They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and this couldn't be more true for the family of Oilers blueliner Darnell Nurse. Rather than question whether the middle child of three, to parents Richard and Cathy Nurse, could be a successful athlete, the question instead turned to which sport would he excel at?
It's hard to imagine anyone is taken by surprise at Darnell's achievement in hockey, but perhaps more-so by how he found himself lacing up skates full-time rather than sneakers or cleats.
After all, the Nurse family tree is a particularly fruitful one when it comes to athletics.
|Darnell Nurse (right) and his father Richard. (Twitter) |
Darnell's father, Richard, was a third-round draft pick for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 1990 CFL Draft. Richard spent his first eight years of professional football as a wide receiver in Hamilton before finishing his career with a five-season stint as a running back with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Through marriage on his father's side, Darnell also has an uncle whose name might ring a bell.
Donovan McNabb was drafted second overall in the 1999 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles after a successful college football career at Syracuse University, where he met student-athlete and eventual wife, Raquel Nurse, Darnell's aunt.
After a successful college career at Syracuse, McNabb went on to enjoy a 13-year career in the NFL where he led the Eagles to four consecutive NFC East division championships from 2001-04, five NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. McNabb retired after the 2009 season. During his NFL tenure he rushed for 3,469 yards, which places him sixth all-time for NFL quarterbacks.
Darnell was able to reap the benefits of such a close family tie to a successful NFL athlete at a young age, even having the privilege of going down to train with McNabb during the off season when he was just 13. An opportunity that seemed to pave the way to his own training habits and is something he says he'll never forget.
"That was an experience that stands out in my mind, even to this day," he said. "It was nice to take in the environment that (NFL players) train in on a daily basis and at the same time see the amount of work it takes to stay in the league. I think that's a big thing that stuck with me."
So to think of a young Darnell and the successful, athletic male role models in his tight-knit family, football might have seemed like the natural fit for the budding young athlete - that is until you take a look at the Nurse ladies and their prowess on the basketball court.
Darnell's mother Cathy was a basketball standout when she played collegiate hoops at McMaster University. And remember Aunt Raquel? She also had success in college hoops as a two-time MVP for the women's basketball team at Syracuse University.
It's safe to say that talent on the basketball court didn't skip a generation.
Cathy's eldest daughter and Darnell's older sister, Tamika, 28, played basketball at the University of Oregon and Bowling Green State University after being selected to Canada's Junior National Team in 2004 and 2005. She went on to compete at the 2005 International Basketball Federation (FIBA) U-19 World Championship as well.
And then there's Kia, the youngest of the three Nurse siblings.
Kia, 19, has managed to carve out an impressive basketball resume before even celebrating her 20th birthday. Her already lengthy list of international appearances includes a second-place finish in the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship for Women and a return trip the next year in 2014 where she, as the youngest player on the Canadian roster, averaged almost seven points per game en route to a fifth-place finish.
Kia is currently in her sophomore year at the University of Connecticut after a successful freshman season where she helped the UConn Huskies capture their third-consecutive NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship and was named the 2014-15 American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.
But it was what Kia accomplished this past summer that her brother said, with a laugh, "Blew me out of the water."
|Darnell and his sister Kia carry the 2015 Pan Am torch into Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, ON, as part of the 41-day Pan Am torch relay. (Twitter) |
Kia participated in the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and helped lead the Canadian Women's National Basketball Team to their first-ever gold medal at the Pan Ams with an 81-73 win over the Americans in the final. Nurse was the game's star with 33 points, earning her tournament MVP honours and as a result was selected as Canada's flag-bearer for the Games' closing ceremonies.
After taking Pan Am gold, Kia and the Women's National Team went undefeated in the 2015 FIBA Americas Women's Championship in Edmonton to win the tournament and punch their ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics, something that brother Darnell says he is definitely planning to fly down for this summer.
