By Ian Oland
Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin hit the road on Tuesday and called an away game in person for the first time since a pre-pandemic Capitals-Sabres matchup on March 9, 2020.
The NBC Sports Washington commentary duo threw on their headsets and called the Capitals’ 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators from the top of Bridgestone Arena. The span between calling live road games was 708 days.
It was a big moment for the crew.
“It was fun to be back on the plane with the team, to hear all the laughter from the players and our travel group,” Beninati said in an interview. “It was great to also learn that Locker would still have his own seat/row on the plane.”
“It’s been close to two years since we last traveled so at times it felt like I should reintroduce myself to everybody!” Laughlin quipped.
A new normal
When the COVID-19 pandemic first began in March 2020, the deadly disease pushed sports to the sidelines as leagues grappled with how to come back responsibly. The same was true for sports networks who had to find a way to cover games safely but have their broadcasts retain their previous incisiveness and personality. Strict NHL protocols mandated that any commentary would have to be done from afar initially. The whole situation was difficult.
Beninati and Laughlin got a taste of how much things would change when they were tasked with adding their voices to video game simulations of Capitals games on NHL 21 during the lockdown. The two were separated from each other and added their insights from their own homes – similar to the way a blogger would conduct a podcast with multiple people.
Ovi is starting to get hot 👀🔥
1-0 Caps. pic.twitter.com/JqjilfWSIJ
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) March 31, 2020
During the summer, the duo returned to call the 2020 playoffs. Games were played in Canada, but Joe B and Locker described the action from NBC Sports Washington studios locally. The longtime friends were separated by a large pane of plexiglass.
Beninati and Laughlin watched the games via a “world feed” supplied by the home team’s broadcast partner on large monitors set up in front of them. They provided their observations in real-time through their mics.
The telecasts were mostly flawless; fans would have never known Joe B and Locker weren’t in the arena. But the process was challenging.
“When doing these remote shows from world feeds there can be several frustrating times for a play-by-play person,” Beninati said. “When the trail referee has a penalty called it’s difficult to tell because he’s not in the frame on TV. When a goalie is pulled late in the game, or on a delayed penalty, there’s no way for us to see him leave. We don’t see line changes on the fly nearly as well as we would if we were in the building. Subtle deflections and changes of direction of the puck are harder to read off the monitor. In hockey, the ‘object ball’ is a lot smaller than a football or a basketball, and the puck is traveling much faster– so keeping your focus on it becomes even more important.”
Laughlin agreed that it was a lot harder to notice the subtleties of the game and things that happened behind the play, but his confidence never wavered on the duo’s ability to get the authenticity of games across.
“We have been working so long together we could probably do a game from a phone booth/closet and one monitor and no one would know the difference,” he said.
Covering a hockey game during the pandemic without being there or having fans at games made the emotion for goals and big plays harder to replicate as well.
“As a professional, I work hard to approach every game that I call the same way, with enthusiasm and attention to detail,” Beninati said. “Calling games during this pandemic hasn’t changed that approach. But sports fans have to realize that working games remotely in-studio presents a challenge to all broadcasters to re-create the energy that’s missing without being surrounded by a full house. It’s a delicate balance to inject the energy that’s necessary without overdoing it.”
The road back
The NHL introduced new protocols at the start of the 2020-21 season, allowing home television and radio broadcasts to happen from their teams’ empty arenas. Beninati and Laughlin officially returned to Capital One Arena on January 22, 2021, for the first time in 324 days to call a home game. NBC Sports Washington set up the two legends in the lower bowl of Capital One Arena instead of their normal booth in the upper deck to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. A pane of plexiglass once again separated them.
“It’s never awkward to do the telecasts as Joe is the best at describing the play,” Laughlin said. “Then I jump in to try to analyze what he just described. We’ve always managed no matter where or how.”
He’s not wrong. Beninati was named DC broadcaster of the year for his work in 2021 by the National Sports Media Association.
While home games were back for broadcasters, traveling to road games or interacting in person with players and coaches was not. Beninati and Laughlin called all away games from NBC Sports Washington studios via monitors during the 2020-21 season even as fans began returning in other buildings.
It wasn’t until the current season where that protocol was relaxed and more customization of broadcasts was allowed again.
“Beginning with this season, both booths were open for each broadcaster, home and away,” NBC Sports Washington producer Ryan Billie said. “We put a plan in place to adjust our broadcast to make it more ‘ours’ if you will. A broadcast that wouldn’t be reliant on the home team’s broadcast. We implemented this model for the first time when the Caps played Dallas last month with Joe and Locker still doing the games from the studio. After we did a couple of those, and with some restrictions easing up, we felt it was a good time to have Joe and Locker head back out.”
The first game back on the road was the tilt against the Nashville Predators in Music City on Thursday, February 15. The trip came after the United States endured a fifth wave of COVID-19, powered by the Omicron variant, during the holiday season.
An enthusiastic Laughlin documented his feelings on his personal Instagram. The former Capital rocked a cowboy hat as he packed up his belongings and threw them into the back of his car.
From Nashville, Locker conducted an Instagram Story Q/A, where he claimed “bugging Joe B in person” was one of his favorite perks of returning to the road.
The actual game went off without a hitch despite some major differences from pre-pandemic times.
“While Joe and Locker are on the road, me and the director and some of our crew are still producing the game from a control room in our studio in DC,” Billie said. “So it’s not 100 percent like it was, but it’s close and I’m not complaining. The two won’t be on the road for every game moving forward but it’s a good start. I think they were really excited to be back.”
The legends are in the house, @Capitals fans! pic.twitter.com/ZOJoGxnNm3
— ashley van blargan. (@anvtrademark) February 16, 2022
“It doesn’t matter how many games I’ve done in the past or how many more there are to come in the future,” Beninati said. “I am always excited to call sporting events, especially hockey games!”
“There is nothing better than a live Caps game home or on the road,” Laughlin added.
There is a sense of quiet pride at NBCSWSH about how well the crew managed the situation despite so many challenges, many of which fans weren’t aware of.
“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do these last couple of years,” Billie said. “It hasn’t been easy.”
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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