While the Tampa Bay Lightning have achieved on-ice success and generated increased interest across the region, the Tampa area had never produced a draft-worthy prospect. Bradenton can claim to have produced the first.
Nick Pastujov was drafted by the New York Islanders during the seventh and final round (193 overall) of the NHL draft on Saturday.
Pastujov, who is committed to play at Michigan next year, first started playing the sport during the earliest days of the Ellenton Ice and Sports complex.
“Definitely a small community,” Pastujov said Saturday, recalling those early days.
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The son of a Russian immigrant, Pastujov has been skating since the ice rink opened when he was 3. It was a thrilling moment for his father, Gueorgui Pastujov. Hockey was the one sport he played growing up, and he finally had the opportunity to share the game with his child in a part of the world that was mostly unexposed to the game.
“It’s very hard for me because, in reality, when he first started for me all I wanted was just to teach him how to skate, how to play hockey because it’s the only game I knew,” Pastujov said. “That’s the only game I played. I don’t know football. I don’t know baseball. I grew up in Russia, so I can’t teach him any of that, but when they opened the rink I took him to the rink and I teach him what I know.”
The Lightning franchise was less than a decade old when the Ellenton ice rink opened in 2001, and the team wouldn’t be particularly competitive for another year. By then, Pastujov was starting to play the game, as well.
He began with a recreational league in Ellenton, which was more of a glorified pick-up game. From his recollection, there were only two teams in the league and they changed from week to week.
Even after he played his way out of Ellenton’s rec leagues and was good enough to search for minor leagues around the state, it was still tough for him to find a competitive enough league. His father wound up helping start a AAA team in affiliation with Estero’s Florida Everblades.
He was good enough to move to Michigan before his eighth-grade year to play for HoneyBaked, a Tier 1 Elite Hockey League team based in Farmington Hills, Mich., a Detroit suburb. It meant saying goodbye to his family and all of his familiar surroundings to move in with a host family, enroll in a new school and learn to play against more rigorous competition.
A year later, Pastujov’s younger brother, Mike, followed his brother to the HoneyBaked program. In 2014, the youngest brother, Sasha, joined the Belle Tire age group team in Hazel Park, Mich., another suburb of Detroit. That prompted Pastujov’s mother, Janice, to move north as well, leaving Gueorgui in Bradenton, where he worked for Bealls department story.
With most of his family in one place, Nick Pastujov spent the past two years with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP). Playing with the U-18 team this past season, Pastujov produced 13 goals and eight assists for a team that had nine first-round picks.
“I really don’t think there’s a better place for someone to go to figure themselves out as a hockey player altogether,” Pastujov said of the development program.
Pastujov was back in Florida when New York selected him Saturday morning, and the 18-year-old was carrying himself like a typical teenage Floridian. He missed the call because he was out fishing and only found out about his selection when his brother checked the draft results on his phone during the drive home.
Pastujov is planning to play for the Wolverines next year and the Islanders will retain his rights throughout his college career, ready to sign him whenever he’s ready to join the professional ranks. He is one of three incoming Michigan players who were drafted in the past two days. Pastujov joins forward Will Lockwood and goalie Jack LaFontaine, who were both third-round selections.
And after the Tampa area waited decades for its first NHL draftee, its next could come in 2017. Michael Pastujov, Nick’s younger brother, is also in the USA Hockey development program. And while the sport is finding its footing in the region, Pastujov will forever be the trailblazer.
“There’s actually high school hockey teams in Florida, which was really unheard of when I was down there,” Pastujov said. “There’s really just a lot more of a hockey market down there.”