Saturday, July 20, 2013

The wonderful world of Miikka Kiprusoff ... since 2003

By Larry Wigge

He was considered a Mystery Man.

Miikka Kiprusoff mask on or off was a contradiction in terms. He was a loner. Kept to himself. But ... he was a good interview if you took the time to listen and learn.

There's no masking the obvious, goaltending is never more important than in the playoffs, when every shift, every shot and every save is magnified 10,000 times. The recipe for playoff success is hard work, timely scoring, good defense, a few lucky bounces, shrewd coaching and great goaltending. Goaltending is the most important ingredient, because shaky goaltending can make a good team mediocre and great goaltending can transform a mediocre team into a champion.

For better than a decade, it was either Marty Brodeur or ...

Some would say Roberto Luongo or Ryan Miller or J.S Giguere or Marc-Andre Fleury, but they'd be wrong. Kiprusoff was, in fact, perhaps the most dominant goaltender of his time with his butterfly style and Gumby-like low-to-the-ice style of play.

He's a workhorse, leaned on as much as humanly possible by a fair-to-middling team. Miikka Kiprusoff made the Calgary Flames. They did not make him.

Miikka  played in 70 or more game in seven straight season with Calgary, showing his consistency and durabilty. There were individual awards, which Kiprusoff won: He was the Vezina Trophy winner in 2006, the William Jennings Trophy winner the same year, posting a near-record 10 shutouts. For a period beginning in 2005-06, he won 42, 40, 39 and 45 games. And, Miikka led the Flames on a fantastic run in 2003-04 that took Calgary to the Stanley Cup finals. After posting a brilliant league-leading 1.69 goals-against average -- he was one victory away from eliminating Tampa Bay in Game 7.

Little was known about the Turku, Finland, native, before he arrived in Calgary from San Jose for a second-round draft choice. After all, he had been himself a fifth-round draft choice, 116th overall, by the Sharks in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft.

Darryl Sutter, who had him as a backup when he coached the Sharks, pulled off what you might call the steal of the decade in acquiring Kiprusoff.

"I've never seen a goalie so calm and relaxed and confident -- a confidence that has carried over to the rest of the team," said the fiercely competitive Sutter.

And without his MVP-like performance the Flames likely would have missed the playoffs for the EIGHTH consecutive season. 

Who would have thought that his 7-9-2-2 start for Kiprusoff last season while Evgeny Nabokov was holding out? That didn't stop Sutter from grabbing him and proving San Jose they were wrong about him.

"I was there," Sutter told me. "You could have had God playing in goal those first 20 games, and it wouldn't have mattered."

A determined Sutter, who was fired by the Sharks in 2002-03, made that same dramatic statement a couple of times ... for emphasis, I guess.

Emphasis? Miikka Kiprusoff was the Calgary Flames for nine seasons. No one quite did it like Kipper.

"With some goalies you get a lot of baggage -- you know, quirky, superstitious, crazy," long-time Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "With Miikka, we hardly know he's around most of the time. But on the ice, he can change the momentum of a game in a blink with one of his saves. Some of the saves he's made can, well, be contagious -- and we all get caught up in the momentum.

In this his epitaph story, the 36-year-old Kiprusoff -- "If Calgary has not announced it, you guys can do that," Kiprusoff is quoted as saying on June 25.

Thus, no Miikka Kiprusoff story is not complete without his acquisition from San Jose. That was so delicious. 

Kiprusoff was No. 3 on the Sharks depth chart behind Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, just wasting his time rattling around in that San Jose hotel room on that November 16, 2003 morning. If Sharks GM Doug Wilson risked trying to send Kiprusoff through waivers to send him to the minors, he surely would have lost him ... for nothing.

"I remember I was sitting there in my room, looking to see what movie I might watch, when the phone rang. For me, hockey had become monotonous. Practice, practice and more practice. No games. ... For what, five or six weeks ... " 

Kiprusoff told me after beating the Blues in St. Louis, 4-2, the other night,  his voice trailing off signifying the obvious frustration he was feeling on that Sunday morning in November.

"When I heard Doug Wilson’s voice on the phone, I got a little excited. I knew the Sharks had a decision to make with three goalies on the roster.

"When Doug said, 'Go to the rink, get your gear and head to the airport. You'll be in Calgary in about three hours.' Well, I ... uh ... well ... a million things were running through my head. But the best was that someone wanted me ... Darryl Sutter (his old coach with the Sharks) wanted me. I had a lot of people I wanted to call. But I didn't have time. I had to go."

