by Rob Longley
GANGNEUNG — Given the incredible pedigree among her extended athletic family, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to see Sarah Nurse show up and succeed at any number of venues at these Pyeongchang Winter Games.
That she is a precocious rookie on the Canadian women’s hockey team is turning out to be a solid sporting decision for her, however.
When Nurse made her Olympic debut in Sunday’s 5-0 win over Russia, she joined her cousin and basketball star Kia as Canadian Olympians. But that’s just the tip of the Nurse family tree, a dizzying list of sporting accomplishments that now spans two generations and is one connected by her father Roger and two of his siblings.
Start with Roger, who was an outstanding lacrosse player in his day and is active in the Hamilton-area sports scene. Sarah’s brother, Isaac, currently plays for his hometown Bulldogs of the Ontario Hockey League, adding to the hockey prowess in that family.
Her uncle Richard played six seasons for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats and his wife, Cathy, was a standout basketball player at McMaster University. One of their kids is Kia Nurse, who was a star at the University of Connecticut while their son, Darnell, was selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
Roger and Richard’s sister Raquel, who was a basketball star at Syracuse University, is married to none other than former NFL quarterback, Donovan McNabb.
The family mantra was always to pick a sport, play it and play it to the best of your ability. That so many have succeeded makes for some lively talk when the close-knit family gets together.
“There’s a ton of pride in the family,” said Sarah Nurse, who grew up five minutes away from Kia and remains close with her cousin. “Even though we all play high-level sports and have had success as elite athletes, it’s great that everything is celebrated.
“My little brothers both got drafted into the OHL and even when they hadn’t played a game, it was celebrated. When Kia went to the Olympics (in 2016 in Rio), it was celebrated. Darnell playing in the NHL for the first time, we were excited. And me going to the Olympics with a chance to win a medal, that’s celebrated too.”
It takes some work at times, but all remain diligent about keeping up with their fellow Nurses. Roger may be here in Korea to see Sarah play, but he was up in the middle of the night on Sunday following the Bulldogs-Soo Greyhounds game in which Isaac scored his 13th goal of the season.
McNabb, who played under the most extreme pressures including a Super Bowl run with the Philadelphia Eagles, often is in touch offering encouragement and advice.
As you might expect, Sarah Nurse had other sporting options growing up, volleyball and basketball among them. But her father helped guide her to the sport that he believed she shone brightest.
“I had a huge influence and push from my Dad because he realized the potential in me growing up,” Nurse said. “I was always better at hockey than any other sport.”
After landing on Hockey Canada’s radar at an early age, Nurse was heavily recruited by NCAA teams, eventually ending up at perennial powerhouse Wisconsin. She had a big four-year career with the Badgers, scoring 18 goals and 20 assists in her senior season.
The progression from her youth hockey years to now has been impressive to the point many see the 22-year-old as one of Canada’s international stars of the future.
“First off, she’s a great person on the ice, just so smart,” said teammate Laura Fortino, who trains with Nurse in Hamilton during the off-season. “On the ice she has so much to offer and as the years go on, the more she develops, she’s going to be a great player for this team.”
One of nine Canadian rookies here, Nurse certainly comes with heightened expectations based not on her name but her past performance. In her time with the senior national team, coaches have stressed that to become a star Nurse needs to exert her influence all over the ice.
Progress in that area has prompted head coach Laura Schuler to use her on both special team units to provide a big, aggressive body to work the puck in the trenches. Nurse is well on her way, in other words, to becoming the prototypical power forward.
“She’s a 200-foot player,” Canadian assistant coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk said. “She can play in any situation for us. She’s a player who has the ability to create some offence but she’s also reliable defensively.”
The best, most suspect, is yet to come from the five-foot-eight, 140-pound left winger. Making a significant mark at these Games is not out of the question.
“At both ends of the ice she’s responsible and has unbelievable skill,” Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados said. “She’s definitely a player you will notice a lot. Fans are in for a treat.”