Neil Stevens was a beacon in the sport of figure skating. Not to be remembered for his twizzles, fast feet, or incredible jumping ability – Stevens will be remembered for his words. A wire reporter with Canadian Press for over 34 years, he covered every national and international figure skating event through the better part of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In total, he covered 22 World Figure Skating Championships, eight Olympic Games and every Canadian Championship during that era.
Stevens passed away from a battle with cancer on April 1, 2022.
He came on the scene in the mid ‘80s, covering numerous household names, such as Kurt Browning, Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley as well as many other national and international stars. Stevens was the eyes and ears for figure skating fans when Kurt Browning won the world championships in 1989. He was there to tell the story of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier at the 2002 Olympics and, on the cusp of his retirement, he brought us the story of Jeffrey Buttle’s world championship gold medal win in Sweden in 2008. To say he told us many stories about the athletes we love is an understatement.
Just as he will be remembered for his writing, Stevens will also be remembered for his character.
“Neil was a character with character and one of the most professional sports writers to grace his profession. He said what he said he would do, and he did it well,” said Steve Milton, fellow sportswriter from the Hamilton Spectator.
National team members, Kurt Browning and Mike Slipchuk, both spent many hours being interviewed by Stevens during their competitive skating days. Both described Stevens as a reporter who brought comfort and familiarity.
“He was a very familiar face in the crowd,” remembers Slipchuk. Browning recalled that, “mix zones and press conferences felt like wrap parties and Neil was a big part of that.”
Browning would characterize Stevens as a quiet man, almost shy. On his interview style, Browning added, “he had a slow, methodical approach…that had you feeling like a bomb was coming any minute.”
“With Neil, skaters could expect to be asked the unexpected. Still, whether he was asking you an easy or a hard question you could expect it would be fair. With Neil, you had to be prepared for everything. His reporting was true and accurate, whether the story was good or bad,” added Slipchuck.
Browning and Slipchuck both expressed how Stevens had this way of making people feel interesting and special. Stevens was a constant, reliable, and true voice – one that got the respect of the athletes he covered. That respect extended to his fellow media colleagues.
“Neil made the road feel like home. When covering events, days are long sometimes pushing 15 hours. People are away from their families for weeks on end, but Neil kept it light, an essential quality in a group of people all fighting for the same story,” said Milton.
Stevens was soft spoken, poignantly funny and brought familiarity and kindness to a very competitive profession.
“You always knew an event had started because of the balloons tied to the back of his chair,” added Milton.
Well known for bringing flowers and balloons to the media centre at events, Stevens also often brought chocolates for the volunteers. His classic black hat, not quite a fedora, not a cowboy hat either but somewhere in between stood out in a crowd, so skaters always knew, Stevens was in the rink.
His infamous hat. There is a funny story about that hat as told by Kurt Browning. At the World Figure Skating Championships in 1989 in the press conference on the cusp of being crowned world champion, Kurt Browning made a deal with Stevens.
Browning told Stevens, “When I win worlds, you have to give me that hat.” Well, low and behold, Browning won worlds that year and Stevens, true to his word, walked up to Browning in the press conference and gave him his hat.
“Hot damn and the hat fits,” exclaimed Browning.
Browning enjoyed the hat for many years, he eventually returned it to Stevens. The hat had to go back to its rightful place.
A Hall of Fame member in both Hockey and Lacrosse, he contributed thousands of stories over his 34 years and the story was always about the story. Stevens covered 20 Stanley Cup finals, four Canada Cup hockey tournaments, 8 National Lacrosse League Championship games as well as countless other sporting events during his tenure.
Stevens was there in 1987 when Mario Lemieux scored the winning goal in 1987 Canada Cup. At Silken Laumann’s silver medal at the 1996 Olympics and again when Canada’s men won Olympic hockey gold in 2002.
As an expert in many disciplines Stevens was able to bring an eye from more traditional sports, which permitted him to tell the story of figure skating as a sport onto itself. He was the consummate professional who always hit his deadline. Something not easy to do, especially during the 80’s. As a Canadian Press reporter Stevens would be responsible for collecting all the standings, typing in every score and making sure it was correct. Which it always was.
For the most part a writer’s voice is silent, the words we hear in our head when we read them don’t necessarily sound like the person who wrote them and for 34 years Stevens was that voice in many figure skating fans heads. He was the public’s gateway to some of the biggest moments in sporting history and he elevated the authenticity of figure skating at a time when it felt like everyone was falling in love with it. He brought comfort, familiarity, and fun to those around him.
Skate Canada thanks Stevens for his contribution to skating and sends its sincere condolences to his family and friends. His legacy in skating will live on through his words and there is no doubt that his reputation and professional presence will be the benchmark for many sports writers to come.