That was the story that lived with him until he retired a Calgary Flame.

"I grew up watching hockey, watching my dad play goal," Kiprusoff says of his dad Jarmo's sputtering netminding career in Turku, Finland. "I remember always sitting in the stands watching hockey back then. I'd watch my dad and kind of rock to my left or right to make the same kind of save he was making on the ice -- and my wanting to become a goaltender kind of started there.

"In Finland, we had a lot of goalies. Hannu Kampurri and Jarmo Myllis made it to North America to play. But there were others who played for our country and stayed around to teach, sort of like the way Patrick Roy and his goalie coach (Francois Allaire) did with ALL of those young kids in Quebec. It seemed like goalies in Finland got special treatment. There would be a goalie coach around to work with me two or three times a week.

"It wasn't always the same style, either (like the butterfly of Roy in Quebec.) One coach would teach you to stand up a lot. Another would teach the butterfly. I guess that's why my style isn't exactly one or the other."

What makes Kipper better in Calgary?

"Everyone around me here seems to have confidence in me," Kiprusoff says with a self-assured smile. "That's important. Real important. I don't think I am playing that much differently than I did in San Jose. It's just getting the chance to get back in there regularly."

Kiprusoff forgot about how much better he is on rebounds.

"There are a lot of goalies who can stop the first shot," former 50-goal man Iginla says. "I remember getting a couple rebound goals on Kipper when he was in San Jose. But now, he stones me in practice all the time."

"His biggest asset is he stops lots of pucks. That's why he has a calming effect on players in front of him," said Sutter. 

Calm as a cucumber?

"Everyone says I'm calm. I guess I am. That's me," he said. "Everyone should be how they are most comfortable." 
He still remembers the razzes his dad heard from the crowd. 

"I also remember hearing fans around me, how you say ... yeah, razz, my dad after he let in a bad goal."

I remember asking Kiprusoff about obstacles he had to face in his career. He recalled one in particular. A goaltender coach he was at odds with.

Kipper recalled, "I remember the goalie coach we had on the Finnish national team telling me that I go down too much in the butterfly and I'll never make it as a goalie at a high level because of that."

The smile and calm and quiet approach of Kiprusoff shows that while he's an emotional man inside, he never lets the outside temperature and pressures let him boil over.

Miikka Kiprusoff has clearly been the face of the Flames franchise for the last nine seasons. He never brought Calgary a Stanley Cup ... but he came close.

Said coach Bob Hartley, "Looking at Kipper, what he's done in the past years for this organization, he's been a face of this organization and a very important part of this organization."

Next to Marty Broduer, Miikka Kiprusoff had been the most dominating goaltender in NHL history from 2003 on.

Enjoy you retirement. You deserve it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thanks for the memores Ilya Kovalchuk

By Larry Wigge

There are difficult stories we all have to tell you. But ...

This one, about Ilya Kovalchuk is a give-him-a-pat-on-the-back thank you story for all he has done for us.

All the times he has pulled us out of our seats with an exciting play or more than that in Kovalchuk a goal he he scored.

On Thursday afternoon, Kovalchuk shocked us all by announcing he retirement after 11 glorious seasons in the NHL. Kovalchuk had 12 years and $77 million remaining on the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with New Jersey in September 2010, which was a re-working of the 17-year, $102 million deal he agreed to months earlier that had been voided by the NHL for circumvention of the salary cap.

You remember Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax and Ken Dryden -- all of whom retired at 30 or below. At 30, Kovalchuk stated a desire to return home to Russia.

Ilya, always the sniper, had 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points in 816 games. After being taken by the Atlanta Thrashers with the first pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, Kovalchuk had 29 goals as a rookie in 2001-02. He scored at least 30 goals in each of the next nine seasons, including six in a row with at least 40 from 2002-03 to 2009-10.

He won the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04 with 41 goals and scored a career-best 52 in 2005-06, when he also totaled a career-best 98 points.

"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said. "Though I decided to return this past season, Lou Lamoriello was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.

"The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."

The Tyer, Russia, native, left the NHL on a high -- scoring 37 goals and 46 assists in 77 games in 2011-12 on a Devils team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. His eight goals in the playoffs lead all scorers. 

I remember Kovalchuk telling me about how his father Valery had taught him the value of being fit ... but also being the best.

