How Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse turned one of the most demanding and chaotic years of his career into his most prolific

Don’t get it twisted, Darnell Nurse always had an eye for the net. Even as a 12-year-old, when his chest was adorned not with Edmonton Oilers copper-and-blue but with the feathered wheel of his triple-A Toronto Red Wings, the young Nurse had in him that cold calculus necessary for life as a big-league goal-scorer. Cyril Bollers has the scar to prove it.

The veteran coach remembers well the day the young defender painted it on him — a routine Wednesday practice back in 2008, a wiry, fresh-faced Nurse flying around the sheet at the Rinx facility in North York. Bollers, an assistant coach for that Red Wings squad, was running through a drill with his young skaters, challenging them as they approached from the point, pressuring them to swing wide or try to navigate past him.

A physical specimen now at six-foot-four and 221 pounds, it’s no surprise Nurse was dominant back then, though his game has always been grounded in far more than the advantage of extra inches and pounds. “The way he’s playing now, he played that way when he was younger,” Bollers remembers. “Darnell was one of those players that, sort of, time stood still for him when he had the puck, you know?” He had a veteran’s poise — that innate ability to read all the action on the ice as if from above, to see things play out before they did. “These are things that you can’t teach,” Bollers says, thinking back.

But running that drill in North York, Bollers saw something else, too, as Nurse corralled the puck at the point and prepared to let it fly. Stepping into the shot, the young blue-liner unleashed a clapper with eyes for the cage. Bollers, challenging, stuck his stick out to deflect it. “It was like in slow motion — the puck rode all the way up my stick, and I see it coming, and it hits me right in the forehead, right in the middle of the forehead,” he says, chuckling as he remembers the momentary chaos. “All of a sudden, it just started bleeding.”

Nurse, the gentle giant with the thousand-watt smile you could spot from across the rink, didn’t flinch. “Typical Darnell — the puck dropped, he came and picked up the puck, scored and then he asked me how I was doing,” Bollers says. “He did care about me afterwards — but he wanted to score first.”

“The way he's playing now, he played that way when he was younger. Time stood still for him when he had the puck, you know?”

A decade-and-a-half later, Nurse hasn’t lost that shooter’s mentality, fresh off a 2020–21 season that saw him amass the second-most goals of any blue-liner in the NHL, and the most without help from the power play. But the Oilers defender’s immense growth over the past year is about far more than the number of times he’s made the twine flutter. After the searing disappointment that ended his club’s 2020 post-season, the big man came back and turned in the best overall campaign of his career, one that’s catapulted him into any conversation about the game’s best rearguards. And No. 25’s ascent, along with his ability to somehow turn one of the most uncomfortable years of his life into his most prolific, has given the Oilers something they’ve long lacked as they push to turn potential into greatness.

In the beginning, Nurse just wanted to belong. That’s how Bollers remembers him back when the young Hamiltonian was first trying to make a name for himself in Toronto’s minor hockey scene. It was that yearning that drove him. “He worked harder than anybody else to prove others wrong, to prove that he belonged,” Bollers says.

“He wanted to be a leader,” the coach continues, and he worked relentlessly to become one, to show those around him he was worthy. The source of his all-in mentality is clear, the athletic lineage of the Nurse family well-established at this point: father Richard, a former CFLer; mother Cathy and sisters Tamika and Kia, all accomplished basketball players, the latter a bona fide WNBA star; uncle Donovan McNabb, of NFL fame; cousin Sarah, a Canadian Olympian. It’s always been true of the Nurses that you aren’t getting less than their best, and they’re not accepting anything less than yours. “You see the way that those kids were raised, they’re competitors,” says veteran strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol, who first began training Darnell as the defenceman made the transition to the NHL, and now trains Kia, too. “They’re used to tough love. They’re used to constructive criticism. They’re used to someone being honest with them, someone holding them accountable. That’s how they came up.

“You can just tell they were raised with that work ethic, that discipline and that character that coaches like me are supposed to instill. If they didn’t get a good hefty dose of that as kids coming up, it’s a bit of an uphill battle. But, you know, he came in with all that.”

“He burns with purpose. He steps onto the ice with a plan to get better.”

In Edmonton, as he took his first steps onto NHL ice, Nurse found himself right back where he’d been before — an outsider fighting to prove he belonged. “I saw somebody with just a burning desire to be the best that he could be,” says Jay Woodcroft, an assistant coach on the Oilers’ bench for Nurse’s first three seasons with the club. “You put that together with all the raw tools that he had, he was an impressive young player.” It was more than talent and potential. Nurse was what Woodcroft calls a “foxhole player,” the type of guy you want with you when you’re heading into battle. “He burns with purpose,” Woodcroft says. “He steps onto the ice with a plan to get better, he doesn’t just step on because it’s practice time or game time … and he works at different parts of his game.”

