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Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse remembers the last NHL game, which is almost a month ago now but seems like a year, where the questions afterwards were almost all about COVID-19 and an NBA player testing positive, not what had just transpired on the ice with the visiting Winnipeg Jets.
There was certainty with the loss to the Jets.
But total uncertainty with where hockey was going.
“You’re out there playing the game, and you’re not really thinking much about anything else,” recalled Nurse. “But there was a little chatter before (game), and I think the NBA ended up postponing their season midway through ours.
“So afterwards you got a real sense of, obviously, if the NBA teams aren’t playing, and we share 12 or however many arenas … We travel to the same cities, stay in the same hotels. It’s hard for them to shut down, and for us to justify being out there on the ice and putting our fans in the same environment.
“You’re so invested at that point. You’re playing every other day. You’re on auto-pilot, then all of the sudden someone turns the car off. It was very, very weird.”
Nurse has no idea if the league will get back up and running for playoffs or league games in July or August, but did hear the NHL spit-balling ideas for neutral site games in North Dakota.
There’s a beautiful rink at UND (11,643 Ralph Engelstad with leather seats and cherrywood armrests, granite floors on concourse). There’s a practice rink, eight locker rooms, NHL style scoreboard, facilities for TV broadcasting, a full kitchen on site.
There 2,400 hotel rooms in Grand Forks and an airport that can take charter aircraft. They had the world junior in 2005 and UND is where Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and Zach Parise played. Plus COVID-19 hasn’t hit North Dakota as hard as other states in the U.S.
NHL players know what they’re missing more than ever. This isn’t like a lockout where the owners dug in against the players; they’re all in this together, looking for a way to resume even if it seems pie-in-the-sky at times.
“It’s conflicting. As players this is our job, all we want to do is play. I would play in front of no fans in a heartbeat if somebody told me you could keep playing,” said Nurse. “But at the same time, we have a very loyal fan base that comes and supports us every night and they’ve been hungry for us to be in this position, a place we haven’t been in in a long time. You want to reward them by playing in front of them. That’s the conflict. If you put the puck on the ice I’m sure no matter where it is, it will bring out the best in everyone.”
Nurse has stayed in Edmonton going outside with his dog but not singing to his Doberman named Aria, while sister Kia, the Canadian women’s basketball national teamer, is back with her folks in Hamilton after she had the winning basket for Canberra in the Australian championship final.
“When she came back to Canada it was right when everything was starting to kick off, when everyone was starting to see the severity of what was going on in the world, and she got back just in time and we’re all very grateful for it,” said Darnell. “She’s at my parents’ place and we FaceTime every day and catch up, tell whatever stories are going on, whatever new shows there are to watch. Yeah, a lot of Tiger King like the rest of you on this (conference) call.”
Darnell’s day is the same as pretty much everybody’s (rinse and repeat) except he works out harder with PowerBlock weights.
“I wake up every morning, take the dog for a walk or throw the ball in the backyard, she’s nine months, 80 pounds. Lord knows how big she’s going to get. But she’s got all the energy in the world, so it keeps me on my toes. We’ve gone on some runs, so we’re both working on our cardio,” said Nurse.
“I love working out. So you take the game away or the gym away and I’ll still find a way to do it one way or another. There have been challenges but the backyard becomes your best friend.”
Until the stoppage, defence partner and rookie Ethan Bear was his ice buddy.
Nurse had his ups and downs as a rookie on a team that struggled defensively. He got through it and is now part of the team core, but knows how hard it is for kids in their first kick at the NHL can, even if Bear seems to have handled it with aplomb.
“It’s easy to get in your own head,” said Nurse. “You grow up in a world of social media where you’re so used to being on Twitter or Instagram, you see everything everyone’s saying about you. It’s easy when you’re in a hockey market to get on yourself.”
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