Oilers' Nurse emerging as homegrown leader creating stability in Edmonton

Edmonton Oilers' Leon Draisaitl (29) and Darnell Nurse (25) celebrate a goal against the Ottawa Senators during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Sunday, January 31, 2021. (Jason Franson / CP)

EDMONTON — It’s fair to look at 26-year-old father-to-be Darnell Nurse, the "A” that rotates on and off of his sweater, and surmise that he should be taking on a leadership role in Edmonton. After all, he’s been there his whole career — six seasons and 368 games.

But then you realize that his own teammates don’t even know which nickname he prefers: “Nursey,” as Connor McDavid calls him, or “Doc,” a clever riff off of his surname.

“Doc, for sure,” Nurse said. “It’s just the easy way to call me Nursey. Doc is a better nickname.”

You’d think that in all of those meetings, those hundreds of dressing room interactions, the flights, the practices, that Nurse could have slid little that factoid in somewhere with his teammates. Well, the truth is, there has always been a brighter fire burning in Edmonton.

This isn’t Boston, right? Where young players arrive and simply have to keep their eyes and ears open to ingest how a functional, successful, sustainable hockey program operates. Then when it is their turn to lead, the osmosis has left them so well-armed they just slide into the role.

Here in Edmonton, they haven’t had a Patrice Bergeron or Zdeno Chara since Kevin Lowe and Mark Messier split for New York City some 30 years ago — despite efforts to import players who shared a dressing room with those highly regarded, Cup-winning wearers of the spoked "B."

It never worked.

“Trying to bring in outside leadership, older guys who come in to lead from different situations. Well-known around the league,” recalled Nurse. “It’s tough to bring in someone from the outside and make them an instant leader. They haven’t been around; they don’t know the city; they don’t know what a lot of guys in the organization have been through here.

“It was definitely important for us as a group to take that role and make it something that was important to all of us. It’s important that … leadership comes from within the organization.”

And so we can say now with certainty: No matter what happens with this edition of the Edmonton Oilers — be they playoff heroes or regular-season bums — they have established a proper, functional dressing room, with Nurse, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins primarily at the helm. Four players who have survived the lack of stewardship, at times, the dysfunctionality and the losing in this ravenous Canadian market that applies more pressure than a hydraulic vice.

Nurse may be mostly self-taught, but at 26 he’s figured it out. His game has stabilized, he has risen to the challenge of being his team’s No. 1 defenceman with Oscar Klefbom lost to injury, and he is an integral cog of a mechanism the Oilers have not had in years: Stability.

After a recent 6-5 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in which Edmonton’s defensive miscues came faster than a McDavid zone entry, Nurse spoke over Bluetooth en route to practice.

How does this leadership group handle the practice after that loss, we asked?

“You can come in and huff and puff, or you can come in and work and get ready for (the next game),” said Nurse, who sits fifth in scoring by defencemen with six goals and seven assists. “You don’t need to throw it anyone’s face — we’re all grown men here. You’ve got to come in, put on the hard hat and get back to work.

“There have been times in the past where we played like that, gave up too much, and everyone comes in feeling badly for themselves, in a crummy mood. That’s not the type of environment we want to have. You push yourself to be better each and every day. That’s the goal, the message we want to have.”

The next game was a defensively responsible 3-2 win over the Jets. The train was back on the tracks — one loss hadn’t turned into two, then four, then five of six — and Nurse, who comes from what has become Canada’s first family of exceptional athletes, quietly went back to his business.

“Being a leader on a team is unique,” he said. “You’re playing on a team with, this year, 29 different personalities. You gotta get a personal relationship with each guy, and every guy is different. You want your teammates to be like family, and leaders are able to interact and know the guys around them really well. That’s something I try to do.

“Then,” he continued, “it’s just work. You always think you’re working hard — coming into the league I always thought I was one of the hardest workers — but over the course of the quarantine and last summer, I showed myself that there is a whole other level of hard work to get to.”

For Nurse, the Oilers are the micro picture. The macro is that he is suddenly being mentioned in conversations about Canada’s 2022 Olympic team. (Yes, really.) Or that he is a Black man emerging in a white man's game at a time when the game is seeking exactly who he is and what he brings.

Is he ready for that burden?

“I want to be someone kids can look up to and see themselves in. Jarome Iginla was a hero of mine, because I looked at Jarome and he looked like me,” he said. “I think that’s important … getting more people of colour within the game of hockey. And not just Black people. Look at Yamo, Juj, Bearsy (Kailer Yamamoto, Jujhar Khaira and Ethan Bear) — these are people representing different colours and different cultures. It’s important that we’re good representatives of this game and our cultures.

“I want to be, one day, a guy kids can look up to and see themselves in.”

What helped with Iginla was, he was a flawless player destined for the Hall of Fame. Scouts never spoke about the things Iginla “couldn’t do,” the way they have with Nurse, over the years.

One NHL scout’s assessment went like this: “Great character guy, physical player, athletic, can skate, good skills. On a championship team, he can be an important player, but he can’t be your best defenceman.

“I don’t think this offence is really what he is. I like him more as a defender.”

I know a former assistant GM who promised that trading Nurse would be his first move if he ever got the GM job in Edmonton. But then there is this Eastern Conference scout, who has had the Oilers as part of his territory since the day Nurse broke into the league.

“I see a step in his maturity. A little more responsibility in all sides of the game. He used to be all power and skating, Now, there’s more thinking,” the scout said, before giving an example:

“Look at the progression of, let’s say (Victor) Hedman. You could see the superstar in him some nights, but lapses on the others. Now, he is what he is — a Norris (and Conn Smythe) Trophy winner — and it was between 25-30 that he really became the dominant player he is now.

“Nurse is, what? Twenty-six? He’s taken a step. He knows the league well now, and he doesn’t have to run around and show everyone he’s tough. Everyone knows that, so now he can just play.”

That’s what Nurse says when you ask him. He is just playing now, not dwelling on mistakes, not caring about the past, not worried anymore about what he “can’t” do.

Here in Edmonton, for Nurse, it has become about what he can do. As it turns out, the latter file is filling out nicely, as Nurse helps his team remain a playoff contender despite losing its top D-man and minutes leader in Klefbom.

“We were looking for somebody to step up and take that responsibility,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “He stepped in and said, ‘I’m the guy.’”

It’s been a while since they had that guy here in Edmonton.

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