TAMPA — Lightning rookie defenseman Andrej Sustr's family has a small, successful business in Plzen, Czech Republic, selling interior glass doors for homes.
Sustr, 22, grew up helping parents Jaroslav and Dita at the store, which has eight employees. "Without them, I wouldn't be in this position," he said of his parents. "It's creative. If nothing works out, I can see myself continuing in that business."
Sustr, mature beyond his years, knows NHL success is no guarantee, which is why he played three years at Nebraska-Omaha and plans to complete his final 30 credits for a degree in general studies. But Sustr, who at 6 feet 8 and 225 pounds looks more like a basketball forward than a hockey defenseman, appears to have a hockey future because of his size, skating ability and smarts.
Sustr (pronounced SOO-ster) showed all three in an impressive NHL debut Friday against the Devils, logging 13 minutes in a 5-4 shootout win after signing a week earlier as a free agent.
"I thought he was outstanding," coach Jon Cooper said. "It's one thing for a forward to go into a game; you can probably hide him a little bit more. But for a defenseman to go in … if that's his first kick at the can, that's a good sign.
"It was hard for us not to put him out there. You're waiting … to say, 'Okay, enough is enough, he's over his head.' But he never gave us that opportunity."
Said goalie Mathieu Garon: "He looked like he belonged there."
Sustr said he is still raw compared with other NHL defenseman; he continues to grow into his wiry frame. But he has come a long way since being a 195-pound freshman at Nebraska-Omaha, where he used his head because he wasn't initially strong enough to throw his body around. Sustr said his experience in college against bigger and older players helped mature his game. He learned more about positioning and angles, and that prepared him for the NHL.
"I think his greatest asset is between his ears," said former Nebraska-Omaha assistant coach Mike Hastings, now head coach at Minnesota State-Mankato. "He's a bright young man, intelligent kid. … He thinks his way around the rink. He's got the right mental makeup to go through the process of understanding what it's like to be in the (NHL) consistently."
Sustr started playing hockey when he was 8, sparked by watching the Czech Republic win the gold medal in the 1998 Olympics. He looked up to fellow Czechs in the NHL such as ex-Lightning defenseman Roman Hamrlik, and he identified with Bruins 6-foot-9 star defenseman Zdeno Chara because of his size.
"Obviously, he's more of an enforcer than I am as of right now," Sustr said of Chara, smiling. "But we'll see, maybe that side will develop a couple years down the road."
Hastings thought Sustr was very well-adjusted by the time he arrived on campus, considering his first taste of America came in small-town Alaska playing for the Kenai River Brown Bears of the Junior A North American Hockey League.
Sustr wasn't heavily recruited out of the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the United States, but he blossomed into a prospect who had several suitors before picking the Lightning.
Sustr said being part of Tampa Bay's prospect camp last summer was huge in his decision. "It's been amazing," he said. "Everyone has been great to me, and I'm really happy to be here. It's a dream come true, and I'm just enjoying every minute of it."