NEWARK -- Asked by an NHL team what his favorite animal was during the interview portion of the NHL Combine earlier this month, Darnell Nurse answered with "lion."
"I love 'The Lion King.'"
If he stays on his current path of development, with the aid of some NHL guidance, Nurse could one day be the king of the jungle on the professional level.
At 6-foot-3, 190 lbs., Nurse is drawing comparisons to Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber -- big and nasty with an offensive presence. No wonder his favorite player growing up was Scott Stevens. In 68 games with the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, Nurse scored 12 times and recorded 41 points and 116 penalty minutes.
According to one scout, Nurse projects to be a shutdown defenseman with his long wingspan that allows him block passing lanes and aid in stick checks.
Nurse, as you're probably aware, is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, but the athletic lineage doesn't stop there. His dad was a wide receiver in the Canadian Football League. His mom and both of his sisters have basketball in their blood.
But for Nurse, his talent in hockey didn't just come from his athletic background.
“Everyone is athletic in one way or another," he said during Friday's top prospects availability. "But for me, athleticism wouldn’t get me too far if I didn’t work the way I did. It all comes down that. Everyone nowadays is in the gym 5-6 times a week. With the athletic part as a background, it’s a good help. It’d be hard to find someone who works as hard as I do.”
Entering the NHL at some point in the future will require a tougher regime than what he's used to in junior hockey. But after talking to Uncle Donovan about what it takes to make that transition into being a professional, Nurse knows what to expect.
“The work gets ten times harder," he said. "[N]ow you’re trying to compete against men who have families to feed. That’s the type of attitude that you have every day going into the gym.”
Like potential No. 1 overall pick Seth Jones, Nurse being a black hockey player could be a marketing boon for whichever NHL team drafts him. With the sport of hockey growing at all levels and in many non-traditional cities, his presence could inspire kids who might not otherwise think to play the game pick up a stick and skates.
“I play hockey because I love to play hockey," he said.
"Being an inspiration for someone one day is something that definitely drives me.”
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy