EDMONTON — It must have been quite a place to be, those dinner tables at the Toronto homes of Darnell Nurse and his parents over the past four months, as one of Canada’s premier athletic families were all living under the same two roofs.
“A lot of conversation. A lot of honest conversation,” said Darnell, the Edmonton Oilers defenceman whose father, Richard, was a long-time CFL receiver, sister, Kia, plays in the WNBA, and cousin Sarah plays for Canada’s national women’s hockey team. “Since the direction that the world has been going in since some of the horrible things that happened — not just over the quarantine but for many years before — there were a lot of conversations about being a minority in sports. About a lot of those relationships.”
Nurse plays on as diverse a defence pairing as the NHL can claim, alongside the Indigenous Ethan Bear. The two are a beacon for any kids who may feel underrepresented on the ice or like they don’t have a fair chance: a Black kid out of Hamilton who has become the Oilers NHLPA Player Rep, and his partner who grew up in a Cree First Nation in southern Saskatchewan and is averaging more ice time than any other rookie defenceman in the league this season.
It was a confluence of events, how a society that was locked indoors had more time to discuss the death of George Floyd. More time to consider Akim Aliu’s words. More time to hear the message from Evander Kane, Wayne Simmonds and the other current and former athletes who formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
“The conversations are important — but actions are important,” Nurse said after Day 3 of Oilers camp. “If you look around, to play the sport of hockey is not very affordable for a lot of minorities. Finding ways to make changes in that aspect is really important. So that more kids can look around the hockey locker room and see more kids who look like them. That’s where some changes can come, and that’s a goal of mine.”
Like her brother, Kia Nurse realizes that they have found themselves in a position to keep this important conversation alive.
“It’s about what does (racism) look like to different people?” she said on a recent episode of Sportsnet’s Athlete2Athlete. “In America, it’s pretty blatant. It’s right in front of your face. It’s right there — you’ll see it. In Canada, it might be ‘polite’ microaggressions.”
But that dichotomy doesn’t mean that Canadians don’t need to confront how racism plays out on our basketball courts and hockey rinks, she said.
“It’s gained momentum, and I think everybody is really on board with not allowing it to lose that momentum, and know that this isn’t just a moment,” Kia added. “That’s where I think it’s going to get interesting. How do you keep your foot on the pedal?
“How do you break the system, how do you abolish the system, so that all the things that historically have happened (can be learned from)?”
There’s a world of difference between basketball and hockey, Darnell Nurse acknowledged. While there are few visible signs of change at NHL camps, NBA players will have the option of trading the name plates on the backs of their jerseys for any of 29 pre-approved social-justice messages. And in Kia Nurse’s WNBA, the entire first weekend of play will be dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think there will be more things coming along that push diversity within (hockey),” Darnell Nurse said. “Basketball, look around the league. They’re 90 per cent Black. They’re going to have a better response than we are.
“But look around hockey. A lot of guys made some great statements (during the pause), and are doing some great initiatives for youth organizations within their cities. I saw the Leafs wearing Black Lives Matter shirts the other day. There are people and teams making conscious efforts.”
Two local Hall of Famers — Grant Fuhr and Jarome Iginla — both tell similar stories of growing up as Black kids in Edmonton suburbs. Neither was overwhelmed with racism growing up in northern Alberta, but as adults both have spoken about the need for continued change.
“I’d say it was in between,” Nurse said of his own experience. “I dealt with enough stuff over the course of playing minor hockey that when these conversations come up, in my mind, we have to make it better for kids coming up.
“It’s good to hear the conversation, but now there’s an opportunity to make some changes, within sports and all over the world.”