Wild), Cole Caufield (Montreal Canadiens) and Arthur Kaliyev (Los Angeles Kings) each did it in 2018.

“The impressive thing about Sasha is that he contributes almost in every game, and sometimes you think you haven’t noticed him that much, but he’s got some stealth-ness and elusiveness in his game,” NHL Central Scouting senior manager David Gregory said. “He’s really good in traffic and finding space; he has a really good brain and great hands. Combine that with an unreal release and shot that allows him to produce points and you have a player with a lot of potential.”

George Pastujov said the thought of seeing one of his sons play in the NHL one day gives him goosebumps, but that wasn’t the reason he got them hooked on hockey.

“From the very beginning when they started to play, it was never about the NHL,” he said. “For me it was something I was going to teach them since I loved and have a passion for the game. We never talked about college, but as they progressed it became a little bit more of a reality. If any of them makes it to the NHL, it would be a dream come true for all of us.”

Sasha, who plays a creative style to complement a 200-foot game, led the United States with five goals and eight points in five games at the 2021 IIHF Under-18 World Championship. The U.S. finished fifth in the tournament.

“He’s probably got the best shot of the three of us,” Mike said. “His shot is so well developed for how young he is. Everybody who plays with him loves playing with him because he moves the puck, understands where to be, understands the game.”

Said Janis, “Sasha looks at his brothers and wants to equal if not be better. And Nick and Mike will do whatever they can to help him get there.”

That family dynamic is what has helped shape Sasha into, perhaps, the best ice hockey player of the Pastujov siblings.

“Sasha has a huge heart, looks up to his brothers and is very competitive,” Janis said. “He has a little bit of both his brothers. I think in his skating, you see a little Nick and Mike, but he’s just melted into his own way. Just like in choosing Notre Dame … he took it all in and took his own path.”

A similar journey taken by mom and dad almost three decades ago when they joined the circus and began carving their identity with hard work and dedication to being the best they can be.

Listen: New episode of NHL Draft Class

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