ST. CLOUD, Minn. — In a typical news release from Tom Nelson, there will be a spot where he begins a sentence with "Of note."
In an email that contains the weekly news release for the St. Cloud State men's hockey team on Monday, Nelson included a line that is notable.
"Of note, my final day at SCSU will be Jan. 20. I am retiring after 24 years at SCSU!"
Nelson is retiring from his position as assistant athletic director of strategic communications. The highest profile portion of his job has been as the person in charge of sports information for the men's hockey team since 2000.
Nelson has been married to his wife, Colleen, for 29 years. Colleen recently began a job working in the library at Carleton College and the couple has moved to Northfield, Minn.
"It was a good professional and career opportunity for her and I was at a point where I'll be 60 years old on May 2nd," Tom said. "This is an opportunity to allow me to do something a little bit different for the last few years of my working career before we completely move to a beach somewhere."
Kelsey Whaley, who handles media relations for the St. Cloud State women's hockey team, is the university's assistant director of athletic communications. Whaley and Nelson have split media relations duties for the 16 varsity sports at the university. She and Thomas Breach, an athletic communications graduate assistant, will take on Nelson's duties as the university goes through a short-term emergency hire process to fill Nelson's position.
"Particularly in athletic media (relations), there's so much that these folks do behind the scenes that the people not in our world don't understand," St. Cloud State director of athletics Heather Weems said. "The longevity and the history are so vitally important to what we do and how we tell the story and get information out so that the outside (population) gets to understand and know our players.
"Tom is an archive in and of himself and so was Anne Abicht," Weems said of Abicht, who retired after 30 years as the university's director of athletic media relations in 2015. "There will be a loss of information and continuity. Tom was one of those guys who continually worked and got things done, but is one of the most laid back people around. He didn't show his frustration or wear it on his sleeve.
"When you're working on deadline with coaches and media, those occasions happen. He was able to handle and to understand the situation, was a voice of reason in what was happening. A number of our coaches had a really good relationship with him and would go to him to talk out how they were going to showcase a player or program. He was a steady voice above all of the change and banter and social media."
Getting to SCSU
Nelson grew up and went to college in Illinois and has been working in university communication offices since 1986. He graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Ill., with a degree in English and then worked for two years for the Naperville Sun (Ill.) newspaper before taking a job at Aurora University in Aurora, Ill.
Aurora is an NCAA Division III school and he worked as the university's news service director and in sports information there from 1986-92. In 1992, he was visiting his brother in Minneapolis when he saw an ad for a similar position at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.
He worked at St. John's, also a Division III school in athletics, until he began working for St. Cloud State in 1996. St. Cloud State is a Division II school in all of its varsity sports except men's and women's hockey, which are Division I.
"I think the one thing that intrigued me the most was that I could concentrate solely on the sports information side," Nelson said. "It was the Division II level and, at that time, they were in the North Central Conference and there was some attraction with the teams that were in that. It was a pretty high level league.
"With the Division I hockey, that was also another attraction to it."
Nelson had played some hockey growing up and, when he was attending community college at the College of DuPage (Glen Ellyn, Ill.), he was the sports editor of its newspaper. College of DuPage had a hockey team and Nelson covered the team when it won the national junior college championship.
When he began working at St. Cloud State, Abicht was handling the media relations for the men's and women's hockey teams. The two decided to make a change before the 2000-01 school year.
"I think she had done it for a long time and was looking to maybe change things up a little bit and give her a different perspective and things to look at," Nelson said. "I appreciate that she allowed me to do that. I had an attraction to hockey from playing hockey as a youth and working with the hockey team in college.
"I always enjoyed hockey. Growing up in Chicago, I watched a lot of Blackhawks games with Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito. Getting an opportunity to work with hockey at this level was exciting for me."
Working with hockey
People who work in media relations work closely with the teams. They are not only in charge of the statistics for the teams, but also with providing media guides, which include bios of the athletes, coaches and staff. They also normally go on many of the road trips with their more high profile teams.
In the case of hockey, the responsibilities also include working closely with the radio play-by-play announcer, people involved with TV broadcasts and print media people.
Nick Oliver played hockey for the Huskies from 2011-15 and has been an assistant coach for the team since 2018. Oliver said that Nelson helped ease players through their college transition.
"Pretty early on in your career, Tom is a big piece of really helping you get comfortable as a student-athlete here," Oliver said. "He really helps you handle the different stresses of being a student-athlete and a big part of that is dealing with the media, playing for a program like St. Cloud State.
"He helps guide you through a lot of those things you haven't had to deal with before with media relations, different promotion things and he was also someone you could lean on."
Garrett Raboin played hockey for St. Cloud State from 2006-10 and was an assistant coach for the Huskies from 2012-18. He said that Nelson helped alleviate nervousness with dealing with media.
"I never felt anxious or pressure in dealing with the media and I think a big part of that was Tom was so great with college athletes who maybe hadn't been in the media spotlight before," Raboin said. "By the time that players or coaches are leaving St. Cloud State, they were incredibly efficient and polished at dealing with the media. I think a lot of that is a credit to Tom."
