Joining TSN's CFL broadcast team a dream come true for Dustin Nielson
It was May 31, the day of his first play-by-play call of a Canadian Football League game for TSN, and
Dustin Nielson was nervous.
More accurately, it was after he’d called his first CFL game, a pre-season tilt between the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders, which went pretty well.
“As soon as I finished calling the game, I’m like, ‘oh man, now I’ve got to sing at a bar.’ I’m not a singer. I’m not a karaoke guy,” Nielson said. “I was more relieved to get that out of the way than I was that first game. That’s the truth.”
TSN tradition dictates that rookie broadcasters sing in public. Nielson’s rendition of the Garth Brooks classic Friends in Low Places was forced upon the staff and patrons at The Keg lounge in downtown Calgary.
Fortunately, the rookie had veteran colourman Glen Suitor with him. Nielson, who is an admitted “prep freak,” even did his homework on the rookie song and tilted the field in his favour with a savvy selection.
“Suits’s rookie song, like 24 years ago, was also Friends in Low Places. He was just loving it. He was great,” said Nielson.
Suitor and the crowd joined in, and Nielson’s vocal hazing was a hit.
A day later, he was at his Edmonton home with wife Tammy, son Marshall and daughter Elizabeth, when he received a text message from TSN’s lead play-by-play man Chris Cuthbert. The welcome to TSN was complete.
“He said he just finished watching the game and wanted to say I did a really good job. I was like ‘oh my God, thank you.’ This is one of the guys from a broadcast perspective who I looked up to and he was reaching out to me,” Nielson said. “That made me feel part of the team.”
TSN is certainly happy to have him on board. Executive producer Paul Graham was impressed with the quality of work and versatility Nielson showed him on broadcasts of women’s basketball, the Spengler Cup and the Canada Games in the last couple of years. He also knows that Nielson has paid some dues, calling university football and hockey games for a decade.
“We can always use talented people. It was a natural move for us to look at him as a possible succession plan and certainly just to add depth to our roster,” said Graham.
“There are a couple things I’m looking at long term. There is on the horizon the possibility of Halifax coming into the league. With a 10th team, that just means more games. And our lead guy Chris Cuthbert and Rod Black are not spring chickens anymore, you know, so we have to look at some point down the road that they might want to step away. Of course nothing is imminent, but it’s just something that any good company in the process of planning would look at.”
Cuthbert is 61, Black 57, Nielson is just 38.
“I’m at a stage in my career where I don’t need to rush it, so if those guys have five, seven, 10 years left, whatever, I’ll have an opportunity to get in as many games as I can and work on some things and if a window opens up for me, that’s definitely an opportunity I’m excited about.”
Graham said Nielson’s appeal includes his passion for the CFL and on-air demeanour.
“There are a number of different things; certainly his knowledge, his ability to move through the gear shift as I like to call it. You stay in first and second when the play on the field dictates that and then you get to third, fourth and fifth gear when the play says you should. I think Dustin weaves in between all gears quite nicely.”
Nielson is a seasoned radio pro, having done a morning sports show in Edmonton for 10 years. His on-air style is conversational and comfortable, and that will help as he shares the booth with analysts Suitor, Duane Forde and Matt Dunigan.
While calling hockey came naturally to Nielson, who played the game and grew up listening to Bob Cole and then Cuthbert, he has had to put in study time on football.
“I’ve had to learn the game as opposed to just knowing the game and being raised on the game. I think that was one of the most challenging things for me and there are still some things I get nervous about at times — the ins and outs of every single rule and how many yards each penalty is — that’s one of the things I still make sure I focus on before I do a football broadcast.”
Graham said the plan is for Nielson to do up to 10 regular season games this year, as Cuthbert and Black will handle the bulk. Gord Miller, Rod Smith and Farhan Lalji will also be summoned to the booth.
“There is a lot of work to do and a lot of opportunities to grow in the play by play world, but it definitely feels like I’ve got my foot in the door,” said Nielson. “And in the past, when I got my foot in the door I managed to make it work.”
Saskatchewan at Hamilton
Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Two rookie head coaches match wits in the league opener and the edge has to go to Orlondo Steinauer’s Ticats, or more precisely, the Hamilton offence. QB Jeremiah Masoli took his game up a notch last year and has enough weapons to raise the bar again, especially against a Riders defence that lost key players and the scheming mind of head coach Chris Jones. He left for the NFL and has been replaced by Craig Dickenson. Hamilton by seven.
Montreal at Edmonton
Friday at 9 p.m. ET
As their offence goes, so go the Alouettes. The defence was respectable last season and is largely intact, so that’s a plus. But their offence was atrocious and hasn’t been upgraded, though moving Khari Jones into the dual role of head coach and offensive coordinator will help. The Eskimos are harder to figure. They took a hit at QB when Mike Reilly left for B.C., but Trevor Harris is a solid replacement and they rebuilt their linebacking corps. Edmonton by 13.
Ottawa at Calgary
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET
NFL opportunities and CFL free agency put huge dents in the rosters of both Grey Cup combatants, but Calgary seems far more capable of repairing the damage to the defence than Ottawa will manage with its offence. The Redblacks are giving the ball to QB Dominique Davis, and he will surely struggle. The Stamps made re-signing Bo Levi Mitchell their only priority in free agency, and he will deliver enough wins to make them competitive. Calgary by 10.
Winnipeg at B.C.
Saturday at 10 p.m. ET
Stability on defence, proven depth with Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler at quarterback and an upgrade at receiver thanks to Chris Matthews and Lucky Whitehead should combine to make Winnipeg a legitimate threat to win the west. Lions’ QB Mike Reilly and his new weaponry — Duron Carter, Lemar Durant et al — might need some time to find a groove, and if so, they will be vulnerable out of the gate. Winnipeg by three.