Sarah Nurse was on vacation, having just helped Team Canada to Olympic gold in Beijing, when the call arrived.
It was EA Sports. They were wondering if Nurse was interested in making history.
“They asked me if I wanted to be on the cover of NHL 23 and I was like, ‘Sure, if you like me, I would love to be a part of that. I think that it would be super awesome,’” Nurse said.
According to EA Sports, Nurse is the first women’s hockey player to grace the cover of its NHL franchise. She’s one of two cover athletes for NHL 23, joining Anaheim Ducks sensation Trevor Zegras as the faces of the latest edition, which will be released Oct. 14.
“It’s a huge moment, both for EA and the NHL,” said Clem Kwong, lead producer for EA Sports NHL series.
Kwong said EA had considered putting a women’s player on the cover of the game in previous seasons. He said Nurse aligned with the game’s aims to push hockey forward into a more inclusive and accessible place.
“When we started going through the process and looking at the short list of athletes, we were looking for athletes that were on the biggest stage,” he said. “Sarah is a very skilled athlete. When you’re talking about speed and creativity, she’s proven that on the biggest stage. She’s a pioneer in inclusivity and diversity within the sport, too.”
Having a women’s player on the cover of NHL 23 seemed like more of a possibility when EA Sports added IIHF women’s championship tournament teams in an NHL 22 expansion pack last Christmas, marking the first time women’s players were included in the game. “So this was a planned progression in that sense,” Kwong said. “Get the women’s license in the game first and then expand on that.”
It’s a game-changing moment for EA Sports and comes at a time when Kwong sees interest in women’s hockey skyrocketing.
“The trend line for women’s hockey is just upward trajectory right now,” he said. “The professional women’s leagues haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet, but it’s just a matter of time. Sarah’s just right there and we’re so proud of our partnership with her.”
ESPN spoke with Nurse recently about appearing in the cover, Team Canada’s dominance, the strides women have made in the NHL and her stint as a judge on “Canada Drag Race.”
On the day of our interview, members of the Canadian women’s national team released an open letter to Hockey Canada to say they’ll be “part of the fight for the truth” into allegations of sexual assault made against men’s players, saying they would also seek a role in reforming the organization. Nurse declined to comment on the matter, but would tweet a copy of that letter herself later in the day.
ESPN: What does it mean to you to be the first woman on the cover of an EA Sports NHL game?
Nurse: It’s such a huge honor to be the first woman on the cover of NHL 23. It’s something that I never even thought was in the realm of possibilities. I never even dreamed of being on it. And so I think that it’s huge and I think that it just speaks for where women’s hockey is right now. The visibility and the value that people see in women’s hockey. And so I’m so proud that I can represent such a huge community of absolutely incredible hockey players.
ESPN: What are your thoughts on the cover with you and Trevor now that you’ve seen the finished product?
Nurse: I think it’s incredible. Being there on the shoot in California, shooting the cover was so cool. They really wanted to show us their vision with the palm trees. Really just make it fun and cool, and not your traditional hockey pose or anything like that. I love the cover. I think that it’ll catch people’s eye. You’re going to entice a lot more people to want to try the game.
ESPN: What’s the video game culture like on Team Canada? We always hear stories about Stanley Cup playoff teams having Mario Kart tournaments on the road. Is it like that in international tournaments, too?
Nurse: Video games are pretty big, depending on what circle you’re running in on the team. We definitely have some big gamers. We have girls who are bring their gaming consoles on the road with us, which is pretty awesome.
I know at the Olympics my roommates were actually playing NHL 22 as Team Canada — a little bit of a manifestation technique throughout the Olympics. We won a couple world championships [in the game] while we were at the Olympics. But our team definitely loves the game. I like to watch them as they play, because a lot of them are better than me, but I definitely enjoy.
ESPN: Whenever we talk about women’s hockey, we talk about representation and how important that is. Like a little girl getting to see you wear a gold medal, for example. Making the cover and having women’s players in an EA Sports game seems like a real moment to that end, doesn’t it?
