The business of Sarah Nurse: She’s one of the faces of hockey, but her sights are set on more

The business of Sarah Nurse: She’s one of the faces of hockey, but her sights are set on more

The business of Sarah Nurse: She’s one of the faces of hockey, but her sights are set on more

TORONTO — Sarah Nurse was driving home from a recent PWHL Toronto practice when she got a bit of sage advice.

It wasn’t from a podcast or a friend on the phone. The advice came courtesy of a billboard on the side of the road in Canada’s most populous city, featuring her own face with the Adidas slogan “You got this.”

“I was like, yeah, I do,” Nurse said with a laugh.

The billboard she drove past is one of many across the country, including a massive advertisement at Yonge-Dundas Square — Toronto’s closest approximation to Times Square in New York City — that pairs Nurse with Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and World Cup champion Lionel Messi.

Nurse, 29, has had major partnerships in the past. In 2020, Tim Hortons and Mattel collaborated to make a Barbie doll in her likeness. In 2022, she was featured on a Cheerios box. But in the two years since her breakout performance at the Beijing Olympics — in which she broke a record for points in a single tournament (18) — Nurse has become one of the biggest faces in women’s hockey.

She became the first woman to appear on the cover of an EA Sports hockey video game with NHL 23. She was a key figure in the launch of the Professional Women’s Hockey League as a member of the player-led bargaining committee that struck a first-of-its-kind CBA in women’s professional hockey. This month, she starred in a Canadian Super Bowl commercial and was one of the busiest athletes during NHL All-Star Weekend, appearing at several league and partner events.

“Everywhere you turn, it’s like, there’s Sarah,” said Canadian national team defender Erin Ambrose.

Nurse’s eight major endorsement deals put her ahead of virtually every other professional hockey player, outside of a handful of NHL stars. Among women and players of color, she is in uncharted territory.

Her ascension has been years in the making — all part of a carefully crafted business plan developed by Nurse and her team at Dulcedo Management, a talent agency, to make Nurse not just one of the faces of the game, but someone with the kind of celebrity that transcends her sport.

“You don’t need to follow basketball to know who LeBron James is,” said her agent, Thomas Houlton. “That’s what we want to do for Sarah.”

Sarah Nurse holds the Barbie dolls inspired by herself and Marie-Philip Poulin in 2020. (Courtesy of Tim Hortons)

When Nurse signed with Dulcedo in 2019, her reputation as a player was already strong.

At 24 years old, Nurse had already been a star at the University of Wisconsin, won an Olympic silver medal and been drafted with the No. 2 pick in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League. In those early days, Nurse was often discussed as one of the newest branches of an impressive athletic family tree.

Her father, Roger, was an elite lacrosse player. Her aunt, Raquel, was a celebrated point guard at Syracuse University who married Philadelphia Eagles legend Donovan McNabb. Her cousins include Kia Nurse, a two-time Olympian and WNBA all-star, and Darnell Nurse, a defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers.

With Nurse’s multifaceted appeal, several agents came calling.

But after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Nurse, who graduated with a business degree, was looking to explore her interests in fashion and beauty — fields that are typically outside the areas of expertise for traditional sports agencies. Nurse, however, wasn’t playing in a typical sports landscape.

In the CWHL, players were paid only small stipends — Nurse said she made $2,000 as a rookie in the league — which meant playing women’s professional hockey was not a main source of income.

Dulcedo, which launched as a modeling agency but has since expanded into other industries, including sports, could give Nurse more opportunities to branch out.

“She didn’t just want to be known as Sarah Nurse, the hockey player,” explained Houlton. “And not just as a piece of the (family tree). … It’s been clear from the beginning that she really wanted to have her own legacy.”

“When I first signed with them,” Nurse said, “I did this glamor photoshoot, and I’d never done anything like that before because I’m a hockey player — nobody gives me fake eyelashes or puts lipstick on me. I was like, this could be the start of something great, because I felt like they got me.”

Houlton signed Nurse to blue-chip sports partners like CCM and Adidas but also worked on building up her social-media profile to position her in areas outside of hockey. “No skincare brand is going to want to work with you if we don’t see skincare anywhere,” he explained.

On the ice, Nurse was in another Olympic cycle with Team Canada leading up to the 2022 Games in Beijing and in the middle of a period of upheaval in women’s professional hockey. The CWHL folded in March 2019, and most of the players banded together to sit out of professional hockey until a better league was formed. Then the 2020 women’s world championships were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The stakes were high in the year leading up to the Olympics. For athletes without big-ticket professional contracts, the once-every-four-year window the Games provide is a critical moment to make money — and a name for themselves. A knee injury during tryouts put into question whether Nurse would be healthy enough to play.

“I came out of the world championships in Calgary and I was on the fourth line — that’s not a safe place to be. Then I blew up my knee,” Nurse said. “So I’m going into Olympic tryouts and I’m like, I don’t know if I can make this team.”

To the coaching staff, despite the fact she couldn’t skate in the months leading up to the tournament, Nurse had more than proven her worth to the Canadian national team.

“We knew that she was going to be a big part of our program if she was healthy enough to go,” said Canada’s head coach, Troy Ryan. “The combination of her work ethic and the medical staff did a great job getting her back.”

“What I love about Sarah, as a teammate and as a hockey player, is that she does the little things right. She’s versatile in the sense that she can play center and play wing. She can win draws, she’s hard to play against, you can trust her in tough matchups,” said Ambrose. “For so long with the national team, that was her m.o. Whatever you needed, she was there.”

Nurse made the team and was healthy in time for the start of the tournament. She also secured Olympic campaigns with General Mills, Sportchek, RBC and more.

Team Canada rewrote the record books in Beijing, going undefeated in the tournament to win a gold medal. Nurse, who started the tournament on the fourth line, worked her way up to the top line with Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner, and broke Hayley Wickenheiser’s Olympic scoring record with 18 points in six games. She set a record for assists in a single tournament (13) and became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in hockey.

“That was really the catalyst for her to take that next step,” said Houlton. “And really propelled us into what was the next phase of her life.”

Sarah Nurse attends a postgame conference after the PWHL three-on-three showcase at Scotiabank Arena during NHL All-Star Weekend. (Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)

Ninety minutes before the NHL All-Star red-carpet event, Nurse was in a hotel room in downtown Toronto doing her hair, getting her makeup done and shooting content for her social media channels — nothing she wasn’t used to.

Her All-Star weekend responsibilities had started days before, with media and promotional appearances. Earlier that morning, she was on the ice for an outdoor practice with the PWHL players chosen to represent the brand-new league at the NHL’s tentpole event. She then made a surprise visit to a girls hockey team with teammates Renata Fast, Natalie Spooner and Adidas.

After leaving the hotel, she’d walk the red carpet, surprise another girls hockey team — this time with Canadian Tire and Poulin — and, 12 hours after her day started, play in the PWHL three-on-three showcase at Scotiabank Arena. That part of her schedule doesn’t include the NHL skills competition, which Nurse was on the ice for on Friday night, or the regular-season PWHL game she played on Saturday.

“That whole week was a blur,” Nurse said.

“I don’t even know if we were anticipating what occurred there in terms of, like, you can’t even walk a couple of steps without someone stopping and saying, ‘That’s Sarah Nurse, can I get a picture?’” Houlton said. “It was amazing to see how far she’s come.”

Everything about Nurse’s NHL All-Star weekend suggests the plan has worked. In the last year, Nurse has gotten so busy that Dulcedo added Phoebe Balshin to the team as a senior athlete manager in January 2023. Her job was to create a more strategic plan for Nurse’s brand and help her take the next step.

“When I first came on, a big conversation was: Sarah works with so many brands, but what is her brand? Who is she? What is her mission and vision?” Balshin said. “So we basically built out a five-year plan with her to take us through Milan (the 2026 Olympics.)”

To refine the process, Nurse identified four specific intersections of her own interests and growth opportunities: hockey, fashion and beauty, entrepreneurship and community. A potential partnership must move the needle in at least one of those categories.

“If something doesn’t align with me, we’re not going to do it,” Nurse said.

