Leadership qualities already a part of Nurse’s game

By Jason Menard

Darnell Nurse - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Photo: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Darnell Nurse has vaulted up 2013 NHL Draft rankings with his strong play in the 2012-13 season (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Combining an elite professional athlete pedigree with dynamic on-ice skills, already-manifested leadership capabilities, and pure freakish physicality, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ blueliner Darnell Nurse looks to be the prescription for success for one lucky NHL franchise.

At just 17, Nurse was named an assistant captain, but explained he’s dealing with the pressure of the added responsibility — and countless scouts’ eyes — by focusing on the team game.

“The biggest thing is to just stay focused and our goal of making the playoffs and making a splash from there,” states Nurse. “If you keep your mind on the games in the season and then the playoffs, all of those other distractions will just fade away. [Scouts] are always going to be out there for a reason and the biggest thing is to go out there and play the way that you play. Stick to your game plan. Play the way that you can, show them your ability, and not change the way you play based on who’s watching you.”

Nurse may redefine what it means to play the way that he can, according to his head coach, Sheldon Keefe.

“When you talk about those top-level NHL defensemen, he has the potential to do that,” he said. “But when you look at all the different tools that he brings to the table, he really is the next wave of defensemen coming into the NHL — these natural athletes, these top guys. You saw how he performed at the Top Prospects Game, how well he did… you usually don’t see those results from big guys. I think he’s got a lot of tools that are going to bring some very interesting options for the team that’s lucky enough to draft him.”

So far this season, he’s accounted for 11 goals and 35 points in just 59 games. He’s third on the squad in plus/minus at +19 (the OHL’s leading scorer, Nick Cousins, leads the squad at +24, and overager Brandon Alderson is second at +20.)

Nurse, who measures in at 6’5” and roughly 195 pounds, has cracked the ISS top five, behind only top-ranked Seth Jones amongst blueliners (and one spot ahead of fellow OHL defender Nikita Zadorov). The Hamilton, ON native was the ninth-ranked North American skater in Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings, but while he’s aware of what his competitors are doing — and has gotten to know a few of them — the only people he’s focused on is himself and his teammates.

“I think you’re always competing against other guys, but I wouldn’t say that I’m paying attention to what they’re doing,” said Nurse. “I just focus on my game and what I can do to help my team be successful and the rest will just take care of itself. “I got to know a lot of the guys at the [Top Prospects] tournament — a lot of great guys, not only players but people off the ice. Nikita and I had a flight together — get to meet him and find out he’s such a great guy — both on and off the ice. I can’t say anything bad about him. It’s great.

“The bottom line is that you’re competing against each other and you still have to go out and win the game.

At this year’s CHL Top Prospects Game, Nurse thrilled on-lookers with incredible physical performances. Nurse took home the top spot thanks to incredible performances in the broad jump (9’3”), four-kilogram medium ball toss (19’11”), and the 5-10-5 pro agility segment (4.62 seconds)

And while Nurse deals with the pressure of draft class comparisons, there’s another name that often comes up when discussing the prospect — Nurse’s uncle and former NFL quarterback, Donovan McNabb.

Nurse said he’s proud to discuss his relationship with his uncle as the quarterback has played such a key role in the young defenseman’s development.

“He’s been such an important person in my life,” Nurse explained. “Obviously, being an athlete, he’s been someone to whom I can go with questions, whether it’s how to prepare for a season, or situations to stay away from. I try to speak with him once or twice a week; we have a really good relationship. I really couldn’t ask for anything better as far as a role model and someone to reach out to.”

And the differences between the gridiron and a skating rink aren’t as vast as one might expect says Nurse.

“Obviously, whether you’re playing hockey or you’re in the NFL, you’re going to be in a room full of competitors and athletes, so in that way the advice is the same,” he said. “It’s about being able to get your message across and being able to go out on a daily basis and show how hard you can work is something that he’s shared with me.”

The giving of advice hasn’t been a two-way street yet, though.

