Darnell Nurse isn’t going to be a professional football player. But with his family’s history, if football was his passion, Nurse could probably take a pretty good run at it.
Growing up in a family filled with talented athletes has given Nurse an advantage not many young people have. His father, Richard, was a receiver in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and his mother played basketball at McMaster University, which is also located in Steeltown. Both of his sisters are also talented athletes; his older sister Tamika played NCAA basketball, and his younger sister Kia plays hoops for the Canadian Cadette Women’s National Team. And of course, Darnell’s cousin Sarah plays for the Stoney Creek Sabres in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, and is among the league’s scoring leaders.
As a cherry on top, former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is an uncle of Nurse’s.
“We have a competitive household, that’s for sure,” Nurse told the CBC in his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League. “We all want to win. My dad likes to talk about his accomplishments. But I think it’s been great to grow up in an environment like that. We share our stories about our different circumstances and we learn from each other.”
The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenceman has emerged as the OHL’s top draft-eligible blueliner. With the athletic skill his family has had and currently possesses, it comes as no real surprise Nurse has grown into an elite young athlete.
Nurse has drawn comparisons to slightly-former NHL defenceman Chris Pronger. At 6’5”, 195 pounds, the comparison is hard to avoid. Not that Nurse would have it any other way.
“He’s definitely someone I try to model myself after,” Nurse told the Toronto Star. “I’ve watched him and got film from his younger days as a player and always been impressed with how effective he is even with all the minutes he plays.”
Shea Weber is another NHLer Nurse looks up to. Weber’s two-way style of game, one that includes an intimidating physical presence, is a style Nurse relates to. Not only does Nurse focus on the body, but he’s making sure to sharpen his defensive skills. Weber is known as a defenceman who’s responsible at both ends of the ice, and that’s precisely the style Nurse hopes to fine-tune.
“[Weber’s] a force in the league on a nightly basis,” Nurse told Buzzing The Net’s Neate Sager. “Being able to watch tape of him and model some things after the way he plays is something I’ve been trying to do.”
The complete package Nurse owns has scouts excited about his NHL potential. International Scouting Service’s head scout, Ross MacLean, feels Nurse has solid odds of going in first five picks of the upcoming draft.
“I think Nurse could go as high as third in the draft, possibly even second if the team picking in that spot is set on Seth Jones and doesn’t get him,” MacLean stated. “He’s got a very similar package to Dougie Hamilton but could be a little bit more explosive. He’s still so raw, which is something that I think a lot of teams who have strong faith in their development departments will salivate over. He’s a tremendous athlete who is still very much a lump of clay and can be moulded into a very special and dynamic player in a multitude of systems.”
As is the case with all prospects, there are always scouts trying to find flaws that could hinder future performance. With Nurse, his slender frame is one, but there’s plenty of time for him to fill out. Handling the physicality of the OHL hasn’t been much of an issue as of yet. Now that Nurse is beginning to take the next step on his trek to the pros, his stature is being analyzed on a regular basis.
All signs suggest Nurse is big enough at 17-years-old to have enough time to bulk up for reaching the NHL. Since he’s still a couple years away from jumping into the big league, there’s no real reason for Nurse to be concerned. He, like everyone else in a similar position, knows gaining strength is all part of the necessary process to live the dream.
In the fight below between Nurse and Oshawa Generals forward Scott Sabourin, it’s noticeable that Nurse’s upper-body strength isn’t quite where it’s going to need to be. But observers need to understand that Nurse is still growing out, so he’ll get stronger with time. Considering that Sabourin is one the OHL’s fighting leaders, Nurse did very well.
Nurse’s offensive game is often unheralded. Sean LaFortune, an OHL regional scout for McKeen’s Hockey, believes Nurse’s offensive game is coming along nicely.
“One of the more ignored aspects to Darnell Nurse’s progression has been his offensive instincts,” LaFortune tweeted recently. “[Nurse] knows when to jump into the play, when to support the attack. Making more decisive, intelligent decisions with the puck. He’s more [than] just a physical presence.”
Playing with the Don Mills Flyers Minor Midget squad gave Nurse loads of talent to develop with as he approached his OHL draft-year. That team was also home to Matt Buckles and Max Domi, who are eligible for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft as well. It was a high-profile team, one filled with big names. It gave Nurse the chance to get used to pressure at a young age. Appropriately, Nurse has grown accustomed to being ranked high on draft lists; the expectations that come with being a top prospect don’t seem to affect his game.
“It’s nice to be [high on draft boards] but some things come with it … you have to stand up for yourself a little bit more,” Nurse told NHL.com. “That’s a brand of hockey I really enjoy playing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
David O’Connor is a managing editor with the Sunbelt Hockey Journal. His writing has been on the Los Angeles Times’ website, among other places. O’Connor also does some scouting work for the local Junior B hockey club. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.