Darnell Nurse has seen the life pro athletes live. He wants in.
Nurse, expected to be a top-10 pick in the NHL Draft on June 30, comes from a family of athletes. His father, Richard, was a wide receiver in the Canadian Football League after playing at Canisius College. His sister, Tamika, played basketball at Oregon and Bowling Green. His aunt Raquel played hoops at Syracuse – where she met her husband, Donovan McNabb, the former NFL quarterback.
“When you hear about the experiences that my dad and uncle had, I mean that’s what really drives me,” Nurse said. “It’s fun to work a 9-to-5, but it’s a lot more fun to go into the gym at 9 in the morning and get prepared for the game on Sunday or Saturday. For me, that’s what really drives me. Playing in the NHL is all I’ve ever wanted for my whole life and to be a professional athlete.”
He’s not far away. NHL Central Scouting ranks the 6-foot-4 defenseman as the No. 4 skater in North America. He’s the second-best blue-liner behind likely No. 1 overall pick Seth Jones.
“The expectations outside are probably less than the expectations I put on myself and what I want to do on a yearly basis,” Nurse said at the scouting combine. “I feel as if I have to grow every time I get on the ice. It’s putting in everything I have every time I step out or go in the gym. That will always be my focus, always be my mind-set, and we’ll see where it takes me.”
His work ethic propelled him from one goal and 10 points last season to 12 goals and 41 points this year with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League. While the offensive jump was impressive, it’s not what piques teams’ interest. Nurse’s forte is toughness. He’s a rock in his own zone, unafraid to deliver hits and right hooks. The native of Hamilton, Ont., even fought during the Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects Game.
“The main part of my game so far has come in my own zone, the D-zone, being hard to play against, and that won’t change at the next level,” the 18-year-old said. “That’s going to be my role. Obviously, the offense part I’ve tapped into, but at the same time I’ve still got to make a lot of adjustments there and in my D-zone.”
The desire for contact can get the best of him, but Nurse is a quality skater who can overcome some mistakes with his speed. His hockey sense needs to catch up to his physical tools. The 185-pounder also needs to fill out his tall frame.
Nurse learned weight-lifting tips while working out with McNabb and other NFL players a couple of years ago in Arizona. He also visited the Eagles’ locker room a few times while McNabb played in Philadelphia and soaked in the atmosphere.
“A couple guys just said, ‘Chase it. Give it everything you have every time you’re in the gym,’ ” Nurse said. “That’s the biggest thing I take away from that and continue to use now.”
Despite being surrounded by football and basketball players, Nurse knew hockey was the right sport for him. He went to a football camp in Canada as a youngster, got the wind knocked out of him on the second day and decided football was much more fun on television.
His dad, a wideout for Canisius in 1989 and the Hamilton Tiger Cats from 1990 to ‘95, also steered him away from the sport after seeing the toll it took on his body.
“My dad said, ‘You’re getting hit on every single play when you play football,’” Darnell Nurse said. “They’re looking out for the best of my interests and the best of my health, and I’m thankful for it now.
“As a young kid, I never wanted to be off the ice. Playing physical, playing hard at that type of speed, I think there’s nothing that beats it.”
Nurse had surgery in April to repair a torn tendon in his left ring finger. He skipped the fitness test portion of the scouting combine, but he excelled during the interviews. McNabb helped Nurse learn how to handle a questioner and microphone.
“The biggest advice he gave me was just be genuine, don’t try to be anyone else,” Nurse said. “I’ve really shown who I am. I try and manufacture answers and not just to what people want to hear. That’s the biggest thing. I’ll always be genuine.”
It’s all part of the ride toward his goal of living the dream.
“A lot of people get drafted,” Nurse said, “but the real work begins once July 1 starts.”