It was during 2018–19, his fourth full NHL season, that the rearguard affectionally dubbed ‘Doc’ first showed his elite potential, turning in a career-high 41 points from the back end as a 23-year-old. He was building towards something, but his game was still rough around the edges. The next season, he got the best tailors he could’ve asked for in the arrival of head coach Dave Tippett — a tried-and-true defence-first bench boss — and Jim Playfair, the associate coach Tippett entrusted with his blue line. Playfair took the same approach he had each time he’d arrived at a new club — he binged film of his players’ shifts, getting a sense of who they were to try to craft a vision of who they could become. In Nurse he saw someone who’d created a reputation around the league for being tough to play against, but one with the mindset and skill-set to grow into so much more. “He was a little bit of a wild horse,” Playfair remembers with a chuckle. “The big issue that we paid attention to was probably just ice management, where he was on the ice at all times. … He’s such a great skater and he’s got such a big body and such good range that he takes up a lot of ice, and his skating covers up so much of his game for him. So we just tried to encompass the awareness of where he was with the puck and without the puck, and started to put the details in place.”

What enabled Nurse to turn potential into progress was his clarity of purpose. “He knew what his motivation was, and he could get back to that very quickly,” says Playfair. “I think he recognizes when he’s playing really well, the details that go into that, and if he’s not up to the game he expects of himself, he also recognizes what it takes to get back there.” It’s more than just a vague desire to be better, more than simply closing your eyes and hoping harder than your opponent that you’ll become the best. Nurse’s insatiable need to understand where he’s at and where he needs to go is meticulous, even obsessive. “He’s a unique player in that in the summertime he watches every one of his games, and every one of his shifts, and he catalogs those shifts,” says Playfair. “He has a complete understanding of what his game is.”

It all converged for Nurse after the Oilers’ collapse in the 2020 playoff bubble. His frustration with his own performance and with his team’s added fuel to a machine already unrelenting in its push forward. But circumstance added another factor to the mix — the loss of Oscar Klefbom, who had led the Oilers’ blue line in minutes every season for the half-decade prior. Dealing with the ramifications of a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery, Klefbom was ruled out for the 2020–21 season before it even arrived, leaving a gaping hole atop the Oilers’ defence corps. It was a massive blow to a group already reeling from a post-season a few rounds shorter than expected, and it was clear who would be required to step up. “We knew we were going to have to ask more from him,” says head coach Dave Tippett of Nurse. “And talking to him last summer, he was fully engaged in preparing himself to take another step in his process of becoming a top player. … As a leader, he took the responsibility to make sure he was ready.”

It was the kind of chance Nurse knew doesn’t come around often. “I knew there was a little added responsibility and added opportunity to come out and play,” he says. “Play more minutes, play big minutes every night. So, I tried to prepare myself as best as possible to make the most of the opportunity.”

To become a bona fide No. 1, he knew he’d have to lean more into the offensive side of his position, recover the shoot-first mentality he had in those early days. “In our zone, without the puck, he was a warrior. He was hard to play against, and he recognized the damage he could do in the corners and around the front of the net to be a real strong, firm player,” says Playfair. “What we talked about was, from the offensive blue line, creating more offence. And then in the neutral zone, whether it was a good first pass or skating the puck, just some details on where he wanted to improve his game.”

Nurse zeroed in on his skating, a good bet when you spend the majority of your time on the ice alongside one of the best skaters the game has ever seen. It’s not as if he was starting out at ‘plodding’ though. Nurse could always move. But studying shift after shift after shift, he could see flaws. So he went back to the building where he’d first learned how to carve a sheet, The Burlington Pond — it was there that Nurse fine-tuned his footwork under the guidance of Michele Moore Davison, a former world champion figure skater and the daughter of the skating coach who’d taught Nurse since he was seven years old. After a half-decade in the big leagues, Nurse knew he could hang with the frenetic pace of today’s game. He just wanted to do slightly better than that. “He said, ‘You know, I can keep up with the guys, I can keep up when I’m in the corner with someone, I can catch them,’” Moore Davison recalls, “‘but I want to stay with them.’”

So, they drilled into every aspect of Nurse’s movement on the ice, tweaking and adjusting, manipulating how he used his edges to find speed and power he’d been leaving on the table. “We really focused on his quickness, his explosiveness, his efficiency in his stops and starts, change of direction, all of that kind of stuff, which all involves weight transfer and where his weight is on his blades,” Moore Davison says.