During games, what the players and most people do not see is what Nelson does during a game. For home games, he has a crew of six that handle statistics, a live blog and social media. He coordinates that staff while he also takes photos, deals with setting up TV interviews for between periods, postgame interviews and then puts together stories and information for the university's website.
Universities each have different ways of how their statistic crews handle games. Tim Wright has worked on the SCSU hockey statistics crew for eight years and compares Nelson to characters Col. Sherman Potter or Lt. Col. Henry Blake on the TV show "M*A*S*H."
"Both (Potter and Blake) had a lot of hands off way of managing people," Wright said. "All those doctors and nurses were tremendous, the best M*A*S*H unit in Korea. At the same time, the commanding officers kind of let some of the shenanigans go because they know their crew is really good and can do their job.
"I'm not saying Tom would let us go on autopilot. But we're not all suits and ties. Once the puck drops, though, we're serious. We always want to get it right. Tom made it easy for us because he's ever-present and he answers questions. He's as patient as all get-out. I can't believe the amount of patience that he has and there's a lot of stress with making quick decisions. He does such a great job of maintaining a calm."
And the people who deal with him the most regularly also note that he does his job with wry humor. Wright noted that in the first season of the NCHC in 2013-14, Nelson began referring to the competition in the fledgling conference as "the always rugged NCHC." During live postgame wrapups on Facebook, Nelson would often find a way to either walk in front of the camera or make a reference from off camera to interject some humor.
"Tom is very dry, but he's hilarious," Raboin said. "Some of the most fun things have been some of the social media accounts that his former (graduate) students have created where they capture how dry and witty Tom is."
On Twitter, there is an account called @TomNelsonSaid that captures his humor.
*Gets senior discount at Taco Bell (without asking for it)*— Ya Boi Tom Nelson (@TomNelsonSaid) August 16, 2018
“Well I might be offended, but I’m also a cheap ass.” #ShitTomNelsonSays
And, like most careers, social media has been one of the many changes to Nelson's job description in his time at the university.
"When I first got there, there were a lot of phone calls and sending out letters and a few mailings," Nelson said. "The mailings kind of got fazed out and it got to more faxing press releases and game reports and box scores. That transitioned into email.
"Something we haven't done in several years now is that we used to have a call list of newspapers, radio stations and TV to call scores into. When I first started with hockey, there was still a ditto machine in the closet up there. It hadn't been used for a few years, but it was still there. I can remember sitting up there (in the hockey press box) with the overhead projector and a wax pencil and putting who scored the goal on it."
Nelson's ability to adapt is one of the things that has helped him stay in the sports information business for so long. Paul Allan is Minnesota State University-Mankato's associate athletic director/communications and has been a contemporary of Nelson's.
"Tom was a workhorse and could really do it all," said Allan, who has worked at Minnesota State since 1985. "He was so consistent in how he went about his business. People at events saw him shooting photos and people don't see the 9-5 work every day. When you get a request from someone else who does this job, there's a symbiotic relationship between the college sports PR guys because of the nature of the work.
"When we're on the road, we rely on the host SIDs. Across the board, anybody who has worked with Tom in this capacity would say he's the best. The other thing about Tom is his sense of humor and how he went about his business. He's funny and there's a lot of dog days in what we do because it's nights and weekends for nine months. Tom could grind with the best of them and his work never wavered.
"He's one of my best friends in this business. The part about not working with Tom anymore is tough."
Allan mentioned the number of former St. Cloud State graduate assistants who have gone on to have careers in sports public relations as a sign of what a good teacher and mentor he has been.
"The favorite part for me has been working with our student workers in our office, getting a chance to work with them and train them and impart some of your knowledge on them," Nelson said. "It's been rewarding to see them go on in the business ... The most rewarding thing is getting to know them as co-workers and as friends. Hopefully, some of the stuff I've been able to teach them has helped them in their careers."
Another thing that people in sports information do is help players get postseason awards. During Nelson's tenure with the men's hockey team, the Huskies have had 13 players earn All-America status, four have been named conference Player of the Year and 18 players have been named to the all-conference first team and Drew LeBlanc was named the program's first Hobey Baker Award winner.
Nelson's also worked with all three of the program's Division I coaches: Craig Dahl, Bob Motzko and Brett Larson.
"I think Tom's one of the best and he's one of the legends in the SID world," Larson said. "There's a lot of respect for him outside of the hockey world as well.
"He really cares about the team and the players and took his job very seriously and he has a great dry sense of humor. I thought he was really great at his job."
And we'll let Nelson have the final word on his way to the next chapter of his life:
“I was very fortunate to have worked with fantastic people at SCSU including Anne Abicht, who served as my supervisor for many years. Anne helped create an outstanding sports information office here at SCSU, and our success was a direct result of all the great people I was able to work with here including our longtime office administrator Terry Tschida, assistant directors Celest Stang and Kelsey Whaley, and a long line of graduate assistants.”