By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 3:44 PM
As a teenager growing up in the Long Island suburbs, Washington Capitals broadcaster Joe Beninati was always The Voice of any sport he ever played, often offering an impromptu running play-by-play commentary for his friends even as he also was participating in a street hockey game here, a lacrosse game there.
Back then, he said he frequently fell asleep with a radio not far from his pillow listening to the great Marv Albert doing games of the N.Y. Rangers and N.Y. Knicks. Still, as a biology major at Bowdoin College a few years later, Beninati hardly expected to take a career path that eventually would lead him toward the same profession as his childhood broadcasting hero.
It began when a couple of college friends talked him into working at the school's radio station while he was recovering from a hockey injury his freshman season. By his sophomore year, a Brunswick, Maine cable station asked him to start doing play-by-play on local high school events, and eventually he became Bowdoin's sports information director.
Beninati also was hired to broadcast games of the local American Hockey league team and spent five years riding team busses up and down the east coast, also serving as the club's public relations director and traveling secretary. Washington's Channel 20, then handling the Capitals broadcasts, hired him in 1994 and he's been covering the team ever since.
Beninati is now in his 14th season as the Capitals television play-by-play man, and also handles a busy schedule of national NHL telecasts for the Versus network, interspersed with a number of college football games he covers every fall. At 42, he's become one of the most respected play-by-play men in hockey, while also developing a reputation as a voice for all seasons and any sport.
At the moment though, Beninati said he can't remember having the same sense of anticipation for a Capitals hockey season as the feeling he's had ever since the team's stirring run to get into the playoffs last year, also accompanied by a surge in the number of fans who helped boost the team's television ratings exponentially.
"This is the kind of team you dream about," Beninati said in a recent interview. "They have such a nice blend of offensive talent and defense and the best player in the league, in my opinion (Alex Ovechkin). We know they have a great deal of expectations on them, but it should be a great ride."
As well as a great listen.
Beninati and his analyst partner, former Capital Craig Laughlin, also have been together since 1994 and have developed into one of the game's premier broadcasting teams. For casual fans who now seem to be paying more attention, they have the ability to both educate and entertain, particularly with Laughlin's seemingly helium-fueled voice, his occasional mangling of the language and his signature "biscuit in the basket" expression.
These guys clearly love what they're doing, particularly now that the Capitals have transformed into a hockey team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.
"This team has gone from having some very lean years where you really earn your keep doing the games," Beninati said. "You do your best to keep viewers interested, and all those tough years have helped make us better television producers and announcers. We had to work even harder to keep the public interested, and that's certainly going to carry over in our coverage of a very exciting team."
Over the years, hockey always has had the reputation of a sport that is far more fan-friendly up close and personal in the arena. Trying to follow a speeding puck while watching at home can be frazzling at times, despite all the super slo-mo replays of shots on goal. But with the advent of high-definition TV, the game has become much more visually palatable for viewers investing in the technology.
"With hockey, (HD) shows you a lot more of the ice surface, what's happening away from the puck," Laughlin said. "You really are up close and personal. You can see the scars on guy's faces; you can see them sweat. If we're going to capture more fans, we need to do even more high-def."
This year, Comcast SportsNet has doubled its audience, averaging 30,000 viewers per game. It will air 50 Capitals regular season games in HD, including a number of road games. It would be nice if the regional cable network would do all of them that way, but apparently there are only a limited number of production trucks outfitted with the technology, so that goal may be a year or two away.
"HD is just terrific for the new fan of the sport," Beninati said. "He or she can really follow the puck, and the crispness of the audio also makes a big difference. I'll never say hockey will rival football as a television sport, but the more improvements we make in the TV business, let's take advantage of them. Comcast has made a real commitment to HD, and it really does make a difference in our sport."
So does the pre-game preparation of the two broadcasters. In separate interviews, and totally unprompted, both men basically said they were in awe of each other's work ethic in getting ready for a game.
"He is so well-prepared," Beninati said of Laughlin, who played seven seasons for the Capitals and has been doing color on the games for the last 18 years. "Craig does a lot of private instruction of the game with top notch young players, boys and girls. He's constantly teaching them, and he takes that teaching mindset into the booth. I watch the tape of every game we do, and I honestly learn that much more from him the second time around.
"He's also become like a second producer. He recognizes the main themes and story lines in the game as we're going along, and working with the guys in the truck on how to support those themes with graphics and replays. In a lot of ways, he's leading the direction of the broadcast."
Said Laughlin of Beninati, "he is the most prepared play-by-play guy in the NHL. Put it this way. We talk a lot the day before a game. The day of the game, we're going over everything again. Once we're on the air, he doesn't want to do the color. He wants to describe the game and use words that sometimes I don't understand.
"He's a great fit for me. I'm the light guy, the story guy, and he never leaves me hanging. We don't step over each other, and we're great friends. We play tennis all summer, and of course I beat him all the time. But the bottom line is, it screams professionalism when you talk about Joe. Professional, and prepared."
This season, Laughlin also has been given a new toy -- a state-of-the-art high-tech tellestrator he described as "kind of futuristic. I'm still getting used to it, but it's really going to help people understand what's going on."
But Laughlin also continues with the light touches that have endeared him to Capitals fans over the years. He always makes it a point to say hello to his mother Josephine, who lives in Toronto but often watches the Capitals via satellite.
"Yeah, my mum tries to watch as much as she can, it's why I say hello to her," Laughlin said. "She loves Ovechkin, but she can't pronounce his name. She's always saying 'I love that Russian guy.' She still roots for the Maple Leafs, but she's definitely on the Caps bandwagon."
As is her son.
"This year, there is a total sense that this team could be something special," Laughlin said. "I really think it's a three- to five-year window where they can compete for the Cup. They stuck to their plan, and it's definitely paying off. It's gonna be a fun season, I know that."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.