Nurse also needed to build up his conditioning to withstand the minutes that were going to be tacked onto his workload, an effort that was aided by longtime friend Jorge Blanco, a former kickboxing champion and Olympic boxer who’s been training Nurse since his early NHL days. “It’s like mindfulness,” Blanco explains. “We do a lot of work on the breathing, learning how to relax in difficult situations, stressful situations.” In Nurse, he saw an ideal fighter’s in-ring mentality, a willingness to keep stepping towards that pressure. “He just won’t stop until he gets a little bit of an edge, a little bit better,” Blanco says. “It’s just chipping away every time he’s got the chance.”

There was another key catalyst that spurred Nurse’s off-season evolution: a request from his captain, Connor McDavid. Devastated at seeing one of the best regular seasons of their time together end in a four-game exit at the hands of a Chicago team who’d barely scraped their way to the Qualifying Round, McDavid asked Nurse to switch up his usual routine so they could train together leading up to the new season. So the two of them worked side-by-side, building for their redemption campaign, talking through their vision for a better 2021 in Oilers colours. Ask anyone who’s seen how hard either of them pushes behind the scenes and the value of that work together becomes clear. “They both are elite at training — they train as well as they play,” Tippett says with a laugh.

The impact of Nurse’s relationship with McDavid goes back further than a lone off-season by his side. It’s been a key piece of Nurse’s success since the two debuted together as big-league rookies for the simple reason that he’s had to go up against No. 97, one of the most dominant offensive forces the sport has ever witnessed, day in and day out in practice. “I think that’s a very understated benefit of playing with the best players in the world,” says Woodcroft. “They force you to be at your best on a daily basis. And you get better through osmosis, in terms of having to defend against those types of people… a sort of ‘rising tide floats everyone’s boat’ [situation].”

Playfair’s seen what that benefit looks like, every practice for the past two years. “They’ll go out of their way to make sure they go head-to-head as often as they can throughout the course of our practice,” he says. “And everybody watches that, because they recognize what’s at stake — you’ve got two of the best players going head-to-head and they challenge and push each other. … They’re not people that take time off because they’re not feeling it. They find a way to push through, they find a way to prepare, and they leave it out there on the ice every day. And I think the connection of those two guys, off the ice and on the ice, it’s the foundation of us having a chance to be successful.”

There’s no question where Nurse belongs anymore. After a dominant regular season in which he piled up the second-most goals among all big-league defenders, skated more minutes a night than all but three NHLers, and helped his club control play for the majority of those minutes, Nurse has proven he deserves mention among the game’s best. For Tippett, it’s less about the statistics than the all-encompassing nature of his new No. 1’s game. “Young defencemen, it takes a while,” he says. “But when a player like that plays as big of minutes as he does, plays in all situations — plays power play, penalty kill, you’ve got him on the ice late in a game to protect the lead and he’s on the ice when you’re trying to get yourself back in a game — he’s rounded into a top all-around defenceman in the NHL right now. And his skill-set is not just geared one way or another, it impacts a lot of the game.”

The arrival of a new high-flying blue-line partner in Tyson Barrie helped buoy Nurse’s offensive numbers, but not because the latter racked up free points as Barrie led the league in scoring from the back end — the former Maple Leaf did the majority of his damage while quarterbacking Edmonton’s star-studded power play, while nearly all of Nurse’s points were ground out at even strength. It was, instead, what they taught each other about the game. “Darnell helped Tyson recognize the importance of defending and details in our own zone, and I think Tyson has encouraged Doc to explore the offensive side of the game at the offensive blue line,” says Playfair, who challenged Nurse to lead the defence corps in shots on goal this season, and saw Nurse rise to the occasion after taking a page out of the newcomer’s book. “I think it’s become a really good balance. I think they’ve found some qualities in each other that they were able to bring out of each other.”

“Your body's capable of way more than what your mind will tell you it's capable of.”

Joining the upper echelon was no luxurious feat for Nurse, though. It came at a cost, particularly in the massive amount of ice time he logged, the physical burden of which isn’t slight. “The 25 minutes that Darnell plays, it’s not an easy 25 minutes,” says Nichol. “He doesn’t just play a lot of minutes, he plays a lot of tough minutes. He plays a physical game, and I think it takes a tremendous toll on the body. But I think that, again, his commitment to the things that he does off the ice has set him up to be able to handle that, and not just handle it but excel in those situations.”

