During February of 1995, Hamilton Tiger Cats wide receiver Richard Nurse was enjoying the offseason before the start of the 1995 CFL season. The previous year, the Ti-Cats had missed the playoffs, leaving Nurse plenty of time to relax and recover during a long offseason. In addition, his wife was due to give birth any day (which means he probably wasn't relaxing too much) with a child they would eventually name Darnell. On the 5th of February, Darnell finally arrived, soon to be blessed with the natural athletic ability and size of his professional athlete father. Oh, what a football player he would become. Or not...
"My father never really gave me the opportunity to play football, due to the dangers of playing such a physical sport at a young age," says Darnell, now a 17 year old, 6'5 defenseman for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The irony in this statement is rich, since Nurse instead chose hockey, a sport which carries similar concussion and injury concerns as the one he was forbidden to play. But, at a young age, hockey does not carry contact concerns. Let us not believe that every father puts their child in hockey assuming (or hoping) they will grow up to be professional players, or even rep players. No matter what the sport, it's likely that Nurse would have grown to excel at it because of the genetics he was blessed with. Although, this is something Nurse downplays suggesting that the mental and moral support from a father who was a professional athlete is the greater advantage. "Having the support of a parent that has been through a lot of the same situations you are going through is an even bigger advantage.," says Nurse. "I believe the mental aspect that comes with having family members with professional backgrounds is the greatest advantage. Being able to pick someone's brain on what he went through and his experiences in sports allows me to have insight into how to make certain decisions."
One such decision was to leave his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, for the greater Canadian north to play for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last year. Nurse was taken 3rd overall by the Hounds in the 2011 Priority Draft and immediately became a fixture on the team's talented, yet inexperienced defense. The Hounds got off to a great start, but eventually fizzled and ended up missing the playoffs. The year was a bit of a rollercoaster for Darnell, who finished a -15, with only 10 points. "Last year was a learning experience both as a player and a person. I luckily had the support of a great coaching staff as well as a great group of guys who helped me through the ups and downs of playing in the OHL. The biggest thing I took away from last year is that nothing is ever given, you have to earn it," says Darnell.
A lot of people cried foul when Darnell was given a spot on the Under 18 team by Hockey Canada. Outsiders saw an underage defenseman (most of the members on the team were 1994's) who posted modest stats and wondered what the reasoning was behind his inclusion. Once he stepped on the ice, the reasoning became obvious. He wasn't given ice time, he earned it; earned it with terrific play and poise at both ends of the ice. Anyone who has ever watched international hockey knows the importance of having a big, physical defender who can skate on your team. And Nurse was just that for Hockey Canada. The tournament is designed for draft eligible players to show off their stuff one last time before June, but it was Nurse, a player a year away from being drafted, who was leaving scouts salivating. And while the Canadians only went home with a bronze, this was actually the first medal the team had achieved since 2008. Quite an achievement; an achievement Nurse had his hand in.
So it came as no surprise when Hockey Canada named Nurse to it's Summer Ivan Hlinka team, another Under 18 event (not sanctioned by the IIHF). However, this time Nurse would be going home with the gold. And again, Nurse was one of the team's most valuable players. Two medals in a span of only a few months. Not too shabby. "Having the opportunity to represent Canada was an experience I will never forget." says Nurse. "It 100% brings out the best in players. Being around such a great group of players and people pushed me to do everything I could to help in the process."
Fast forward to the present and we find the Hounds in a similar position as last year, competing for the Western Conference after the first month of the season. What's preventing this year's Hounds group from repeating last year's mistakes? "The difference with our team this year is our ability to stick to the game plan and not quit when we find ourselves in tough positions. This year no matter what the case, we play to the final buzzer. That is something that we must continue to do to have a successful season. Everyone knows the importance of every game," says Nurse.
And Nurse has a great point. The team is returning the majority of it's core members, including captain Colin Miller, leading scorer Nick Cousins, and starting goaltender (let's not forget that he was the team's starter through the opening months last year), Matthew Murray. They experienced the pain of missing the playoffs by the smallest amount last season and should look to rectify 2012's mistakes. The big difference is Nurse, who enters his second OHL season, bigger, stronger, and most importantly, more confident. He's playing in all situations and is off to a terrific start with 4 assists already, and a team best +7 rating. He's also wearing an "A" and leading by example on and off the ice.
When asked if he's looking ahead to the NHL draft in June, Darnell had this to say; "My biggest focus this year is doing what I can to make sure that our team in Sault Ste Marie has a successful year. I believe everything else will take care of itself with team success." Truer words have never been spoken. Unfortunately, in the coming weeks, Darnell is going to have more say in his team's success than he probably envisioned. He's going to have to put this defense on his back and make sure the team stays hot through the month of October. And if the Hounds can keep piling on the wins, Darnell is going to get his share of NHL draft attention. One thing is for certain, all eyes will be on him for the next little while. And to me, it sounds like he's perfectly equipped to handle that.
