NHL Network’s Stephen Nelson Talks World Juniors

With the 2019 World Junior Championship getting underway Dec. 26, NHL Network will be televising all Team USA games of the tournament and 28 games in total. While familiar faces Dave Starman and Jill Savage will be returning for another year of coverage together, the man assuming the reigns on the call is primed for his first tournament. NHL Network’s Stephen Nelson will not only provide play-by-play coverage, but he is earnestly intent on bringing at-home viewers a great deal more. Tuning into the 2019 World Juniors will be a full package with him manning the booth. THW caught up with Nelson for an exclusive interview just before he made his way out to British Columbia.

Stephen Nelson NHL Network
NHL Network’s Stephen Nelson will be providing the play-by-play work for their coverage of the 2019 World Junior Championship (Photo provided by NHL Network).

Originally from Southern California, Nelson’s sports knowledge and involvement has been all-encompassing. In addition to his work with NHL Network, he has performed duties as a studio host for MLB Network, including their regular season studio show “The Rundown”. Nelson has provided extensive coverage during his career for both the University of Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State University Beavers. Additionally, he has worked as a studio host, color commentator and play-by-play broadcaster for the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs.

Preparing for the World Juniors

The 2019 World Juniors are hosted by Canada and will be taking place in the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. With some variance in participating teams from year to year, and a far greater one for every team’s roster, there is a sizable amount of prepping and studying that is done by all who are involved with covering the tournament. Nelson is no different. In fact, he considers his prep work to be something he excels at and is very meticulous about. Rest assured that he has done his homework for 2019’s tourney. He also exudes a penchant for accuracy within his work.

“I am always a preparation freak anyway.” Nelson explained to THW. “I tend to air on the side of over-preparation. For this it’s been fun, it’s been challenging. Just kind of scouring the inter webs, EliteProspects.com, HockeyDB. Yes, Wikipedia because it is the most reliable, accurate information out there. Anything that I can get my hands and my eyes on to learn about the teams as much as possible, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s been certainly a little bit easier for Team USA. Going to the pre-tournament camp in Everett and there’s just so much information out there. It’s been a little bit tougher with some of the opponents, namely Team Kazakhstan. Just trying to find out about them. What I have focused on with opponents is pronunciations. Being half-Japanese, my wife will tell you that I’m annoying with pronunciations of Japanese names and words, and the like. If I’m going to be like that for my own culture, I need to try and do the same justice for the other teams, countries and fans who may be watching, rooting for somebody other than the United States. That’s sort of been my focus there. Over-preparation I think has always been something I’ve relied on.”

While recognizing that he may end up only utilizing a small portion of the facts and information he has gathered, Nelson also understands that small tidbits can be paramount in making or breaking the coverage of a game. In addition to great hockey, fans enjoy tuning into the World Juniors to learn the stories of the players. There are always “feel good” moments at each year’s tournament or an interesting side story to be sure. For a broadcaster, little nuggets or facts can be invaluable.

“How much of it?” Nelson asked rhetorically. “You could study and might use one or two percent of everything that you try and jot down. That one or two percent can also make a positive impact on a broadcast, and lend some more interactivity with the audience.”

What Nelson Is Most Looking Forward To

While he may be a “West Coast boy” himself, venturing up to British Columbia will be a new experience for Nelson. Vancouver and the region surrounding it are known for being picturesque and a more than a bit awe-inspiring. The 2010 Vancouver Winter Games showed us that for sure. Nelson is excited about not only taking in one of the premier tournaments in all of sport, but to do so in such a scenic locale. In some ways, the fact that the World Juniors are in British Columbia further accentuates the splendor of it all.

“Just to experience the atmosphere,” Nelson responded when asked what he was most looking forward to about the tournament. “Being a hockey fan, I’ve always known what the World Juniors is. You watch the games and the highlights, and you see it on social media. You know that all of the big names who are now in the NHL come through the WJC. To have an opportunity to one, go to a place I’ve never been in BC – which is by all accounts one of the most beautiful in North America – and then also see this next wave of prospects. As a hockey fan, that gets you pretty fired up. Being witness to the prestige in person. That is something that I never really thought I’d have the opportunity to do, for the fact that it’s now here in front of me. Trying to take the bull by the horns, forgive the cliché, and soak up everything that it’s worth”.

A Little Help From His Friends

Having seasoned counterparts is critical to ensuring success as a first-timer. Nelson is very enthusiastic about having the opportunity to share the World Juniors coverage with Dave Starman and Jill Savage. Starman has been part of NHL Network’s coverage of the tournament for over a decade, and has additionally served as a pro scout for the Montreal Canadiens. Savage has been covering World Juniors for about half as long and is widely respected for her ongoing work. Both individuals are more than capable of putting a newcomer more at ease.

“Having Starman there makes my job so much easier,” Nelson explained. “And Jill – who has done this now five years in a row – I’m really appreciative. They’re making my job a lot easier. So I’m going to lean on them, and especially Dave because he has this incredible wealth of knowledge. He knows everything about every team and every player. During the preparation process, yes, I’ve dove all-in. But I know that I don’t need to retain necessarily everything because Dave’s going to have my back.”

Nelson knows that he can work cohesively with his partners to present the tournament in a different style with the viewers this go-round. He wants to give more to the entire experience than just play-by-play. In Nelson’s mind, he and the audience are on this journey together and it is a two-way street.

“A huge focus of mine going into this tournament is to do something different with the broadcast,” he stated. “And what I mean by that is, nobody should be tuning in hoping to hear Doc Emrick or Steve Mears call the game, because one – I’m not that good,” he joked. “Two, my mindset is try and make this more of a free-flowing conversation with the fan, so I’m not so much talking at them, but more with them as we watch this tournament together. Because quite frankly we’re going to be learning a lot of the same things “on the fly”, much like NHL Network’s show. Whether that is fielding fan questions for Dave – ‘Dave, we have a Montreal Canadiens fan asking or a Chicago Blackhawks fan watching who is in Philadelphia. Evan Barratt is at Penn State, and they want to know when we’ll see Barratt in ‘ The Show’. As those questions come up during the game, it will be my job and my responsibility to key Dave up for that when it’s appropriate and fitting with the game flow. Then we can have this back and forth with the audience. I expect this even more so when playing a team like Finland – who is absolutely loaded in the United States’ group. They have some NHL guys on the roster as is, and other prospects coming up. My focus is to not try to do too much. Use the expert that I have next to me to the broadcast’s advantage. Also, give the fans another tool while they’re enjoying the holidays and taking in some hockey.”

The Rivalry Between USA and Canada

2019 World Junior Championship logo
The 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship is being played in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Photo provided by NHL Network).

The 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo was very bittersweet for American fans. Team USA took home the bronze medal on home ice, won an outdoor shocker of a game against Canada at New Era Field, and saw their own Casey Mittelstadt be named MVP for the tournament – but – none of those equate to a gold medal. Their neighbors of the north – Team Canada – were the ones who went home with the gold packed away in their luggage. Now a year later, and the turnaround of the tournament being played on Canadian ice, could there be a “returning of the favor” so to speak?

“It came up during our World Junior preview show on NHL Network,” Nelson explained. “I think it was Dave (Starman) who said it, ‘You know when the United States wins these things, it tends to be on Canadian soil’. If you look at the last three times that’s happened for the US, two of the three were in Canada. I’m a little ‘stitious’ – not superstitious. That gets me even more intrigued, as someone who is getting ready to call these games. I think it’s a better tournament when both the US and Canada are playing well and on a collision course to see each other. I have my fingers crossed that we get that matchup, and just to sort of envision and imagine the atmosphere we could get in Vancouver during the medal rounds for such a game. I don’t want to look too far ahead and I don’t want to disrespect any other countries that are playing, but it’s hard not to dream about a US versus Canada in BC with a medal on the line. I think that everybody would be jacked up about that.”

USA captain Mikey Anderson, Quinn Hughes, Ryan Poehling, Josh Norris, and Dylan Samberg were each members of the 2018 bronze medal-winning squad who have returned for 2019. While there may be a sense of unfinished business, this tournament is not about retribution or anything of that sort. Rather, the Americans are focused on grabbing the gold no matter who their opponents might be.

“There are five returners,” Nelson explained, “there are a handful of guys on this US roster who were on the team a year ago, and there are certainly a few who are probably going to be in this tournament again next year for the ‘Red, White, and Blue’. In talking to the pre-tournament camp, I didn’t get any sort of inclination that 2018 was on their mind. I think they’re focused on this group, which they’re really excited about, and the cohesiveness that they have together. The selflessness that they have on the roster. To a man, you can understand when they’d say ‘gold medal or bust’ – that was the mentality. Which to me, is not an arrogant thing to say. It just illustrates the growth of USA Hockey, which if you’re a hockey fan – no matter which way you slice it – it’s a beautiful thing.”

Hockey Is for Everyone, and WJC Is Proof of That

Kazakhstan has not been in the top division for an IIHF World Junior Championship since the 2009 tournament in Ottawa. With a decade having gone by, they are not a national team that North American fans are accustomed to seeing, as they have been relegated to either Division IA or IB play for quite some time now. They also will have their work cut out for them, as Kazakhstan is in a heavily stacked Group B along with USA, Sweden, Slovakia and Finland. Though no matter if we are talking Kazakhstan, the United States, Canada, or any other nation represented in this tournament, it is of the utmost importance to Nelson that he demonstrates both respect and openness to his audience while covering the games. This is what international competitions should be all about – uniting for the sport that we love while exemplifying the best in sportsmanship.

“Respect is always a huge thing,” said Nelson. “I don’t want to disrespect anybody who might be watching. Certainly, as someone who has mixed heritage and nationality that is something that I am sensitive to. You always just keep that in the back of your mind. My focus is to talk with the audience, and let’s learn some stuff together. That’s how you bring in Dave and Jill who are going to have stories that internet box scores just simply won’t about each of these players. Those other rosters are going to have plenty to teach us as well as hockey fans. We want to grow the game, and this tournament goes a long way in doing that. Something that I think that the fan base as a whole needs to do a better job of is welcoming new fans with open arms. I think that sometimes hockey fans can be a little be protective of their sport. They love it so much, they want people to like it so much, but when new fans come along sometimes the reaction can be ‘Well you just started watching – you don’t know hockey!’ I think hurts the growth of the game. That’s something I’m very mindful of and would like to change. Hopefully we can use our NHL Network of the broadcast with all of the social media sharing that we’ll be doing, and the studio shows where we’ll have coverage, and just sort of breaking down those walls.”

Stephen Nelson NHL Network
Stephen Nelson (seated left) is intent on making the NHL Network’s coverage of the 2019 World Junior Championship more interactive with fans (Photo provided by NHL Network).

We have already been seeing inclusiveness and growth within the United States game. Players from many nontraditional hockey markets are finding representation on the USA National Junior Team. This is a fact that has not been overlooked by Nelson as he begins his coverage of the tournament.

“I just want to see the game flourish,” he stated strongly, “and we are seeing that at grassroots levels all around the country. Just look at USA Hockey’s roster. You have Jack St. Ivany from Manhattan Beach (California). You have the Hughes brothers – I know they’ve grown up elsewhere – but they come from Florida. From Florida up to New York and New England. Auston Matthews played in this tournament from Arizona. Just the growth of the game has been so spectacular.”

What Fans Can Expect From Nelson

You will not want to miss NHL Network’s broadcast of the 2019 World Junior Championship. Stephen Nelson will be doing his darndest to ensure that it is an engaging, enjoyable event for all viewers. He has some good friends that will help him out too., in Starman and Savage The World Juniors are a tournament that never disappoints when it comes to the hockey being played. Over the years there have been numerous memorable moments. But, it is always a more flavorful and inspiring affair when there is a voice like Nelson’s that is helping to guide the viewers along. From his perspective, strong social media coverage all tournament long is critical as well.

“My huge focus has been to really blow out our social media coverage,” Nelson said adamantly. “NHL Network and USA Hockey are going to work in tandem to share highlights and the biggest moments that happen during the tournament. But we don’t want to be just a one-stop shop. We want to encourage people to watch the games live on the air. NHL Network is going to have 28 games – it’s not just Team USA – throughout the tournament. Every studio show, whether it’s ‘On The Fly’, ‘NHL Tonight’, ‘NHL Now’ – every one of those shows is going to be covering the WJC in some way, shape or form. For me, it’s really to hammer home the point that I don’t want to be just yapping about the action that people can see on the screen. My focus is not nailing goal highlights. My focus is to have fun watching a hockey tournament and make people watching at home feel like they can have the same experience. That they can ask Dave Starman a question live. That they can ask Jill Savage a question, and Jill will then ask that question to (USA head coach) Mike Hastings. We’re giving fans front row access to the teams and the players that matter to them throughout the tournament.”