Darnell Nurse

If there’s one thing the CHL Top Prospects Game has ironically been known for, it’s fighting.

In a contest featuring 40 of major junior’s most skilled players, Dylan McIlrath got famous that way, as did Tom Wilson. So maybe Darnell Nurse shouldn’t have been taken aback when he was challenged by Curtis Lazar of the Edmonton Oil Kings in January. Not only did Lazar give up four inches to Nurse, but the two are buddies.

“He’s a great guy and a heckuva player,” Nurse said. “I was surprised when he started throwing lefts.”

It was a lively tilt, but likely one Lazar wouldn’t attempt again; Nurse is one of the toughest customers up for the draft this year, a a defenseman in the mold of Erik Gudbranson or Shea Weber. The Nashville star is a great touchstone for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds blueliner, who comes in at about 6-foot-4 and 189 pounds with room to fill out.

“I really like to watch Shea Weber,” Nurse said. “He’s so effective and the way he can turn a game with his two-way play is something I try to incorporate into my game.”

After scoring just one goal as a rookie, the Hamilton, Ont., native had 12 in 15 more games this year. He also quadrupled his points output, with 41 in 68 matches.

“Last year I watched a lot from the bench early on,” he said. “It pushed me to work harder and helped me be a better player. I pick my spots now. Last year there were times I stayed in too much instead of jumping into the rush.”

Playing with the offensively gifted Mathew Dumba (Minnesota, seventh overall in 2012) at the under-18s last year helped that. Nurse and Dumba were paired together by Canada coach Jesse Wallin and the Soo youngster benefitted greatly from the older Dumba’s pointers. It wouldn’t be the first time Nurse got a helping hand in his young career.

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The son of Richard Nurse, a receiver with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Darnell wasn’t allowed to play football (too tough on the knees, his dad said), but pickup games of basketball and other sports were frequent at home, where older sister Tamika was good enough to play hoops at the University of Oregon and Bowling Green. Darnell’s aunt, Raquel, was a standout in basketball at Syracuse. That’s where she met a fellow athlete named Donovan McNabb, who became a star NFL quarterback and is now her husband. Nurse has even trained with his famous uncle in the summer. Which is a long way of saying Nurse has huge athletic upside.

“He’s grown on me,” said one NHL scout. “He’s playing more physical and sometimes he might get too overzealous, but he can skate, move the puck and he’s a natural athlete.”

Hockey sense is a work in progress and Nurse wants to get more consistent with his shot, but on a team with prospects Ryan Sproul (Detroit, 55th in ’11) and Colin Miller (Los Angeles, 151st in 2012) heading the blueline, Nurse can look around and see players on the right track. And if any opponents get in his track, expect them to get decked.

“Being hard to play against is a big part of my game,” he said.