Shortly before the scheduled start of NHL training camps in 1994, Joe Beninati left the Providence Bruins of the minor league AHL to take a television and radio broadcasting job with the Washington Capitals.
Beninati relocated to the D.C. area, moved in with some new co-workers near the team’s Piney Orchard practice facility, and prepared for his first season in the big leagues.
Then came the lockout.
“Welcome, here’s your big break — oops, there’s no league,” Beninati recalled this month. “I should have known right then and there that I was tabbed for greatness.”
That lockout was resolved by January of 1995, and over the ensuing two decades, the 47-year old Beninati became a beloved D.C. hockey institution. His Comcast SportsNet partnership with Craig Laughlin educated new fans and entertained old ones; he was sympathetic to the home team without being saccharine; and he was a rare dose of constancy around a team that has undergone several re-inventions.
And yet here Beninati is again, waiting out the third NHL work stoppage of his Caps tenure. Unlike radio voice John Walton, Beninati is not a team employee, so when the games stop, so does his employment. The Vienna resident has picked up some broadcast opportunities in the interim — he called an American University basketball game for Comcast SportsNet on Thursday, has done several CAA football games on the same network, and has worked the occasional college football game for ESPN properties.
But without knowing when his primary gig might return, Beninati — like hockey play-by-play men across the country — is trapped in a sort of limbo. He can’t very well promise potential employers that he’ll be available in December or January, but neither can he reassure himself that hockey will be back by then.
So he spends his time like thousands of hockey fans do, surfing the Web sites of ESPN, TSN, CSN, SLAM! Sports and so on, searching for signs of hope.
“It makes your stomach turn sometimes,” he said. “You call friends, you hope that they have different information. Some do — some say things that get you very worried, some say things that make you optimistic. The only people that really know are in that negotiating room.”
Beninati is quick to note that he’s just one of many Washingtonians affected by the lockout, from downtown business employees to CSN’s technical and production staff to his on-air cohorts like Laughlin, Alan May and Al Koken.
In fact, he talks frequently with his good friend Laughlin — “he’s still the only guy that can keep making me laugh in these dark times,” Beninati said.
That duo has discussed, in broad strokes, a plan to put together a prep hockey event, which would at least keep them around their favorite game.
“That sport is one of the loves of my life,” Beninati said. “I’ve got so much to be thankful for because of hockey. Sure, I love to be able to do eight different sports — and thankfully I can — but hockey is one of the loves of my life. I miss it terribly. I miss interacting with the players and coaches. I miss my co-workers, the guys and girls you see around the rink, the crew. I miss that every day.
“For me, there’s very little that’s as exciting as 7 o’clock on an NHL game night,” he continued. “You see it going on at the American League level, or college hockey, or major junior, and you feel a loss. You just feel an empty feeling.”
He sounds, in other words, like a fan, which he is. Caps supporters stop him and ask for information about the lockout; Beninati assures them that he knows no more than they do.
He sometimes wishes he picked up a new hobby during the 2004-05 work stoppage — learning to play the drums, or studying Italian. Instead, he has become expert at the same skill mastered by hockey die-hards across the continent: waiting.
“So much of this is just wait-and-see, and that’s an uncomfortable position to be in,” Beninati said. “It’s happened three times in 19 years, and all three I’ve been a part of. And it doesn’t get any easier.”