The bridge between ‘handle’ and ‘excel’ is all in the mental approach that’s allowed Nurse to withstand everything the game’s thrown at him this season. “I think mindset plays a lot into it, to be honest,” the defenceman says. “Just with the added responsibility and playing a lot, it’s not as much thinking about the beating it could put on your body or the mental wear, it’s just embracing how much fun this game is. I think just going out every day, whether it’s practice, a game, even if it’s an off-day, just finding some way to get some work in. … Your body’s capable of way more than what your mind will tell you it’s capable of.”

Looking back on it now, it all seems so simple. But all those who toiled through the past season-and-a-half will tell you it was a stretch of their careers like no other. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on daily NHL life went far beyond a delayed season or divisional realignment. On one hand, there was the slew of logistical changes: daily testing, the ever-present and wide-reaching health and safety protocols, the day-of plot twists — “It’s those unexpected changes when you’re on the road in Montreal and get a few games cancelled,” Nurse says, “and you’re stuck in a hotel room for five, six days.” But it was also, more importantly, the fact of dealing with the pandemic away from the rink like everyone else has, and finding ways to play a game amid the heaviness. “I’m sure everyone’s had a personal COVID scare or been affected by COVID. I’ve had that in my family,” says Nurse. “You have to compartmentalize and kind of put that all to the side. You put that all to the side and just worry about playing, especially in those 60 minutes that you’re playing. So yeah, it’s been a test.”

The pandemic was only part of what tested Nurse over the past year. There was also the hockey world’s hesitant entrance into conversations about systemic racism and its impact on the sport, the weight of which Nurse, as one of the NHL’s few players of colour, carried on his shoulders — while also carrying the emotional burden of everything that spurred those conversations in the first place. While those sensitive discussions might’ve all but faded into the background for most of the players and personnel around him, for Nurse they’re ever present — visible at post-game press conferences, where questions are asked of him every time international news is made concerning those with more melanin. “Those were conversations that were kind of out of my comfort zone,” he says. “But, you know, you see what’s going on in the world, you see the call for change throughout the world, and being an athlete, being a person of colour, being someone who has a platform, I felt it was important to obviously, whenever you’re being asked about it, be honest. And be transparent on things that need to change, and things that we’ve all been through.”

“I look at it now as a challenge — now you've got to do this year in and year out, and game after game.”

It’s all part of the same process, Nurse says. “For me, as a player, to be able to perform at a high level, you’ve got to be true to yourself. And that’s kind of just part of it, you know? When those questions come, you don’t want to tip-toe around it, you want to be head-on and true, not only about your own experiences but about what you want to do to help make change. For me, it’s been no different — it’s just trying to stay true to myself, stay true to what I believe in.”

As positive and important as he feels those conversations and their impact may be, figuring out how to navigate it all hasn’t been easy. It’s been the defining mission of his season, Nurse says. “This year’s been, in my mind, a pretty cool challenge of, you know, how you have to balance and juggle so many different things but show up and play every day, show up and compete, work, and perform. And I think if you look at it that way, as a challenge, and try to kind of take it head on, I think we’ll all look back on this season as our careers go on and say ‘We played through this, so we can pretty much handle whatever else is going to come.’”

And yet, he’s done far more than simply weather the storm. Like the growth that came on the ice despite the uptick in pressure, Nurse has found just as much growth off of it. He used the downtime to work through a Harvard Business School program geared towards pro athletes, he put together a scholarship program at his high school in Hamilton, and he and his partner Mikayla are expecting their first child in June. “It’s been a fun year to kind of grow everything, not just the hockey game but grow the mind, grow a little community involvement, and obviously my family’s going to grow, too.”

It’s a long way to have come from that skinny kid who just wanted to prove he belonged. Even though he’s removed all doubt, Nurse hasn’t forgotten the feeling. “It’s been eye-opening. Because for me, I know the amount of work that I’ve put in to get to this point,” he says. “There’s a lot of ups and downs, especially when you’re a young player in this league, a young defenceman in this league, and you play in a market that cares a lot about hockey. I mean, there’s a lot of ups and downs. There’s those great days where you feel great about yourself, there’s those down days where you don’t feel so great about yourself, and everyone’s piling on you.”

But even as far as he’s come, even now that he’s turning in far more great days than not, Nurse finds himself wanting more.

“For me, I kind of look at it now as a challenge — now you’ve got to do this year in and year out, and game after game. You know, as a competitor, I think that really just brings out the best in you,” Nurse says. “It’s been a good year, but throughout the good year you always find ways you can develop, ways you can get better. … That’s always been my mindset, to challenge myself, and I’ve always been my hardest critic. So, I’ll never be content with where I’m at.”

Photo Credits

Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images; Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images; Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images; Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images.