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Oilers' Nurse bonds through sport with younger sister

by Tal Pinchevsky / NHL.com

For Edmonton Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse, there's no shortage of family members he can turn to for advice about the rigors of being a world-class athlete.

There's his father Richard, who played in the Canadian Football League, as well as his uncle, Donovan McNabb, who was an All-Pro quarterback in the National Football League. His mother, aunt and older sister all played college basketball. But since selected by the Oilers with the seventh pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, Nurse has turned most to younger sister Kia, who is adding her own chapter to the family's impressive sporting legacy.

"She asked me what it's like to be away for the first time. There's always those challenges of not being in familiar territory, not being able to go see your friends every single day," Darnell said. "That was probably the biggest thing I told her. No matter where you are there's always the team around you that you can rely on. You can pick up the phone and call me. I'll be there just like my parents were for me. It's always different moving away for the first time."

Darnell Nurse hopes he and his sister, Kia, will meet up again in Edmonton this season, with him on the Oilers roster and her trying to help Canada qualify for the 2016 Olympics. (Photo: Getty Images, Basketball Canada)

It's a conversation Darnell has been having more and more frequently with Kia, a basketball phenom who is in her first semester at the University of Connecticut, one of the top women's programs in the country.

Nurse is busy as well right now. He's with Oilers prospects through Monday at the 2014 Young Stars Classic rookie tournament in Penticton, British Columbia, where he's playing games against prospects from the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.

Darnell has plenty of his own experience being away from home, especially after spending the past three seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, a team located about 500 miles from his hometown in Hamilton, Ontario. Kia started traveling with Canada's women's national basketball team last year as a 17-year-old.

That remarkable opportunity has allowed her to play basketball around the world, most recently in a series of matches in Turkey. In fact, the day after Kia joined Darnell in Newark, N.J., for the 2013 draft, she left with the national team for a series of games in China.

But hearing Darnell picked by Edmonton was a great moment for Kia, and a convenient one; Edmonton is the home base for Kia and Canada's national team. Becoming an Oiler ensured that Darnell and Kia, who is only a year younger than her brother, would get a few more opportunities to spend time together.

"The NHL has always been a really big dream for him, I've always known that," Kia said. "I was excited that he did achieve it. He got drafted pretty high, which was setting the standard high for all of us.

"He hasn't stopped ever since. He didn't just get drafted and think, 'I'm going to make the team.' He works hard every single day at it. It was amazing to see one of his dreams come true. That was pretty cool for our whole family."

Prudential Center was just the next big stop for the Nurse family, which played countless hours of competitive basketball in the driveway. It's there where Darnell and Kia first started battling in spirited 1-on-1 games, matchups so rough that they eventually were abandoned in favor of safer, toned-down games of 21. But the truly competitive matchups, the ones that occasionally ended with someone angrily storming into the house, were of the 2-on-2 variety.

More often than not Darnell and Kia would be matched against dad and older sister Tamika, who played collegiately at the University of Oregon and Bowling Green State University. Despite being younger and smaller than their opposition, the brother-sister team was shown no mercy. If they wanted to claim a win against dad and Tamika, they'd have to earn it.

"We come from an extremely competitive family. That's probably our first problem," Kia said. "My mother would be the referee who wouldn't call any fouls. My sister and my father would technically cheat all the time. They would do anything to win. I think we would win but those two [Richard and Tamika] are the same person. They will never let you win, and when you win they say, 'That's it, we're never playing them again.'"

Before growing into the 6-foot-3, 192-pound frame that would help make him one of the Oilers' prized defense prospects, Darnell had to learn about toughness and competitiveness in those family games. He still can't help but smile when he thinks about them.

"Those got heated, a few elbows to the chest," Darnell said. "It didn't got too well for us, but we tried."

Eventually brother and sister emerged as top-tier athletes in their respective age groups, which meant less time for the 2-on-2 battles at home. But Darnell and Kia still found the time to occasionally play some 1-on-1. Weeks away from the start of the NHL season Darnell still was hoping to get one last game in before Kia left for school.

With each embarking on what could be a defining year in their respective athletic development, the hope is they'll meet in Edmonton this spring. If all goes well Darnell will be there as a member of the Oilers and Kia will be competing for Canada with an eye on the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Until then there still will be plenty of communication back and forth. And big brother definitely is hoping to make it to some of Kia's games at UConn.

"We're always really excited to see what she's going to do," Darnell said. "That's the most proud I've ever been and the most happy I've ever been for anyone, to see her be a part of that [national] team. It's really cool that I can call her my sister. Most people think we're twins. We're really tight. We talk to each other probably daily, even when we're in different countries."

The feeling is mutual.

"He's a great hockey player but he's a better person and an amazing brother," Kia said. "He's just all-around awesome."

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