"Are you shooting the puck like I taught you?" said dear old dad.

Valery heard a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. "Your not talking ..."

The conversations were many over the years -- usually by phone from someplace in North America to Tyer in the Ukraine. Between Ilya and Valery Kovalchuk. They began in earning when the youngster was only 3 and he had been on dad's shoulder as they went to the gym. The two would do simple stretching exercises and coordination drills. But Valeri also taught his son the value of a positive mental approach in sports.

"My father never pushed me into one sport. He let me play basketball, soccer and street hockey," Kovalchuk said with a smile while recalling his younger days. "But I'll never forget one day, when I was 5, he got this big smile on his face when I was playing street hockey with my friends. I think he saw that I was pretty good. The next day ... he bought me a pair of skates."

Valery Kovalchuk also showed his son the right way to train and develop as a hockey player.

"The first thing he taught me was how important it was to shoot the puck accurately," Kovalchuk recalled, adding that his dad put up four targets on the side of their house -- one at each corner of what would be a makeshift net. "I would practice for hours and hours. It was always wrist shots and snap shots. No slap shots, because sticks were too expensive ... and I was afraid if I broke one we wouldn't be able to buy new ones.

"I remember my dad coaching me back then. He told me, 'It's better to miss the net than hit the goalie.' He was right. Maybe that's why I can pick the corners so well now."

Kovalchuk's draft stock started rising when he had 11 goals and four assists in six games during the World Under-18 Championship in Finland in 2001. Ilya was selected first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Atlanta.

Atlanta GM Don Waddell wasn't the only one who considered Kovalchuk head and shoulders above the rest in that draft. He had to get Kovalchuk away from the interpreter, who was always around. Waddell whisked Kovalchuk in a cab while the interpreter was preoccupied. 

Waddell wanted to know just how English he could comprehend on his own. The trick satisfied the Thrashers to make him their pick in 2001.

Waddell wasn't the only one to like Kovalchuk over Jason Spezza, who had gone into the draft as the favorite to the No. 1.

"All I know is that when you watch him play, there's a buzz in the stands when he's on the ice, when he's got the puck, when he goes around an opponent," former Winnipeg and Chicago GM Mike Smith told me. "It's like when Pavel Bure and Teemu Selanne broke into the NHL. All the eyes were on them, expecting something special to happen. And it usually did.

"The biggest difference in this kind of player is that very few players can score the goals they score or make the plays or moves they make."

A different perspective on Kovalchuk from former Atlanta coach John Anderson.

"I equate it to him playing on a three-level chess board and we're playing checkers," Anderson said. "He thinks the game differently. If you watch Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, they were kind of all over the place too, but they'd show up when the puck was there."

The difference between chess and checker is that the chess board is the game is quick and more mind-boggling -- mind-numbing because Kovalchuk began his career as a shooter and playmaker with youngster Dany Heatley.

The two talk still talk on the phone every couple of weeks. But the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal would bring back these Gold Dust Twins again.

"I could use a few good passes," Kovalchuk said with a laugh. "What made us so good together was he's such a good passer and I ... I just love to shoot."

"Hey, I love to shoot, too," chided Heatley, when told what Kovalchuk said. "As players, we fed off each other's game. Chemistry is a funny thing. Once we stepped on the ice, we clicked. A big part of that I'm sure is that we both think the game on the edge, looking to be creative, looking to be making a play while on the move."

And that kind of hockey communications needs no language, sometimes just a nod or a gesture.

Kovalchuk and Heatley were matching bookends who played their off wings, They didn't have much of a common vocabulary together, but ...

"There were no Russians on our team, so it was a little awkward for me at first because I didn't understand English at all," Kovalchuk remembered. "We were roommates and Dany was always trying to teach me new words. He cared. He'd work with me on words in our room, when we'd order food at a restaurant, watched TV, he'd point out things we saw out the window on the bus -- and I remember him buying me a book on the ABC's.

"Some of the teammates teased me, but not Dany. He knew how important it was to communicate in this game on and off the ice."

Proving that some thing's still get lost in translation so to speak, Heatley said, "Don't blame me for that one. Some of the guys were passing a children's book display and THEY bought the book for him."

The truth about the ABC's in hockey are that Ilya Kovalchuk can do oh so many things. He can shoot and score and he is definitely an 'A' player.

