When it comes to competition, it’s hard to beat the Nurse family.
Athletic excellence seems to be on every branch of the family tree: Roger Nurse was a stellar Lacrosse player in Canada. Brother Richard was a wide receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. His wife, Cathy, was a basketball standout at Canada’s McMaster University. Their daughter, Tamika, played hoops for the University of Oregon and Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Another daughter, Kia, is a point guard for Canada’s national women’s basketball team and will play for the University of Connecticut this Fall.
Even extended family members have strong sports ties: Richard and Roger’s sister, Raquel, a former Syracuse University basketball standout, is married to former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Athletic competition fuels competition in the family.
“Our whole family, we compete all the time,” Richard Nurse told me. “My kids compete, me and my wife compete. Everybody competes. There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not competing.”
In recent years, a new competitive branch has sprouted on the Nurse family sports tree – a hockey branch.
Darnell Nurse, a defenseman for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, will be vying for a spot on the Edmonton Oilers roster when the National Hockey League team opens training camp in September. Next month, the Oilers’ 2013 first round draft pick will attend Hockey Canada’s National Junior Team’s summer development camp in Quebec, an audition of sorts for a slot on Team Canada for the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto this winter.
Darnell, 19, captained the Greyhounds last season and tallied 13 goals, 37 assists in 64 games. He played four regular season games for the Oklahoma City Barons, Edmonton’s American Hockey League farm team, and registered one assist. He also notched an assist in three playoff games for the Barons.
Not bad for a kid who initially wanted to follow dad and Uncle Donovan and play football.
“He wanted to play football because he was surrounded by guys who played football,” Richard said. “When you’re a young kid and you’re athletic, they make you a running back. You end up getting hit 1,000 times before it truly ever counts. I told Darnell, ‘You’re a lanky kid, you’ve got a little bit of athleticism, they’re going to make you a running back, you’re going to get hit, you’re going to be on your knees all the time. If you want to play football, you can pick football later.’ He never did because the hockey thing obviously worked out for him.”
These days, it’s Darnell who dishes out the hits on the ice as a physical defenseman with skating skill and some offensive tools. He was one of the final cuts the Oilers made at last season’s training camp and he’s determined to make Head Coach Dallas Eakins’ decision whether to keep him or send him back to Sault Ste. Marie for another season of seasoning a hard one. When he was cut last year, Darnell said “it sucks.” This season, he’s taking a more measured approach.
“Playing [in the NHL] last year probably wouldn’t have been the best for my development, and you probably take it a little harder when you first get sent down but for me I’m just going to put myself in a position where I’m in the best shape possible and as strong as I can be when September rolls around,” Darnell told the Edmonton Journal earlier this month.
Hockey runs in threes in Roger and Michelle Nurse’s home. Daughter Sarah, 19, begins her sophomore season with the University of Wisconsin’s NCAA Division I women’s hockey team. A forward, she scored 11 goals – including three game-winners – and 10 assists for the Badgers in 38 games. Her performance earned her a spot on the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s 2013-14 All Rookie Team.
“She’s the cerebral one,” Roger said. “If I have to do a scouting report, I’d say she’s got a very high hockey IQ; does nothing fancy but just gets to the net; she gets to the open space. She’s always put pucks in the net.”
She was a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the 2013 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship in Finland. She’s among 42 players invited by Hockey Canada earlier this month to participate in its National Women’s Development Team selection camp next month in Calgary.
“The first thing that comes to mind with Sarah is speed,” Badgers Head Coach Mark Johnson said last year. “She is a great skater, very quick and very fast. She also combines her speed with great stick skills and the ability to score. She comes from an athletic family.”
Sarah’s younger brother, Elijah, was a 13th-round pick of the Greyhounds in last April’s OHL draft. A left wing, he scored 6 goals and 4 assists last season for the Hamilton Huskies in Canada’s Alliance Hockey Minor Midget Pavilion League.
“He’s undersized, but tough, tough as nails,” Roger Nurse said of his 16-year-old son. “He can go in a corner and get hit by three guys bigger than him and you think he’s dead. Doesn’t miss a shift.”
Then there’s baby brother Issac, a 15-year-old forward who played last season for the Huskies. Some hockey experts believe that he could be a future OHL first round draft pick.
“I tell him ‘The harder you work, the harder you work on the ice, it’s up you. You can go anywhere from the first round to the 10th round, it all depends how hard you work,'” Roger said. “He’s got the tools. He’s just got to make sure the toolbox is intact, and this is the year to prove it.”
With a house full of high-caliber athlete-children and being athletes themselves, the Nurse adults combine loving understanding with tough love in preaching and teaching accountability, toughness, and commitment to their offspring. Those were lessons taught to Richard and Roger by their parents, who moved to Canada from Trinidad.
“You play when you’re hurt, you play through injury, you go hard, and don’t show weaknesses,” Roger said. “You don’t sit off. It’s just a mentality we have.”
Asked if all their kids understand the mentality, Richard Nurse, ever the competitor, let out a laugh.
“I think mine have figured it out,” he said. “Roger’s are still working on it.”