The first time Nick Pastujov ever saw snow, he was five years old. As a kid from Bradenton, Fla., snow was a foreign concept to him.
Sure, it existed on TV where kids would build snowmen and have snowball fights, but to him, it was more of an illusion. Movies were the closest he ever got to it. Then he got his chance.
For the Silver Sticks International Tournament over Christmas, Nick traveled to Michigan, and there he saw it: the powdery white flakes. Naturally, when he got back to Florida, he told everyone about his encounter, especially his younger brother, Mike.
So when Mike was eligible for the same tournament the next year, he had certain expectations. It would be his turn to see snow now. But when his flight touched down at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the pilot announced the weather conditions, reality hit hard — it was warmer in Detroit than Florida. Snow would be hard to find.
Unfortunately for Mike, the Pastujovs didn’t hunt for snow like one of his teammates’ family had. When the tournament was over, and the Pastujovs were headed back to the airport, Mike let his feelings show. He started to bawl.
He cried out to his mom, Janis. His only opportunity to see snow was gone. Wasted. It was so unfair Nick had seen snow before him.
At five years old, Mike could never have dreamed all the chances he’d have in the years to come. He and Nick had no idea hockey would eventually lead them to Michigan. Hockey hadn’t yet cemented its place in their lives.
In fact, it was just a few years before the great snow encounter that the Pastujovs had learned to skate.
Hockey was still new to Florida when Nick was born — there wasn’t even a rink nearby his home. All that changed when he was three, though, and a rink was built at the next highway exit.
When Nick and Mike’s dad, Gueorgui (George), heard the news, he was overjoyed.
Born and raised in Russia, hockey was everything to him. George knew he’d never be able to teach his sons football. Or baseball. Or even basketball. But he could share hockey with them. And so, as soon as the rink was finished, the family toured it, and George signed Nick up for lessons.
At just three years old, Nick didn’t have much say in the matter. Even if he had been old enough, it’s unlikely his opinion would’ve mattered. George wanted his sons to play hockey.
“Looking back, I have to take responsibility,” George said, laughing. “I pushed them as a parent more towards hockey than anything else. Now I’m laughing but I was, they didn’t have much choice. Basically, ‘That’s what you’re doing guys, you’re playing hockey.’ … At the beginning, I didn’t really give them many choices.”
The next year, when Mike turned three, he joined his brother at skating lessons. Unlike their father, Nick and Mike didn’t fall in love with hockey instantly. In fact, it was the total opposite reaction — they hated skating.
Outside of lessons, they’d attend open skates with their dad. Sometimes their grandpa, or their cousin when he was in town, would join. On the ice, the brothers weren’t shy about showing how they felt about skating. They’d scream. They’d cry. They didn’t want anything to do with it — to the point where grandpa had to intervene.
“My grandpa would be up in the stands yelling at him to take me off the ice and stop, and my dad wouldn’t stop,” Nick said. “He kept us out there. At this point, I’m obviously glad he did.”
Eventually, the brothers warmed up to skating, and the next step was getting hockey sticks in their hands. Once that happened, Nick and Mike were sold.
If they weren’t at the rink practicing, they were in the street. They’d throw pucks against the house until it was so dark outside they couldn’t see anything.
If street hockey wasn’t a viable option, they moved things indoors. In the designated play area — a space between two of the bedrooms in the family’s home — Nick and Mike played mini sticks. They played with their friends. They played with their youngest brother, Sasha, when he was born. And every once in a while, Janis came home from work and saw her mother in the net, blocking her grandsons’ shots.
While hockey was the priority, it was far from the only thing the brothers did together. Janis and George would take them to the YMCA and they’d play basketball or soccer or go swimming. But there was one other activity Nick and Mike tried, their mother’s passion — dance.
It was a bargaining tool. Her sons could spend all the time they wanted at the rink playing hockey with their dad, if she could have them at the dance studio where she taught lessons. Plus, it was convenient after-school care. So Nick and Mike took ballet. They didn’t enjoy it, but it kept them flexible. Once they ventured beyond ballet, they discovered an affinity for hip-hop.