Nurse: It’s definitely huge. And I think about myself, you know, as a young kid, wanting to play NHL and I never ever thought that I could be in the game or that a woman would be in the game. So I think that for me, it would’ve been game-changing. And for young girls, I hope that it’s game changing and that they can see themselves in professional hockey because of a video game like this.
But again, like, I also hope that for the little boys, they also see women in sports as normal. That it’s not something that’s a one-off that happens every once in a while. Women in sports are here to stay. I hope that the next generation and that everybody who wants to play this game is able to see that.
ESPN: You said back in March that we’re getting very close to a pro women’s league in Canada. Where are we on that right now?
Nurse: We are still very, very close. It’s hard to keep things under wraps. It is very, very hard as we move forward throughout this process, but the process has been very important to us and we want to do things right. I know that we’ve kept things a little hush-hush, but there are so many exciting things that are in motion and that are con going to continue to be in motion in the next coming months. So definitely stay tuned because women’s professional hockey is coming and it’s going to be very, very great.
ESPN: Women’s worlds begins Thursday, having been rescheduled due to concerns over COVID-19. Have you ever been to Denmark before?
Nurse: I’ve never been to Denmark, but I’m very excited to be there in the summer. I think that’s a change from, you know, a winter anywhere else.
ESPN: Canada was a steamroller in the Olympics. As an American, it really ticked me off to no end how good you guys were. But you were amazing, and as Canada heads to Worlds, is this a peak for the women’s team?
Nurse: This was such a special team and I hope that we can replicate it going into Denmark. I have so much confidence in the group that we have. I think that our success came from us focusing on the process and just wanting to be the best team possible. We weren’t thinking about a gold medal game. We thought of every single game individually, because we’re not guaranteed a gold medal game. It doesn’t say ‘Team Canada playing for a gold medal,’ you know?
ESPN: Well, this is huge news for the rest of the world. That Canada doesn’t actually have a bye to the gold medal game.
Nurse: [Laughs] We didn’t realize how much we meant to Canada until we brought home the gold medal. We’re very excited about our group and as we continue on moving forward. We’re just hoping to keep pushing the pace and keep changing the game. I think the style that we played in Beijing was a style that has never been seen in women hockey before. So I really hope that we can continue that and continue to make each other country better.
ESPN: Besides the EA Sports cover, the other biggest Sarah Nurse offseason news was that you were a judge on “Canada’s Drag Race.” How did that come about?
Nurse: Oh my goodness. I fangirled the entire time I was at “Drag Race.” I have been such a big fan of “Drag Race” for years. Like, it’s on a constant loop in my house. [Laughs]
I got a call from them after the Olympics and I’m actually going to be on the finale, which was so cool. The Queens are so incredibly talented. I appreciated them so much before, but it gave me even more of an appreciation for them. I got to see all the Queens perform, walk the runway. I got to spend three hours in hair and makeup myself. I am so excited and I can’t wait for the finale to air. I want to see who wins, too!
ESPN: So what’s the key to judging a drag competition?
Nurse: Honestly, it’s just, you have to hype everybody up. You just want to hype everybody up and you just want to be honest, completely honest. At that point in the finale, like everybody had done such a good job. I obviously missed the whole season. I just got there for this finale, but everybody had just such an incredible job. So at that point I was just hyping everybody up. I was like, ‘You are so good. You deserve to be here.’ It was a lot of fun.
ESPN: Finally, it’s been a landmark offseason for women in hockey. Several women were promoted to assistant general managers and others were named to hockey operations roles, like your teammate Marie-Philip Poulin with the Montreal Canadiens. What’s been your reaction to that?
Nurse: I think that it’s so impressive. Women are obviously having a pretty big seat at tables within the NHL, and I think that it just speaks to where our game is at and the value of the women. The women who have been hired within different positions throughout the NHL know their stuff. They know what they’re doing, and they’re the best people for those positions.
Obviously seeing people getting assistant GM positions, seeing one of my teammates and friends, Marie-Philip Poulin, able to work with the Montreal Canadiens is incredible. I think that those boys are so lucky that they get to learn from one of the best hockey players in the world. There’s just a respect around women in sports and understanding that women have a great place in hockey.