Athletic genes aid Attack’s Nastasiuk in his quest to reach the NHL

By Jason Menard

Zach Nastasiuk - Owen Sound Attack

Photo: Owen Sound Attack forward and Detroit Red Wings prospect Zach Nastasiuk has taken on a leadership role with the Attack this season as that team’s captain (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

For Owen Sound Attack captain Zach Nastasiuk, sports is bred in the bone. But despite his father reaching the pinnacle of Canadian gridiron success, the only Detroit professional squad Zach would ever play for would be the Red Wings — never the Lions.

“I was not allowed to go play football,” Nastasiuk explained. “He knew the toll it took on your body and he wouldn’t let me do that.”

Paul Nastasiuk was a running back/slot back who played seven years in the CFL. He won the Grey Cup on the legendary 1991 Toronto Argonauts’ squad — the one helmed by Wayne Gretzky, John Candy, and Bruce McNall, who lured Raghib ‘Rocket’ Ismail away from the NFL.

The stories and rumours about that squad are legendary, so did Paul pass down any lore to his son?

“He’s told me a lot of stories,” Nastasiuk said. “Both good and bad.”

Nastasiuk’s entire family is athletic. His mother played basketball at the university level (“I didn’t go the basketball route,” the 6’2, 200-pound Nastasiuk said. “I don’t think I was good enough for basketball.”), while his sister was recently a member of the Western Mustangs’ women’s hockey team. And he credits that family dynamic with helping to get him where he is today.

“There’s a lot of competition. It’s really crazy,” he said. “Your parents are always driving everywhere, the kids — there’s a lot of stress. But at the same time there’s a lot of support. We all love each other and help each other.”

And despite having two athletes as parents, Nastasiuk said there was never any pressure for the kids to choose a sporting path.

“No. I think both my parents did a great job of supporting us in whatever we chose to do,” he said. “I enjoyed being an athlete, so that’s what I chose to do.”

Having a father who played sports at the professional level has helped him as he progresses through his hockey career, Nastasiuk explained.

“For sure. I think he really helped me on the mental side of things: to be ready for constructive criticism, be ready to get yelled at, it’s never going to be easy,” Nastasiuk said. “If you want something you have to go get it, so he’s really helped me with the mental side of game.”

Nastasiuk is in his third full season with the Owen Sound Attack and is captaining the squad this year. He was drafted in the second round, 48th overall, by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2013 NHL Draft following a 20-goal, 20-assist campaign. This year, with the added leadership role, Nastasiuk has upped his production to 20 goals and 46 points in 56 games to date. He’s also piloted the Attack into the playoff picture as the club sits seventh in the OHL's Western Conference — three points behind Saginaw for sixth and seven points up on eighth-place Plymouth.

“It’s definitely fun when we’re in these type of games, because every game’s a tough game and the playoffs are the best time of the year,” Nastasiuk said. “My goals are just to lead this team into the playoffs and make the biggest playoff run we can.”

And while NHL camp is still “a long way away,” Nastasiuk is looking forward to his second NHL camp with the Red Wings, who signed the forward to a three-year, entry-level contract earlier this season.

“I need to get bigger, get stronger, and go make a name for myself at camp,” he said. “But that’s pretty far away right now, though. My focus is on Owen Sound right now.”

The next time he’ll likely be a little less in awe of the players around him.

“[This year’s camp] was very, very cool,” he said. “It finally hits you that you’re on the ice with [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg, and all of those players. It’s pretty fascinating that instead of watching those guys on TV, you’re playing with them.

“It’s hard not to get star struck, but it was a really fun experience and I learned a lot.”

Nastasiuk said there wasn’t any one player that stood out in terms of helping him out. Rather, he said the entire organization was supportive — a testament to the framework in which the franchise works.

“They’re very professional with what they do,” he said. “I think Jeff Blashill, the AHL coach [of the Red Wings’ Grand Rapids Griffins affiliate], really helped me a lot. I got to know him pretty well because he was our coach at prospect camp. I heard his voice a lot and he taught me some new terms.”

And Nastasiuk is quick to credit his OHL coach for helping make the transition even smoother — both now and, hopefully, in the future.

“Greg Ireland, our coach, has done a great job teaching me all the terms and the systems,” he said. “Going up there it wasn’t that much different for me. I can’t thank Greg enough for making it so easy for me.”

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard