He’s No. 25 on the Flyers, he’s a big blueliner who can skate and lord help you if you get near his goaltender. Chris Pronger? Not quite. Not yet, at least.
But defenseman Darnell Nurse of the Don Mills Flyers does study Philly’s Nastiest whenever he can. At nearly 6-foot-4 and 176 pounds, Nurse isn’t quite Pronger’s size, but give the kid some time: he’s only 15.
“He’s a pretty imposing guy, with his size and the way he moves on the ice,” said Don Mills coach Bob Marshall.
A top prospect for this year’s Ontario League draft, Nurse comes from an impressively athletic family. His father, Richard, was a wide receiver for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 1990s, while older sister Tamika played NCAA basketball at Oregon and Bowling Green. So why hockey instead of football?
“My dad wouldn’t let me play,” Nurse said with a smile. “I asked a couple times, but he wouldn’t budge. He said I should keep my knees for a little longer and I thank him for that; it allowed me to focus on hockey a lot more. He was just looking out for me and my best interests.”
As for basketball, Nurse admitted his sister got all the hoop skills, but having so much athleticism in the house makes for a great atmosphere.
“Whoever loses that week, they’re the loser of the house,” he said. “It never gets old. There’s always little competitions, little battles – who’s got the better team, who’s got the better record, who’s got the most trophies in the house. It’s real fun and I wouldn’t ask for it to be any other way.”
On the ice, Nurse is a fluid skater with great playmaking instincts. This season, his coach has pushed him to be more like Pronger when it comes to the physical side of the game.
“He’s a very nice kid and sometimes he’s too nice,” Marshall said. “But this season he’s been tougher on opponents.”
Indeed, in a recent game against the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, Nurse took two penalties in the first period alone for roughing up players who came near his goalie. He can clear the front of the net quite effectively and if he plays in the OHL next year, those types of aggressive moves would not warrant a call from the ref. Marshall doesn’t mind the minors either way, though.
“I consider those good penalties,” he said.
But Nurse also knows his best qualities go beyond bruising.
“My strengths are my skating, my work ethic and obviously I’m trying to win all my battles,” he said. “And with being big, you don’t get a lot of 6-foot-3 guys who can skate like they’re 5-foot-8 and win most of their battles.
“My shot is something I can improve on and that’s something I practise every day.”
Work ethic is deeply instilled in Nurse, who lives in Hamilton with his family, but commutes to the north end of Toronto to play for the Flyers. Both Nurse and his father believed Marshall’s tutelage would help the defensive aspects of the youngster’s game and the coach was more than happy to take on that task.
“Darnell is offensively gifted,” Marshall said. “But you have to know and understand how to play in your own end, both with and without the puck. He’s grasped that and he’s running with it.”
The final spoke in Nurse’s support network is a big one: his uncle by marriage, Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb, who has also been a great supporter of the blueliner’s fledgling career.
“I get to spend the summer with him out in Arizona,” Nurse said. “Just being around him and the other pros, I get to work out with them and the attitude they give you, the mentality that you have to be the best whenever you hit the ice or hit the weights; you’ve got to be relentless in everything you do. He’s been a role model in my life just like my dad and they’ve helped me become the person I am today.”
And the person he becomes tomorrow might just be an elite defenseman with size, skating and nastiness. Sound familiar?
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