This is the twelfth in a series of articles honoring the 20 players who have been selected to the WCHA's 20th anniversary all-time team. This week's honoree is Sarah Nurse, a forward who played at Wisconsin from 2013-14 to 2016-17.
By Bill Brophy
Until the last few years Sarah Nurse never considered herself a role model, just a hockey player.
She was a darn good player, at that, and was named an All-American forward at Wisconsin at the completion of her four-year career in 2017. Her status as one of the game's best in the world was affirmed by her selection to the Canadian Olympic team in 2018.
Now she has learned that she has inspired a lot of young people along the way. She has accepted the fact that as an African-American hockey player she is a person who has a lot of people who look up to her.
"I didn't always recognize that I was in that role," said Nurse from Toronto, where she will compete in the Canadian Women's Hockey League All-Star Game Saturday as the league's highest scoring rookie. "But now I hear from young girls who watch me play and say 'I look like her and she is doing this. Why can't I?'
"I get messages from parents and young girls all the time. The parents write that they see me skating and use me as an example that, whether young girls play hockey or not, they can overcome obstacles in their life, just as I did. It is quite humbling."
Nurse comes from a family of athletes. Her cousins Darnell, a defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers, and Kia, a two-time NCAA championship women's basketball player at the University of Connecticut and currently a shooting guard for the New York Liberty in the WNBA, grew up a few miles away from Nurse in Hamilton, Ontario. Kia won a gold medal in basketball at the 2015 Pan American Games.
The Nurse family tree has many more branches with ties to athletics. Sarah's dad Roger competed for Team Canada in lacrosse; her aunt Cathy played basketball at McMaster University, her aunt Racquel at Syracuse University and her cousin Tamika (Kia and Darnell's sister) at the University of Oregon and Bowling Green University (as well as for the national junior team); her uncle Richard was a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats; and another uncle, Donovan McNabb, played 13 seasons in the National Football League.
So what are family reunions like?
"Just catching up with others, like 'what are you doing now? Darnell is getting his opportunity with the Oilers. Kia got a medal and that was so cool. Then I got an opportunity to compete in the Olympics so we had something to talk about. But we aren't a competitive family these days as when we were younger."
Growing up surrounded by athletes, Sarah has told stories about her dream to make the Olympic team and how in 2002, during the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, she handed out self-made gold medals to her family.
She got to experience her Olympic moment last February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a year after her career in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association had ended. During her days as a Badger, Nurse attracted a lot of attention, but had never been invited to compete for Hockey Canada in the world tournament. After going to the Frozen Four each of her four years with the Badgers, Nurse finally got invited to try out for the Olympic team and she earned her a spot on the roster for the eventual silver medalists.
"I wanted it for a long time," said Nurse. "When I got the call (from Hockey Canada) that I was going to centralization and try out, it made me reflect back on all the bumps in the road along the way. I give a lot of credit for the coaching staff at Wisconsin for sticking with me and guiding me into becoming a better player."
Her favorite Olympic memory?
"The Opening ceremonies," she says without hesitation. "To walk into the stadium with the best athletes of the world and to see the fireworks and production they put into that event…and then to play our first game in the rink in Pyeongchang. You see the Olympic logos and the signs for Pyeongchang all over the rink and you think 'this is the Olympics." It was just surreal."
Since the Olympics, Nurse has been busy, transitioning to a new life. In August, she finished up the credits necessary to graduate with a business degree at Wisconsin and in October started a pro career with the Toronto Furies of the CWHL, amassing nine goals and 19 points in her first season. She will play for Team Canada against Team USA next month in a three-game series and then hopes to play in her first world championships for Canada in Finland in April.
Nurse has always been a gritty, two-way player. She scored 76 goals during her four-year collegiate career — good for eighth all-time at Wisconsin on a list that includes Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, both members of the WCHA's 20th Anniversary Team.
In her senior year, Nurse became the first Badger to record a hat trick in 87 all-time meetings against Minnesota. "We hadn't had a lot of success against Minnesota so to beat them 7-1 in that game was big for our team," said Nurse
Nurse, who scored 25 goals in each of her last two seasons, at Wisconsin, was also named the Most Outstanding Player at the 2016 WCHA Final Faceoff in Grand Forks, N.D. "That was big for our team because our class had never won that tournament; it was kind of a kickstarter for us," said Nurse referring to the fact UW also went on to win the WCHA regular season and playoff championships her last two seasons.
But her favorite memory of college isn't one game.
"Anytime playing at LaBahn is what I remember," said Nurse, recalling the packed house where the Badgers play in Madison. "You are playing in front of the best fans anywhere. Just to hear the announcer introduce our team and hear the fans react, the feeling was electric in that place."
It turns out just as the crowd inspired her, Nurse has discovered that she is an inspiration to young players as well.
About the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team
As it celebrates 20 Years of Excellence during the 2018-19 season, the Women's League of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) will honor the 20 alumnae named to the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team. The team will be revealed, one-by-one, in alphabetical order, one per week (except for the week of Dec. 24) through the week of March 4, prior to the 2019 WCHA Final Faceoff.
From an initial list of 120 nominations, representing each of the league's all-time eight schools, the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team Committee selected 41 finalists. To be nominated a player (forward, defenseman or goaltender) must have completed her collegiate eligibility at a WCHA institution (nominees did not have to play a full four seasons in the WCHA; however, current student-athletes were not eligible).
The WCHA 20th Anniversary team was determined by 1/3 fan vote, 1/3 WCHA alumnae vote and 1/3 Committee vote (consisting of two WCHA Office staff, one former and two current head coaches and three alumnae).
Other WCHA 20th Anniversary Team members:
Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson