Mitch Tischler spent much of the previous two days reminiscing with people who knew fellow longtime NBC Sports Washington videographer Michael DiVenere, whose love of hockey was rivaled perhaps only by his fondness for heavy metal music. They included DiVenere’s friends from childhood, co-workers from every stop in his career and peers he saw maybe a couple of times a year in arenas and stadiums throughout the country.
“All the stories that people are telling, it makes a really surreal moment a little less painful,” Tischler said Monday of DiVenere’s unexpected death, which came while the 49-year-old was on assignment to cover the NHL draft in Dallas over the weekend. No cause was reported.
As the tragic news spread Monday, there was an outpouring of tributes to DiVenere on social media. Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis and Capitals forward Tom Wilson were among the many who offered condolences and shared memories of DiVenere, a testament to the impact he had on those he met.
Seemingly everyone who knew DiVenere has a story to tell about him, but few people have more “Mike D” stories than Tischler. Beginning in 2008, Tischler and DiVenere spent eight years as travel partners on the Redskins beat. From the start of training camp in July until the end of the season, they spent five or six days a week together, both at home and on the road. Their countless car rides were especially memorable, thanks to DiVenere’s insistence on listening to metal music and hockey podcasts, and his blind faith in GPS that led Tischler to wonder whether his colleague might follow the navigation system’s directions into a lake, like Michael Scott in “The Office.”
When Tischler and DiVenere drove through certain cities, DiVenere would dip into his arsenal of mostly terrible regional accents.
“He had a specific accent for talking about Philly cheesesteaks, and a particular accent for Baltimore about Natty Bohs,” Tischler said with a laugh. “Every accent sounded exactly the same, but to him, they were totally different. It got to a point where we would endlessly jab him and say, ‘Give me your New York accent.’ They all sounded the same.”
DiVenere, who worked at NewsChannel 8 and freelanced for George Michael at NBC4 before joining NBC Sports Washington when it was still known as Comcast SportsNet 15 years ago, had a knack for putting those around him at ease. That was a valuable skill to have in live television.
“He was always good to make me smile, especially before I went on camera,” said Capitals play-by-play man Joe Beninati, who worked closely with DiVenere on pregame and postgame shows throughout the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run.
Beninati praised the work that DiVenere — and all of his colleagues behind the camera — did to make NBC Sports Washington’s on-air talent look good, and said Monday’s news was like a gut-punch. NBCSW analyst Alan May, who joined the network in 2009, echoed those thoughts. He said when he would ask DiVenere how he looked before going on air, DiVenere’s reply was always the same.
“He’d say, ‘Babe, don’t worry about it,’ ” May recalled. “‘You’ll never look bad with me at the helm.’ His way of hiding his feelings was to be a little bit snarky, but he was the first guy to look out for all of us. People don’t realize how hard it is when they’re watching something on television. He was stubborn about doing everything himself. . . . He didn’t want help; he just wanted to help you.”
One of the first things NBC4 videographer Chris Kerwin noticed about DiVenere when they met in the end zone at a Redskins game 20 years ago was the unorthodox butterfly stance he would use to shoot games from the sideline. This guy must play goalie, thought Kerwin, who had recently moved to the area and was looking for an ice hockey team to join. Sure enough, Kerwin and DiVenere would bond over their shared love of metal and hockey. They were teammates on a men’s league team in Reston for a brief time before forming a Hockey North America squad called the D.C. Rattlers. In a touching Facebook post, Kerwin, who played defense for the Rattlers, recalled that DiVenere would keep a puck from every shutout he recorded and inscribe it with the score and his total number of saves.
“A lot of people snickered about that, but it showed how much he was really into it,” Kerwin said. “He was fiery in net. When he was on, he was on. When he wasn’t on, he was angry.”
DiVenere helped lead the Rattlers to multiple Hockey North America championships, which were often held in Las Vegas, and he was always looking to get better.
“After I got to know Mike, he would ask me to come out to shoot his men’s league games because he liked to have tape to study,” Tischler said. “He spent so much time watching YouTube videos and talking to other goalies about technique. He was so into the craft. When there was downtime at work, he was on some goalie website watching technique videos or picking out the next set of goalie pads he would buy. It was such an obsession for him, but in a good way. During the Stanley Cup run, he talked about how he won a championship in Vegas before the Capitals ever did.”
Before this year, Tischler said just about the happiest he had seen DiVenere at work was during the Redskins’ run to the 2012 playoffs in Robert Griffin III’s rookie season.
“He wasn’t the most optimistic guy when it came to his teams, but that year, you could see that start to turn with the Redskins,” Tischler said. “I didn’t know he had that next level of happiness and joy in him.”
Tischler and his NBC Sports Washington colleagues saw that same joy in DiVenere over the last two months. When May invited DiVenere to join him on a postgame podcast during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, DiVenere got choked up talking about his favorite hockey team.
“It was great to see, because he prided himself on kind of being a hard-ass,” May said. “He loved the team so much.”
May said he will never forget seeing DiVenere at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the minutes after Lars Eller scored what proved to be the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 5. In a reversal of roles, May was the one trying to calm DiVenere’s nerves as the clock ticked down on the franchise’s first championship. When the buzzer finally sounded, DiVenere shared a hug with Beninati before shooting the Capitals’ celebration.
“You could see the tears in his eyes, and it was just unbelievably special,” Tischler said.
“The professional in him always took over, and he did his job really well, but I could see the fan in him just booming with pride,” Beninati said. “The further [the Capitals] went, the smile got bigger, the music got louder, and they won it. They got it across the finish line, and I’m so glad that at least before his time was through here, he got a chance to see that.”
DiVenere and Kerwin had marked many a Capitals season-ending loss by wondering, over a few adult beverages, whether the team would ever break through. After the Capitals finally did, they followed the team to a nightclub in Las Vegas and Kerwin bought a round of drinks. The scene was a far cry from the Metallica concerts the friends attended in Baltimore and at FedEx Field together over the years.
“To see him in a techno club was totally different,” said Tischler, who joined DiVenere, Kerwin and several other colleagues for the post-Cup celebration. “The size of the smile on Mike D’s face was unbelievable. I don’t know that I’ve seen him that happy before. Being a photographer isn’t the most glamorous job . . . but he bled and cried and sweated and everything else with that team. For them to do that this year was pretty spectacular.”
“Mike was one of our longest-tenured, most passionate colleagues and a valued member of our team,” Damon Phillips, general manager of NBC Sports Washington, said in a statement. “More importantly, he was a good friend to many. He will be greatly missed, personally and professionally. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Dozens of DiVenere’s friends and colleagues joined Phillips on Monday in expressing their grief over his passing. Many also shared their own Mike D stories.