Thanks Ilya Kovalchuk for taking us through the ABC of scoring in you 11 short years in the NHL. We wish you the best.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

An important date in the life of Brendan Shanahan -- Hall of Famer

Larry Wigge

It was one day in the gloriously successful career of one Brendan Shanahan.

In 21 years spent New Jersey, St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit and the New York Rangers, the power forward's credential were impeccable. He won three Stanley Cups with Detroit in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He scored 656 goals, 698 assists in 1,524 games. Brendan is the only player in NHL history to combine for more than 600 goals and accumulate 2,000 penalty minutes -- showing his power in the game. He played in eight All-Star Games. He scored 40 or more goals six times in his career, including years of 51 and 52 for the St. Louis Blues.  

He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame last Tuesday.

I'll never forget how he chronicled one day for me ...

It was just supposed to be a warm and friendly visit between father and son. But it became so much more for Brendan Shanahan, his father and a third friend ...

The scene was set on a warm and humid Saturday afternoon in early August 1997 in Toronto. The sky is cloudy. Weathermen are talking about the possibility of thunderstorms. But for Shanahan, it is the most peaceful time he has spent in months.

The fun-loving Red Wings left winger helped Detroit get the first Stanley Cup since 1955 -- Detroit sweeping Philadelphia in four straight on June 7.

Each player gets to spend time with the Cup -- and the loquacious Shanahan celebrates the championship with friends and acquaintances, raising it above his head in front of hundreds of people. But ...

That's just window dressing. Shanahan saves a special time for himself, the Cup and his father, Donal, who died of Alzheimer's disease in 1990. After arriving at his father's grave August 9, Shanahan chokes on his words, he's so overcome with emotion:

"Dad, look what I've got."

"For a Saturday afternoon, the place was totally empty," Shanahan explained. "I stayed for about an hour. It was just me, my dad and Stanley."

For anyone who never thought of this 6-foot-3, 218-pound power forward as anything but a raw-boned macho player who makes his living dishing out checks and scoring goals, the passion that comes through is the side of Shanahan we don't often see.

The free spirit that we have come to know in his days with the Devils, Blues, Whalers and Red Wings is speaking from the heart. And it's this passion to the game, to life, that is one of the biggest reasons the Red Wings are trying to win their second Stanley Cup in the two years Shanahan has been with the team. He is more than just a 50-goal scorer; he's the reason the team's chemistry changed from playoff flop to playoff winner.

Overcoming adversity at home helps build character -- and that's part of what makes Shanahan a special player.

"It's tough going away to play hockey at 18," Shanahan said, misty-eyed, "knowing that when you come home your father might not remember anything you just said to him."

Brendan and Donal Shanahan surely never will forget that Saturday afternoon in Toronto.

The sensitive side of the players often gets shoved aside like a poorly executed hip check. But it's clear that every drop of blood leading up to the Stanley Cup finals is real. And acquiring players with passionate leadership is more than just lip service.

Trading a popular player such as center Keith Primeau, an icon such as defenseman Paul Coffey and a first-round draft choice in 1997 for Shanahan wasn't met with overwhelming support from Red Wings fans in October 1996. But the players knew they had just added their best chance to change their losing playoff image.

"The moment Brendan walked into our locker room, Marty Lapointe and I approached him with about a million questions about how we could be power forwards like him," right winger Darren McCarty said, laughing. "Up to that point it was just pick a fight once in a while to protect a teammate or go to the net and try to cause havoc, hoping that a shot might go in."

The questions were as simple as what kind of stick he uses, or how he knows when to jump into a hole for a scoring chance, or what is the key thing you look for in one-timing a shot like he and Brett Hull do so well.

"Brendan could have told us to take a flying leap, but he didn't," Lapointe says. "He calmly put up with every question. And he did it in a way that made us all feel more at ease."

In 1996, when the Red Wings were rolling to an NHL-record 62 wins, I said the team would not win the Stanley Cup because the environment in the locker room was nothing like the other championship teams I've covered. It was true, although no one wanted to admit it. Players were cocky and didn't really know the price they had to pay to win in the playoffs.

All of that changed when Shanahan came on board.

"You can see the Shanahan influence, the confidence, in the way McCarty, Lapointe, Kirk Maltby and some of the others are playing," Avalanche left winger Claude Lemieux said. "It's a complete turnaround for that team from the last couple of years."

You don't have to be a power forward to be passionate about the game. It's just that banging wingers who play on the edge, creating havoc in front of the net, catch our eye.

