Craig Laughlin was barreling down New York Avenue toward Verizon Center with some of the essentials he’d need to call a hockey game: a stack of papers covered with meticulous notes printed in black Sharpie, one large Dunkin Donuts coffee in his hand and another in the back seat, NHL Network Radio coming from his speakers and frigid air blasting from the air vents. (“I’m from Canada,” he explained.)
Laughlin was headed toward Game No. 68, in the 25th year of a broadcasting career that’s more than half as old the Capitals franchise. There was nothing in particular at stake and no particular story line Tuesday night: just a mid-March game on Comcast SportsNet, not unlike hundreds before. As we approached Verizon Center, I asked whether he was excited for this unremarkable game. Laughlin grinned like he had just been handed tickets to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
“Oh, [bleep] yeah!” he shouted.
How has this 58-year old Canadian — who’s had a longer formal affiliation with the Caps than any player in franchise history — kept smiling and laughing after a quarter-century on the air? How, after so many hundreds of games, can he kiss his college sweetheart farewell in their Gambrills home — “bye baby doll!” — and then charge toward Washington full of curiosity and one-liners?
“Some people are overboard serious, man,” Laughlin said. “It’s a [bleeping] game. These guys are millionaires. Have fun with it.”
That’s why Laughlin spent his playing days making unpaid appearances at auto shows and boat shows and shopping malls, promoting a franchise whose future was uncertain when he arrived. It’s why he later found as many hockey-related jobs as you could dream up: from managing ice rinks to running a pro shop to offering youth lessons to creating a hockey school to managing a minor-league team to talking and talking about Washington’s NHL franchise on television.
It’s why he fairly quickly rejected a 9-to-5 job as a marketing agent for a radiology group in favor of a lifetime as Washington’s chortling Canadian import, telestrating a quarter-century of ups and downs.
Mention to some of his longtime colleagues how excited Laughlin is for yet another regular season broadcast, and they’ll shrug. Of course he is.
“There’s no pretense in that. It’s not manufactured,” said CSN play-by-play voice Joe Beninati, who’s worked with Laughlin for nearly two decades. “He’s the Pied Piper.”
“Once in a while, I go to the road games, and I see him there,” said team President Dick Patrick, who joined the Caps a few weeks before Laughlin in 1982. “And he’s all smiles, all happiness whenever you see him.”
Some broadcasters ”get to 25 30 years, and you can hear them phone it in,” said CSN’s Al Koken, who covered Laughlin as a player and has known him for decades. “And there are the guys who get to 25 and 30 years and get almost more excited about it each and every year. When you listen to Brent Musberger, does it sound like he’s been doing it forever, or does it sound like he’s thrilled to be in Starkville, Mississippi; that there’s no place in the world he’d rather be? And that’s the same thing with Craig when you hear him. You know, I’m so thrilled to be in Winnipeg on this minus-25 day, because I get to talk about hockey.”
CSN is honoring Laughlin this week for his 25 years of broadcasting, with radio interviews and celebrations — Friday night’s game will include archival footage and a video tribute — and with VIP visits to the booth. Patrick stopped by to reminisce before Tuesday’s game, and Laughlin began talking about his gig.
“I love it,” he said. “I love it, I love it, I love it. It’s the greatest job ever.”
From Germany to HTS
Laughlin had a Mercedes lined up in Germany.
He had played his final season of pro hockey in Landshut, outside Munich, and the team wanted him back on a lucrative three-year deal. Laughlin said he demanded a nanny and an English teacher for his two young kids, a washer and dryer, a dishwasher, and that Mercedes. The team agreed.
But it still wasn’t a done deal. Laughlin’s kids were struggling with the new language. He was, too. (“I didn’t speak anything; ‘Eins Bier, please,’ that was about it,” he said.) And a former Home Team Sports producer named Bill Brown had told him during his playing days that he might have a future in broadcasting.
Fan favorites were harder to identify in that pre-social media age, but Laughlin’s wife always thought he qualified. Media members flocked to him, and had fun with him, too. (Laughlin “skates about as fast as a one-fingered reporter types,” the great Robert Fachet once wrote.)
Laughlin wrote an occasional column for the Washington Times. He starred with teammates Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher in a “Stray Caps” lip-synced music video of “Rock This Town,” which played on the team’s then-modern video scoreboard. He was incredibly proud of his mullet, he exuberantly celebrated his goals, and he got stacks of fan mail. (His wife threw away the notes from admiring women.)
“You’d walk out of the Cap Centre and it was like a swarm of bees around Craig wherever he went,” Linda Laughlin said.
So in that 1990 offseason, Linda wrote to Brown and said her husband might be ready to move on from German hockey. In a subsequent phone conversation, Brown said Home Team Sports wanted “a jock in the booth,” and that “this may be the last time that you’ll get this offer.”
The money would be terrible – a couple hundred bucks a game, for a partial schedule, compared with a six-figure payday in Germany. But there were not even two dozen jobs like this in the world, and regional sports networks were just ramping up, and “we kind of had this feeling we could get in at the beginning and ride the wave — if he was good,” Linda Laughlin said. “If he wasn’t any good at it, it was a risk.”