“I’ve tried to get him on the ice here and there, and hopefully get him out on skates, but that’s about it,” he said, adding that since he’s not a fantasy football player there’s never been the pressure to take his famous uncle on his squad.

“But every time I played a video game, it was always his team.”

Nurses athletic roots run much deeper (and closer), as both of his parents are elite athletes. His father, Richard, was a receiver for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats; his mother, Cathy, was a Canadian inter-university basketball player; and his sister Tamika played collegiate hoops at Oregon and Bowling Green. His younger sister, Kia, is an up-and-coming athletic prospect, having played with Ontario’s under-15 basketball squad and leading it to national gold. McNabb is an uncle by marriage, as he met Richard’s sister Raquel when they were both at Syracuse, marrying in 2003. And Raquel was a star athlete in her own right, being two-time MVP and earning athlete-of-the-year honors as a point guard with the Syracuse Orange (not to mention a three-time Big East Academic All-Star).

Victor Carneiro, a Greyhound scout covering the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), explained that while it’s important to not give bloodlines too much credit, those familial ties have given him the foundation upon which Nurse’s athletic success has been built.

“The family background is important, but you don’t want to overstate it,” Carneiro said. "In Darnell’s case, his family background helped ensure that he was grounded in respect. His parents are both high-level athletes, his sister is a high-level athlete in her own right, and of course you have the uncle’s influence. He’s grounded in respect and understanding of what it takes to perform at an elite level.”

Nurse has obviously taken McNabb’s leadership lessons to heart, as he currently wears an ‘A’ on his chest despite being one of the youngest players on the team. Again, he’s quick to deflect credit to his veteran teammates for helping him in his role.

“Leadership is something that I think you need to be to be successful. You’ve got to work within a group, but you have to lead by example,” Nurse said, adding that he’s embraced the added pressure of being an assistant captain. “I think the biggest thing is that you get it for a reason. You don’t change the person that you are simply because you’ve got a letter on your jersey. I think the guys in the room know that I’m going to go out there, lead by example, and do my best each and every night to show what I’m worth. At the same standpoint, if something needs to be said, I’m not afraid to go out and do it.

“The older guys have really opened up to me and come to me. It’s something that’s been really different — having the extra role — but I’m enjoying it and I’ve had a lot of support and help from all of the guys, too.”

Keefe added that he’s had no concerns with Nurse’s ability to handle the pressure despite his younger age.

“I think if you just spend a few minutes with Darnell it’s pretty noticeable that he’s mature beyond his years,” Keefe explained. “I think the big thing for him is that not only does he have the confidence and maturity to speak up when needed, he backs everything up in terms of his habits — how he works in the gym, he handles himself off the ice, how he practices — he’s always demanding more of himself to get better.

“Regardless of age, he commands respect from all the guys.”

Carneiro said he’s not at all shocked to see Nurse wearing the ‘A’ at such a (relatively) young age in the OHL.

“No. It goes back to his family and character again,” he said. “When anyone talked to Darnell you know he was going to be a leader — even at 16 he was starting to display those leadership qualities.

“He knows what it takes and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him wear a letter at the NHL level.”

Despite growing up in the hub of southwestern Ontario, Nurse explained that the transition to the Soo hasn’t been tough at all.

“[Sault Ste. Marie] is a smaller version of Hamilton. It’s a steel town and there’s a lot of hard-working people — and that’s the way they like their players,” he said. “You want to make a good impression.”

And playing in Northern Ontario has its advantages as he’s not under the same type of public microscope that he would have been under had he played closer to home.

“I think that’s definitely a benefit. Our fans are really driven and love coming out, but at the same time we’re in our own building and off in our own section of the province,” Nurse said. “There are obviously still ‘eyes’, but at the same time it’s a great place where you can just focus on playing hockey and doing your job.

“It’s been pretty easy — you get anywhere you want within 10 minutes and I’ve loved playing there. My experience has been nothing but positive.”