Go back to gritty power forwards Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom of the Islanders during their Cup run (1980-83) and Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Esa Tikkanen, who put the fire into Edmonton's attack and helped the Oilers win five Cups in seven years from 1984 to '90.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Phoenix has another Domi ... with skill and talent

By Larry Wigge

It's safe to say that Max Domi plans to use his hands for good ... not evil.

No offense to his father Tie Domi, he is the complete opposite. Domi spent 17 seasons in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets.

No one ever questioned Domi's toughness or his ability to fight. Short in stature but not on guts, determination and flare, Tie's third all-time in NHL history with 3,515 penalty minutes, including a club-record 2,265 in 11 seasons with the Maple Leafs.

Max perks up and defends the notion that his father was not talented.

"I’ve never seen anyone with as much heart and work ethic as my dad had in the NHL," Max said. "He played 17 years in the NHL so he was doing something right, and he's probably one of the hardest workers I've ever met.

"He did whatever it took to win. I kind of take bits and pieces of what he did in his career ... and implement them into mine, hoping for the best. One thing I know, if I ever had a question for him he was there to give me an answer."

Now to the son.

Max Domi uses his hands to score or set up goals rather than administer justice. His offensive creativity convinced the Phoenix Coyotes to take the 18-year-old from Toronto native 12th overall in 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

"It was a dream come true," said Max. "It feels unbelievable. It's hard to put it into words.

"We're kind of opposites. But we wrestle quite a bit. I like to give him a go every so often. But ... he didn't really want me fighting."

The Toronto, native, has excellent hockey sense and is able to find openings in the offensive zone to unleash a quick and accurate wrist shot. His release is top notch and often fools opposing goaltenders. Domi drives the net and has great hands in tight allowing him to score goals in a number of ways.  

Domi also has has great anticipation and a great first step, which sees him pounce on a ton of loose pucks around the net. He is extremely dangerous with the puck and can beat defenders one on one. He also has excellent vision and passing ability which he uses to create openings for his teammates.

Domi is an elite skater who uses his shiftiness and changes of pace to confuse and beat defenders. He has a great first step and top notch acceleration. His edgework and agility is extremely good ... and Max maintains a low center of gravity at 5-9 and 195 pounds, which makes him very difficult to knock off the puck, despite his small size. He has a very strong, very powerful lower body.

The biggest obstacle for Domi is coping with Type 1 diabetes in an attempt to play the sport he loves. He wears an insulin pump attached to his hip during games and team doctors and GM Mark Hunter have helped monitor his blood glucose levels on the bench.

During intermission, Domi usually is gulping down sandwiches or drinking Gatorade in an attempt to maintain a proper glucose count.

"Five years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes," Domi said of his son. "When the doctor told him, the first thing Max said was 'Will I be able to play hockey?'

"The doctor looked at Max and said, 'Play hockey?' To which Max responded, 'Do you know Bobby Clarke had diabetes. He was one of the toughest players ever.' "

Know you know how tough it is to tell Max Domi he can't do this or that. Wearing the pump, helps Domi withstand his obstacle.

"It's not the easiest thing to handle, but as you go on with it and gain experience, it gets easier," Domi explains. "You just have to embrace it and kind of take it head-on. You can't look at it as adversity. It's something you can't change.

"It makes you more responsible and I have to take care of my body a lot more. For me, it's for the better ... and it helps me out a lot."

For Max Domi, growing up, he's had plenty of friends. But he's watched several of those players ... and learned a lot.

"A guy like Zach Parise or Martin St. Louis," he said. "They're not the biggest guys, but they can skate and make plays and put the puck in the back of the net."

And, of course, there bloodlines. DNA. All familiar ways to determine or predict ... which hockey players you might take a harder look at the annual NHL Draft. There's something to be said for growing up in a hockey environment -- in the dressing room of an NHL team and having the bloodlines of a famous father to help with the right words.

Or introduce you to Mats Sundin. Mario Lemieux or some other star who can give the kid incite to what it takes to be a good NHL.

With the London Knights, Max played and recorded 39 goals and 48 assists in 64 games.

Still, Leanne Domi, Max's mother, laid down the law to Tie.

"You let him grow," Leanne said. "You don't help him make the easy choices, you help him make the right choices.

"We wanted him to go to school. What parent doesn't? At the end of the day, it's Max's choice."