With such strong family ties to football and basketball, and the impressive amount of success that both sides of the family have had on the gridiron and the hardwood, one might assume a young Darnell Nurse dabbled in both before dedicating himself to hockey. But his athletic calling led him in another direction entirely.
"Actually, besides hockey, I only ever really played lacrosse," said Darnell. "I get the question about how I ended up in hockey a lot, given the family history, but my dad had me skating as soon as I was old enough and it was something I never wanted to get away from."
Despite only playing hockey and lacrosse at a competitive level, Darnell said his decision to focus solely on hockey wasn't exactly immediate.
"It wasn't as much a specific moment as it was a gradual love of the game," said Nurse. "Ever since I was a kid it was just a game that I loved to play and when I was about 13 or 14, it became something I wanted to do for a living and became my priority."
The 6-foot-4, 213-pound Oilers defenceman just completed his second season in the Oilers organization and first as a mainstay with the big club. When he thinks back to his NHL draft day in 2013, where the Oilers selected him in the first round, (seventh overall), he recalls a couple of things from that eventful day, and one that truly stands out: family.
"There was definitely nerves. Walking up on the stage and taking all the pictures was big. But having a chance to celebrate it with my family after that was special. It was definitely an incredible day," said Darnell.
Seeing how tight-knit the Nurse clan is and how much he values family, it's no surprise that Darnell relates a lot of his success and competitive drive to the athletic environment in which he was raised.
"We were definitely a competitive group. All of us had a drive to win and I think it was great to grow up in an environment like that. We learned a lot from each other and what it took to succeed," he said.
While being one of the first to find athletic success in hockey, Darnell was quick to add that he isn't the only Nurse carving out some success on the ice.
"I am the first one from my immediate family, but I do have a cousin, Sarah, who is at the University of Wisconsin playing as well. The two of us are the first ones to play hockey out of the whole gang."
In fact, just one day after Darnell was having a gold medal draped around his neck at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto, cousin Sarah was winning one of her own as Canada's National Development Team beat Sweden to win the 2015 Nations Cup in Germany. She also earned gold on the international stage two years prior while representing Canada at the 2013 IIHF Hockey U-18 Women's World Championship in Finland.
Sarah recently played her third year of hockey for the University of Wisconsin and looks next to earn a spot on the Women's National Team that will be representing Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
While Darnell and Sarah may be the first two in the family to excel in hockey, Sarah has a younger sibling that isn't far behind. In fact, Elijah Nurse, 18, was drafted in the 13th round of the 2014 OHL draft by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the same team cousin Darnell played his entire junior hockey career with. It's no surprise that - after a successful experience with their first Nurse - the Greyhounds didn't hesitate to scoop up another when they had the chance.
|Darnell stands between his mom Cathy and dad Richard. (Twitter) |
It's natural to have an immediate urge to tell certain people about big news, and there has been no shortage of important moments in Darnell's athletic journey so far, and of course no shortage of people waiting on the other end of the phone to share in the excitement.
"Just based on the sacrifices they made for me growing up that allowed me to play hockey at a high level… (My parents) are probably the first people I call," said Darnell. "And my little sister (Kia). We are only a year apart - people actually always thought we were twins - she's definitely one of the first I call when there's big news, and she does the same to me."
Given the past two years that Darnell and Kia have had, it's a safe bet that the two siblings have logged a good number of long-distance minutes with each other.
With Darnell flourishing in his young NHL career and Kia busy tearing up the basketball court, it might leave some wondering if the active Nurse children even have time to spend with family anymore, but Darnell assures it's still a priority - even shooting hoops with Kia on rare occasions.
"We will play 21 sometimes and that's about it, but I win every time," Darnell said, laughing. "But one-on-one? I won't even touch it."
Ties to football and basketball might run deep in this particular family, but it seems the hockey world has only just had a taste of the athletic goldmine that is the Nurse gene pool. Oilers fans in particular are right to be excited about the future of #25, skating around with the badge of honour on his back that is his family name.