“I don’t remember ever being any good at it, but I remember my buddy picked the song,” Nick said. “It was the basketball song from the first High School Musical. That’s what we did our recital to. Thankfully, we outgrew that. I kind of wish I was better at it now.”
Added Mike: “I mean, I don’t regret it. It’s different. People made fun of me for it, but I thought it was cool.”
Eventually they hung up their dancing shoes and laced up their hockey skates. Holidays were spent at the rink or traveling to tournaments.
Like the year the Pastujovs spent Thanksgiving in Niagara Falls, Ontario at a tiny little buffet place. These trips provided the perfect opportunity for bonding over long car rides and seeing the world outside of Florida.
The only holiday hockey didn’t affect was Halloween, and in the Pastujov household it became a rite of passage.
The family had a huge bin brimming with costumes. Every year when October rolled around, Mike would search through it. The bin had exactly what you’d expect for a family with three sons. There’s Batman, Spiderman, Frankenstein, Dracula, Power Rangers. The list goes on.
The decision of what costume to pick was never difficult for Mike. He was just whatever his brother was the year before.
Usually, Mike didn’t want to copy Nick. Like all brothers, they competed against each other. Not just in hockey, in everything. When Nick got Velcro shoes, Mike seized his opportunity to be the first one to learn how to tie shoes. And rather than copying his older brother’s style, Mike was the one giving Nick tips on how to dress and pick clothes that complimented each other.
“I never had too good of style,” Nick said. “There’d be times where I’d get dressed for church or Christmas dinner, something like that, and he’d make me go change and he’d pick out a different outfit for me.”
Growing up, Nick and Mike were inseparable.
That changed in seventh grade when a coach from a program in Michigan approached George and Janis about the possibility of Nick joining the team and moving. Ultimately, they weren’t quite ready to let Nick go. But the next year, Mike and Nick’s team started to fall apart. It was the only triple-A program in Florida. If they wanted to continue playing hockey, it was going to involve relocating.
This time, when Honeybaked Hockey — a different club team than the previous year — approached the family, Janis was willing to entertain the idea. They took a visit to Michigan to get a better feel for what life for Nick would be like if he moved. Leaving Florida would mean he’d have to get a billet family.
“He really wanted to do it,” Janis said. “I used to say I put on my big-girl pants and let him go do what he wanted to do. As long as he was happy it was fine. We would come up for all the tournaments and everything.”
So, he went.
While Nick was in Michigan adjusting to living with a new family, Mike was adjusting to life without his older brother. The distance was good for Nick and Mike’s relationship, too — it helped them build a more mature, deeper bond. Being close despite separation proved that the brotherly connection wasn’t just because of hockey or proximity, but because they chose to be.
Ultimately, the separation didn’t last longer than a year. Mike occasionally traveled up to play with Honeybaked during Nick’s first year. In many ways, Nick was the family guinea pig. When Janis and George saw Nick’s billeting experience, letting Mike do the same was an easier decision. So, the following year, Mike moved to Michigan.
For Mike, the jump from one state to another was less jarring because he had Nick to turn to. He’d ask for advice on feeling comfortable asking his billet parents for something. Or getting along with his billet siblings. Or learning to take no for an answer.
Plus, there was the added benefit of seeing snow whenever he wanted.
While they lived with different billet families, Nick and Mike were reunited in every other sense. They played on the same team, most of the time on the same line. Every practice, they saw each other. Sometimes on the weekends, Nick would go visit Mike at his billet family, or Mike would go to Nick’s.
“I saw him every day pretty much,” Mike said. “It wasn’t bad, but it was always weird saying bye to him at the rink and then going home to different houses. That was kind of strange.”
Two years after moving to Michigan, the brothers had a defining moment. After a long season, their Honeybaked team found itself playing for the 2013 USA Hockey Tier 1 U14 National Championship game. With under one minute remaining, Honeybaked was trailing by a goal to Shattuck St. Mary’s.