So Tie Domi sits in the least conspicuous spot he can find at the John Labatt Center.

"Have you seen me do any interviews this week?" Domi said. "This is really about him. It's his time."

As a young man, Max learned what it was like to be in a successful atmosphere.

"After every all-star game appearance Mats gave Max his helmet," Tie Domi said. "He has a shelf with those helmets. Mario took him on the ice and in the dressing room when they won the Stanley Cup and when Canada won the World Cup. You learn what it takes to be successful."

"He was pretty pumped," Max said of his father's reaction to going in the first round. "He's an emotional guy, obviously. He's very happy. He had a long, successful career in the NHL and he wants nothing less for me."

He calls his father his No. 1 fan.

"He's a big reason for me being what I am today. On and off the ice, he's a first-class guy. He didn't do the easiest job, but he found a way to do it. He was a great teammate every day ... I definitely take a lot of notes from him."

"We think he may be the most skilled player in our organization right now," Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. "He's a strong-bodied player. He's been playing in a terrific organization. We just think we got a very good young player ... and for a team that's searching for more offensive ability, he has it in spades."

That's quite a compliment for Domi. But ...

Domi's coach with the Knights, Dale Hunter -- also former Washington Capitals' coach -- described such skill in a recent interview.

"He has extensive offensive skills and his skating ability is -- and I hate to say it -- Sidney Crosby-esque," Hunter said. "You never want to compare a player to someone like that, but he has a very strong lower torso, so his center of gravity is amazing."

Hold up. Sidney Crosby? Really? It's certainly a lofty comparison, but if Domi's to have a pro to look up to, Crosby's not exactly a bad choice.

"Last summer I skated with Sid," Max said. "After only a couple of hours with Crosby you understand why he is the best in the world. He works extraordinarily hard.

"I was just like a sponge and soaked everything up and learned as much as I could."

Max Domi talking about what others can do to help him. Remember, he's already the most skilled player in the Coyotes organization.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nurse -- Look at the DNA to find an Edmonton prospect

By Larry Wigge

Darnell Nurse was relaxed, funny, and cordial, giving little hint that he is going to be a defenseman who will soon create havoc in NHL arenas with his rugged style of play.

Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he is cool, calm and calculating. He also big, strong, tough, mean and physical.

And ...

As much as any pick in the draft the fact that the Edmonton Oilers chose Nurse with the seventh pick overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft made so much sense. 

The kind of player he is, the kind of player he will be and the team he went to the Oilers with all those young offensive stars -- Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov they have drafted in recent years.

The Oilers want to play fast ... 

"I really believe that this guy's going to have an incredible impact on our team," Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said. "He really gives us an element that I feel we're sorely lacking. He's a guy that over time is going to provide us with the toughness. And he's the guy that will ride shotgun for a lot of our first overall picks, our skilled players, for a lot of years."

The 18-year-old from Hamilton, Ontario, is a prickly player who refuses to back down.

"I think I have a little bit of jam in my game," he said. "I've always had it. Like I said, it's better to give than receive. It creates a lot more room for yourself in the corners. Obviously with that said I'm going to get challenged based on the way I play, but I've never been scared to step up."

Nurse had 12 goals and 29 assists for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He also had six fights.

"I wish I could describe how excited I am, especially when you watch these guys on TV and see how gifted they are and how much of an impact they have," said Nurse. "For me this is a dream come true. I'm just going to work so that one day hopefully I have the opportunity to play alongside them."

But that's not the cool side of this selection. It a part genetic factor, a part bloodlines, a part DNA and pedigree.

These are all familiar ways to determine or predict ... which hockey players you might take a harder look at the annual NHL Draft. There's something to be said for growing up in a hockey environment -- in the dressing room of an NHL team and having the bloodlines of a famous father to help with the right words.

Defenseman Darnell Nurse also has impressive family ties -- from the gridiron and other athletic endeavors.

Richard Nurse, Darnell's father, played wide receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is his uncle by marriage. Cathy, his mom, played basketball at McMaster University and his sisters, Tamika and Kia, are both skilled on the court. His aunt, Raquel, was a star point guard at Syracuse.

Darnell says his parents told him -- no football. 

"That was more my Dad," Nurse explained. "My Mom, too."

He sees the toll football took on his father.

"His hands are mangled, he can't move some of his fingers and he's got an elbow that doesn't move right," Nurse continued. "I looked at that and though those are battle wounds. Something maybe one day I get to show my kid."