Well, Nurse is willing to qualify that “nothing but positive” quote when asked about the bus trips.

“They’ve gotten a lot better,” he conceded, laughing. “The first couple of trips were a little tough and I wasn’t used to it, but I think going through last year and now into this year, it’s made it a lot easier.

“It’s fun to be out there with 23 other guys — a lot of good times and hotel rooms, too!”

Growing up in Hamilton, Nurse was exposed to the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, through the Bulldogs’ franchise, as well as the omnipresent Toronto Maple Leafs. But his hockey interests moved south of the border.

“We used to go to a lot of Bulldogs games when I was younger, but as I grew up I really started to enjoy the New Jersey Devils,” he said. “Scott Stevens, I used to love watching him hit people.

“I’ve always wanted the Leafs to do well. I hope this year they make a splash.”

As he grew up, he focused on two players — two players to whom he’s frequently compared — in growing his skill set.

“I started watching the NHL a lot more probably about four or five years ago,” Nurse said. “Chris Pronger is someone I first started to watch. He’s such an effective player, he so good at all aspects of the game and people really hate playing against him. More lately, I’ve been watching Shea Weber and his ability to be a dominant player. I’m trying to take away little bits of their game and add it to mine.

“My goal is becoming a player like Chris Pronger or Shea Weber — those are things that you dream of becoming. I just want to be able to be that hard to play against.”

Keefe said he understands the comparison, but added that Nurse is a unique package of talents.

“It’s always difficult when you start comparing a 17-year-old kid to future Hall of Famer's, but with that said, there’s really not a lot that he can’t do,” Keefe explained. “He’s got the size, he has the physicality. He has no issues stepping up for his teammates or backing up his play when it comes to fighting. He’s a gamer. He’s very explosive — both in terms of his skating and his ability to step up into the rush. He can close the gap and get in there very quickly.

“A large portion of his goals come from stepping up and being part of the rush — you usually don’t see that type of skill set in a player his age and his size.”

And as big as Nurse is today, Keefe sees him easily packing on a few more pounds of muscle.

“I know from the way that he works in the gym, he’s going to add to that frame. He’ll put on 20-25 pounds,” the coach added. “And with that explosive nature — he’s a natural athlete in every sense of the word — he’s going to become a very scary package.”

Despite 11 goals to date, Carneiro explained that some still question Nurse’s offensive upside — though he added that he’s not one of them.

“The one knock that you hear about Darnell is about what the high end of his offensive game will be,” he said. “He’s going to be a great shutdown defender, but though he’s in good shape, he hasn’t filled out yet.

“That offensive game will come — I think he’s got a lot of potential, and I wouldn’t discount his offensive upside.

Nurse explained that in addition to working in the gym and staying after practice each day, he wants to work on his consistency going forward.

“There are times in the game where I can get into lulls and keeping myself up for 60 minutes,” he said. “I want to always be someone that’s tough to play against and always be aware of where I am on the ice. Those are a couple of things I can work on.”

Keefe said Nurse’s growth areas are merely stops along the natural progression of any young defender. “They’re just little things: picking his spots, when to get involved offensively and make an extra play, or when to advance the puck and hang back,” he said. “It’s all part of being a young player. Learning how to make the right play all the time is just part of the growth curve for a younger player.

“He needs to get more solid and more firm. At times he gets a little bit off stride and, on that kind of frame with how aggressive of a game that he plays, it’s natural.

Nurse is clearly confident that his teammates will help him along the way. With a number of older players who have been through the process previously, Nurse said that they’ve made him completely comfortable in coming to them with questions and concerns.

“The biggest thing is that I’m able to fire off questions at any time,” Nurse explained. “There are certain points of the season when questions may come up, like ‘Hey, what was the combine like?’ or ‘How did you handle the pressure of scouts?’ They’re always open to answer and responding.

“We have a great group of guys who are really behind me and have been really supportive throughout the whole process. At the same time, there’s still a long way to go and I know they’re going to be there the rest of the way.”