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.”
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.