Here's the full transcript of the Q & A I was able to do with Darnell.
Brock Otten - The Hounds are off to a great start this year, what’s been the difference between last year and this year?
Darnell Nurse - The difference with our team this year is our ability to stick to the gameplan and not quit when we find ourselves in tough positions. This year no matter what the case, we play to the final buzzer. That is something that we must continue to do to have a successful season.
BO - However, I do have to point out that you guys started off just as well last year. How do you ensure that this year, you guys can keep it up and finish just as strong as you started?
DN - Last year was a learning experience for everyone involved. Due to the fact that we experienced the tough reality of missing the playoffs by one point, everyone knows the importance of every game.
BO - Even though you guys seem to be winning games, the defense has been giving up a ton of shots (The most in the league as I ask this). Do you think you (the defense in general) need to be better, or is this stat a bit overblown?
DN - Our team defence has come a long way since game one of the season and we continue to improve on a daily basis. With such a great goalie in Matt Murray we have been able to get away with giving teams a little more than we should. As everyone buys into the system, defence will become one of our team's strengths.
BO - On a personal level, you’re off to a good start. What’s the difference between Darnell Nurse last year, and this year?
DN - This summer there was a lot of extra time put into growing as a player on the ice and becoming stronger in the gym. Along with that, being in my second year in the league, my confidence has helped me to use my abilities that sometimes I did not show last year. However, it is only the start of the year and staying consistent is a big focus I have this year, in order to help the team be successful.
BO - Let’s back track a bit. Last year was a bit of a tough one for the team, and for you (at least offensively). What did you take away from your rookie season in the league? Was there a welcome to the OHL moment?
DN - Last year was a learning experience both as a player and a person. I luckily had the support of a great coaching staff as well as a great group of guys who helped me through the ups and downs of playing in the OHL. The biggest thing I took away from last year is that nothing is ever given, you have to earn it.
BO - Were you at all surprised by your inclusion on the Under 18 team?
DN - I knew there was a chance I might have had the opportunity to play, but when I got the call it was the most excited I had been in a long time.
BO - You were fortunate enough to represent Canada, yet again, this summer at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. Everyone I’ve talked to suggests you were among the better players at both events (the Under 18’s and the Ivan Hlinka). Do you think you played well? Does donning the Maple Leaf make you step up your game?
DN - Having the opportunity to represent Canada was an experience I will never forget. It 100% brings out the best in players. Being around such a great group of players and people pushed me to do everything I could to help in the process.
BO - How does the son of a former CFL player get into hockey?
DN - My father never really gave me the opportunity to play football, due to the dangers of playing such a physical sport at a young age.
BO - Whenever the mainstream media talks about you, they always bring up your father’s football background, suggesting that you’ve got a genetic advantage over some of the other players (similar to Seth Jones). Do you really think that’s the case?
DN - I believe it definitely has alot to do with my physical build and athleticism. However, having the support of a parent that has been through a lot of the same situations you are going through is an even bigger advantage.
BO - Just the same, do you think having your father and your uncle (Donovan McNabb) around has given you an advantage mentally? Do you think you’re better prepared for a professional career because of their advice?
DN - I believe the mental aspect that comes with having family members with professional backgrounds is the greatest advantage. Being able to pick someone's brain on what he went through and his experiences in sports allows me to have insight into how to make certain decisions.
BO - For those that have never seen you play, how would you describe yourself?
DN - I am a shut-down defenceman with an offensive upside. I definitely enjoy frustrating opponents and playing physical.
BO - Is there a player in the NHL you look at and say “that’s a guy I’d really like to play like?” In other words, do you emulate your game after anyone?
DN - I have been watching Chris Pronger for a long time and seeing how smart he is on the ice and his ability to intimidate opposing players is something I try to incorporate into my game.
BO - Conversely, what do you think you need to work on?
DN - My shot and getting pucks through from the point is a part of my game that I continue to work on.
BO - Is there a specific goal you’re working towards in terms of the NHL draft? Or is it just a case of wanting to get drafted, no matter the round? (Need I remind you that first rounder’s get a larger signing bonus on their ELC!)
DN - My biggest focus this year is doing what I can to make sure that our team in Sault Ste Marie has a successful year. I believe everything else will take care of itself with team success.
BO - Who’s the hardest forward in the league to stop one on one?
DN - Trocheck on Saginaw is definitely the hardest player one on one to contain in our league. Since they are in our division it is always a great challenge when we face off.
BO - Last question. I always like to ask players one of those strange NHL combine questions. You get to invite three people from history (dead or alive) to dinner, who are they?
DN - Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Mohammed Ali. Would be unbelievable to pick the brains of some of the greatest athletes sports have seen.
Thanks to Darnell Nurse and Gerry Liscumb Jr. for making this happen. All the best to Darnell and the Hounds through the rest of this season.
Also, photo credit to James Egan Photography (and thanks to Gerry for sending it over). It's from the team's "Pink in the Rink" night last weekend.