Nurse now has eight major sponsors: Adidas, CCM, RBC, Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, EA Sports, Chevrolet and, most recently, Dyson. She’s also signed other paid partnerships with beauty brands such as Dove, L’Oréal and Revlon.

Brands targeted Nurse after her Olympic performance, but that’s just one part of the total package. She’s outgoing with an affable charm, an infectious laugh and an ease on camera.

“It comes down to personality, and Sarah is very much one-of-one,” Houlton said. “Sarah can show up on set straight out of bed and look amazing, sound amazing, and give the brand the best performance they’ve ever seen.”

Nurse is a biracial Black woman and is vocal in her support of increased representation in a predominantly White sport. Her team is cautious about the intentions of potential sponsors. “I need to ask all the right questions to make sure that this brand is not just using her so they check their diversity box,” Houlton explained.

They’ve also worked with partners that Nurse already had in her portfolio to ensure that her goals are being met — not just the brand’s own objectives.

During All-Star weekend, Nurse did a shoot with RBC that included Poulin and Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, which oriented  Nurse as a professional athlete — not just as a women’s hockey player. Her Adidas campaign has her aligned with big names outside of the sport, such as Mahomes and Messi. “Our goal is to get her neck and neck with the best,” Balshin explained.

Last week, Nurse launched “Nursey Night,” in which she will host young Black girls at PWHL Toronto games, meet with them postgame and mentor them throughout the year. The idea started as a way for Nurse to give away her brother’s season tickets every once in a while but it ended up with a $50,000 donation from Rogers and a partnership with Black Girl Hockey Club, a non-profit organization focused on making hockey more inclusive.

“People want to be involved in anything she does,” Balshin said. “That’s kind of how we snowball things over here.”

On top of promotional appearances and events, Nurse posts paid promotions on social media and has gotten more active on TikTok, posting videos while doing her makeup or skincare, or providing motivation to young girls and women who visit her channels. Everything gets put into a content calendar that Balshin manages, and every morning she sends Nurse a text outlining “everything we have to worry about today.”

“She has made our lives a lot happier,” Nurse said. “We got to a point where there was just too much happening and we couldn’t facilitate everything.”

With everything going on off the ice, it’s easy to forget that Nurse is one of Canada’s best hockey players and a face of the PWHL in Toronto. She’s also the vice president of the PWHL Players Association and is on the Hockey Canada player committee.

Sarah Nurse skates against PWHL Montreal’s Mariah Keopple at Scotiabank Arena. (Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

“I would love to sit down and see her calendar,” Ambrose said. “I am in awe of what she does away from the rink. I am in awe of what she does at the rink. I truthfully don’t know how she does it but I love her for it.”

Nurse knows it sounds like there’s a lot on her plate but insists she’s very good at compartmentalizing. Ryan, also her coach with PWHL Toronto, says Nurse’s other responsibilities have “never negatively impacted who she is as a player.”

“I think she’s found ways to actually use it to make sure she still has an impact in the game,” he said. “She’s under a spotlight and under a microscope so much. I think that sense of pride she probably gets with that has probably forced her to do the extra work.”

“I’m very conscious of the fact that for me to do all of this other stuff, I need to perform my best on the ice,” added Nurse, who scored two goals on Tuesday night, including the game winner against Minnesota.

Gone are the days of players such as Nurse making only $2,000 a season to play hockey. In the PWHL, the minimum salary $35,000, with some top players making as much as $100,000. Still, even the league’s best players aren’t getting rich playing women’s professional hockey.

“The marketing does mean a lot to them and is a main source of income,” Balshin said.

The work that Nurse is putting in is also laying the track for life after hockey, whenever that comes. It would take something unforeseen for Nurse to not be at the 2026 Olympics.

Nurse has thought about pursuing several paths, from real estate investment to launching a clothing line or a production company. “I definitely have aspirations to expand and grow into different sectors,” she said.

“We want her to be a face of hockey, period, not just women’s hockey. And of inclusion in sport,” Balshin said. “She wants to show young girls that they can be so many things.”

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Mark Blinch / Getty Images, Nicole Osborne / NHLI via Getty Images)