Laughlin finally told his German general manager that he was finished, joking that he was tired of carrying the team on his back. (One German newspaper then reported that Laughlin was retiring because of a back injury.) He spent at least one season commuting from Toronto to the Cap Centre, and soon the whole family came back to Anne Arundel County.
“True story: it cost us more to hire a truck — just the truck — to move from Toronto to here than he earned in this job in one year,” Linda said.
They lived in the same neighborhood as many of his ex-teammates, his kids playing with Dale Hunter’s children down the street. Laughlin took a job with the radiology group to help make ends meet, designing their logo and hawking MRI technology. He didn’t like that job, and he said he was “bad” on TV, unable to fit his thoughts into the brief moments of space he was offered.
But he and his wife had guessed correctly about the industry, and the future. Home Team Sports became CSN. The Caps became a local fixture, and hockey became a growing business. The summer lessons from his playing days – when Laughlin was the rare player to live in Maryland year-round – became an actual hockey school, which he was able to promote on the air. A poorly paying part-time TV gig became a 25-year broadcasting career. And Laughlin’s distinctive cadence became perhaps the most recognizable voice of hockey in Washington.
“In terms of somebody who’s been associated with wearing the jersey and then broadcasting about the jersey, there’s nobody else,” Koken said. “I can’t think of anybody who’s even remotely close.”
‘He makes the game fun.’
Laughlin’s ethos as a broadcaster focuses on fun. It was the same when he was playing.
“Oh God yeah,” he said. “We probably had too much fun.”
He then launched into a story involving an ex-teammate, and a party, and a vomiting session so violent that the teammate “broke his eye.” Similar stories followed, including one involving a hung-over player and an excessive amount of vapor rub. As with all of Laughlin’s stories, they were punctuated by his distinctive laugh – “sort of like if a cackle had an accent,” as Koken described it.
From the beginning, Laughlin brought that personality into the booth. He spends hours preparing for every game, is famous for his pages and pages of notes, and has embraced modern ways of looking at the game, saying “I like analytics more than anything right now.” There is also an entire generation of fans that learned the game, in part at least, from Laughlin. (“I think think the community has grown up with him, and he’s helped teach them the game — and he’s a really good teacher of the game,” Beninati said.)
Laughlin never was interested in analyzing the composition of lines or the difference between a left- and right-handed shot. Instead, he wanted to explain to fans what was happening on the ice, and why.
“I credit Locker with a lot of my turning into a hockey fan,” said Craig Brownstein, a Caps fan whose first jersey was a Laughlin throwback. “I never knew how to watch hockey. I couldn’t really appreciate it, and it just had no appeal. Listening to Locker, especially, really brought me into the sport and taught me how to appreciate it.”
Still, fans are as likely to mention his mirth, the way he needles Beninati and the amount of laughter deployed during their broadcasts as they are his Xs and Os breakdowns.
“People will sit there and go ‘God, you guys are great together, you’re so funny,’ ” Beninati said. “And I’m like ‘We were funny for 60 seconds of a two-and-a-half-hour show!’ It’s not like we’re doing comedy and one-liners for 15 minutes; we’re doing a hockey game. … But they recognize, they remember the times when we’re having fun.”
Laughlin figures watching a hockey game is supposed to be entertainment, and that the hockey can’t always be that, even in a magical season like this one. He does so with an unusual level of candor. (“How about the Leafs game the other night — that might have been the worst game of hockey I’ve ever seen,” he said.) If you’re watching even a bad game with your pal Locker, though, maybe you’ll stick with the broadcast.
“Craig is kind of like your buddy that you’d go watch a game with, you know?” owner Ted Leonsis said. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he really knows the game, and he’s done a real good job of kind of walking that line.”
Laughlin’s family always thought they’d retire in Canada, and they still might, but Laughlin also is planning on getting American citizenship. His wife helps run his hockey school, his daughter Courtney is part of CSN’s broadcasts and his son Kyle has taught lessons to local hockey fans. After spending about half his life in Washington, he said he feels “a responsibility to the people in our region; I’m one of the hockey spokespeople, and I want to push the game.”
When he was traded here with Langway and others in 1982 – “the Locker trade,” as Patrick jokingly calls it – he asked the defenseman “where the heck are we going?” But in the next few years, after the Caps lost in the playoffs, the players would all party for one day (or three), and then just about everybody would leave town. Laughlin never did.
Before we got to Verizon Center on Tuesday night, I asked Laughlin why he was so excited about yet another night of this: the pregame meetings, the promotional reads, the on-air digs, the jokes with the visiting broadcasters, his voice caroming around the press box, all these things that had happened hundreds of times before. Who gets that happy about going to work?
“Why am I excited? I love the game,” Laughlin said. “I just like the environment. I love the guys I work with. We laugh all the time. Laughing’s part of life, man. You’ve got to have fun.”