After Honeybaked pulled its goaltender, an extra attacker skated on — Mike. He joined the attack alongside Nick, who was already on the ice. Moving back and forth across the blueline, Nick acted as a bumper to keep the puck in the zone. He swung the puck back into traffic. Positioned at the front of the goal, near the edge of the crease with his stick readied was Mike. When the puck came his way, he tapped it in.
Raising his arms in celebration and a combination of running and jumping on skates, Mike made his way towards Nick. When the distance got close enough, Nick launched himself onto his brother.
It was Mike who was by Nick’s side when he got drafted.
That day started the exact opposite of how a normal day for Nick would go. Anxious about his chances, he didn’t want to be anywhere near a TV. He didn’t even want to have cell reception. And so he and Mike ended up on a deep sea fishing boat off the coast of Miami. Back on land, George and Janis watched and waited, hoping for their son’s name to be called.
Just as the seventh round was starting, the boat was docking and Nick’s phone was regaining reception. By this point, he’d given up hope of being drafted, resigning to the optimism that there’s always next year. Then out of nowhere, he got a text welcoming him to the New York Islanders. He’d been drafted, 193rd overall.
Right by his side when everything was unfolding was Mike, and he couldn’t have been prouder of his older brother.
Through the years, they’ve shared countless other moments, good and bad.
Like the time they both sustained shoulder injuries that required surgery. Mike had his during his U17 year with the USNTDP, and Nick during the summer before his freshman year. When they needed someone who understood the process of being injured — the pains of being sidelined from hockey and rehabilitation — they didn’t have to look far.
When they arrived at Michigan, Nick and Mike faced a similar setback. In their respective first games at the University, neither of them even laced up their skates. Instead, they remained in their suits and watched from a section of the press box designated for the non-dressing Wolverines.
Having experienced the disappointment of being scratched the year before, Nick gave Mike tips and suggestions on how to handle the situation. It made Mike’s transition to college hockey a lot less like the fish-out-of-water experience it is for some players. He had Nick to guide him.
Five years after their big goal for Honeybaked, the Pastujovs combined in another monumental moment — the Frozen Four.
Nick assisted Mike’s late tying goal that breathed life into the Wolverines against Notre Dame.
“That was probably the coolest hockey moment we’ve had,” Nick said. “ … We knew we had to score. … It’s tough to describe just how elated and happy (Mike’s goal) made me. Being able to see him (celebrate) and just be right behind him was awesome.”
Nick is set to graduate this semester, which means his days on campus and his games dressed in a maize and blue sweater are fleeting. But that means the clock’s running out on something else, too — the brothers’ time together. This is likely the last year the Pastujovs will be on the ice, on the same line, together.
Next season, when Mike enters the offensive zone along the boards, Nick won’t be trailing behind, knowing his brother will eventually cut back and feed him the puck if he gets there in time. There won’t be a Pastujov celebratory hug when Nick nets a goal off a pass from Mike, or vice versa, the way there was last weekend when the brothers combined for two goals against No. 6 Penn State.
The most noticeable difference will be the back of Mike’s jersey. He’ll no longer be “M. Pastujov.” For the first time in three years, he’ll get to just be “Pastujov.”
It’s undeniable that hockey has contributed a lot to the bond Nick and Mike have, but it’s not solely because of the sport. Their years together at Michigan have proved that. They’ve lived together — by choice — the last two years. Sometimes they cook together. Mike prefers grilling while Nick sticks to the basics like pasta and pesto. They’ll watch TV together. On Sundays, it’s football. Occasionally, they’ll play it, and sometimes throw a ball in the stands of Yost Ice Arena during warm-up time. When the weather allows it, they’ll play golf.
Beyond their hockey dreams, they’ve got a dream as brothers to own a lake house. In the northern part of Michigan, where they could bring their families when they’re older.
And through all the hockey, dance recitals and fashion advice there’s something glaringly obvious about the brothers’ bond. Mike and Nick are much more than brothers.
They’re best friends.