For Nurse, who is 6-4 and weighs 185 pounds, plays hard and fast. Most of his controlled mayhem is ... 

"Not at all," he said. "I think the biggest thing for them is I can probably control a little more hitting people in hockey than in football where you get hit every play. Put me on the back end and I get to control what happens."

The competitive nature of the Nurse family works miracles each and every day -- at the gym or in schoolwork.

"Being surrounded by people who have been through a lot of different experiences whether it's representing your country or playing in the pros, it's a really competitive household," Darnell Nurse explained. "Everyone's always pushing to get the best out of you whether it's on the ice, off the ice, in your schoolwork. It doesn't get much better than being around the people I have in my family. My dad pushes me a lot. My mom and my sisters, they give it to me if I don't win. It's a great household."

Who's the most competitive? "I've got to be the most. They can't want it as bad as me. I can't give them that."

The fact that the Oilers, the City of Champions with so many Stanley Cup champions to them -- five in fact, but none since 1990 and the Oilers haven't been to the playoffs since 2006.

Now, perhaps Nurse is the pick that puts them over the top.

"Unbelievable," said Nurse. "Organizations like this, when you're a kid, you grow up dreaming of being a part of. I wish I could describe how excited I am. You watch these guys on TV and see how gifted they are, how much of an impact they have, this is a dream come true."

Nurse grew up idolizing the likes of Scott Stevens and Jarome Iginla. So it comes as no surprise that he likes being a prickly opponent.

"One of the best part of my game is being someone who's hard to play against," he said. "I think the fights kind of come with just battles, and people trying to challenge me after I challenge them. Something I'm not afraid to do but at the same time it's not something I go out and look for."

There is a soft side to Nurse. He learned to play the guitar when he was in Grade 9 ... and shortly thereafter the piano followed. He likes any kind of music, yes, even classical music.

On his uncle, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb ...

"He's someone who's been so influential in my life. He’s been there since I was real young," Nurse recalled. "As I've grown older and been placed into different situations and playing away from home, he's someone that I've talked to probably once or twice a week. No matter what the question is or no matter what I'm going through, he's always been available.

"If I can't get a hold of him at 10 o'clock in the morning, he'll call me back at 10:30. It's a relationship where we're always in touch and we always know what's going on in each other's lives. He's been someone that I've been real lucky to have."

On if he watched his uncle play as an Eagle.

"I used to come when I was younger once or twice a year," Nurse said. "I was able to get down and see him play and after the game in the locker room with some of his teammates. Those are experiences that you never forget and probably some of the most fond memories I have as a child."

On what McNabb has instilled in him.

"The biggest thing I've gotten advice on, not only from him but my parents and other people in my family, is the work that it takes," he admits. "It's easy to have talent. It's how hard that talent works that will make you successful. It's easy to sit back and say 'I'll just rely on my size or my ability to skate.' If you don't put in those extra hours of work, it will go to waste. That's the biggest thing, you have to come every day and give it all you have. If it's at the gym or on the ice, it's something you have to get better at on a daily basis."

Said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, "When you watch him play -- he's still a lot of elbows and knees, but he's a hard-nosed player. He can fight. He's pretty good with the puck, and he'll continue to get better."

Nurse figures that at his end goal of 210, 215 pounds, he'll have enough weight to throw around while being able to retain his quickness.

Nurse joked, "My Mom always has the fridge full, so it'll come."

He's always got a good bit of humor. Like when he took a shot at his uncle.

"He went higher than me, but I didn't get booed at my draft," Nurse said of his uncle Donavan being drafted second overall.

Said Nurse, "There's a lot of hard work ahead." 

Nurse said he hasn't been able to get McNabb onto the ice ... "Not quite -- anyway."

But McNabb has been there for Nurse.

"I've trained with him. He's a goal-oriented guy and he understands what's ahead of him," said McNabb. "What they're getting is a guy is someone who is ready to go ... and he's ready right now.

"It's about putting that extra time in. He wants to be the best out on the ice. Sidney Crosby and Alexandre Ovechkin -- they put in extra time. That's what makes them better ... and Darnell understands that." 

Where can you find Darnell Nurse the day after the draft?

"Back to work at the gym ... Hard work. That's what it takes."

Bloodlines. DNA. A genetical factor.

You don't have to look into Darnell Nurse's life to find a pedigree.