Friday, December 23, 2022

An Appreciation for Those Who Bring Us the Games and More

As the old year winds to a close, it is time for us to take a moment to appreciate the people who bring us the game, the ones who, with their commentary, analysis, and stories have enhanced the enjoyment of hockey in this phase of the “Rock the Red” era immeasurably.

It starts with television and the voices of the Capitals, Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin, the play-by-play and analyst calling the action. Beninati, who has been calling games with Laughlin since the 1996-1997 season, has been the musical “score” of Caps hockey games in the Ovechkin era.  And, like the best movie scores, he enhances but never intrudes on what is taking place on the screen or on the ice.  From his introducing Alex Ovechkin to Caps fans on Opening Night of the 2005-2006 season… 

…to his “simply sensational” call of “The Goal” by Alex Ovechkin in January 2006… 

…to those instances when he adds to the Dictionary of Professional Hockey terms like “danglicious” 

.…to Ovechkin’s assault on the record book taking place at the moment, and for every moment and player in between, Beninati has been a perfect fit as the voice narrating the golden era of Capitals hockey for television audiences.

Craig Laughlin, who toiled for six seasons with the Caps in the 1980’s and earned a reputation as a hard- working and perhaps underrated talent on the ice, has been as hard-working a sort in his current capacity as game analyst and impresses with his hockey smarts, his sense of timing, and his quirky humor that plays well with Beninati in the booth and Caps fans tuning in to game broadcasts (even when the topic strays from hockey… 

That Laughlin has become a beloved icon in Capitals history, whether on the ice or in the booth, not to mention his work in charitable causes, is no accident and is thoroughly deserved. 

Al Koken has done it all for Capitals hockey broadcasts.  From the early days of Home Team Sports to his work these days “between the benches,” in the studio, or as play-by-play and color analyst when needed, he has been the through line of Capitals coverage for almost four decades.  It is testimony to his excellence as a hockey media talent.  The perspective his years of experience in this market provides is of inestimable value to listeners of Capitals broadcasts, who benefit from his ability to provide perspective in his analysis and a comfortable, but still enthusiastic approach in the booth on game nights when calling or providing color analysis.  And no one could describe that journey better than the man himself… 

In the studio, Alexa Landesoy has not been here long; she arrived on the scene after the Caps’ Stanley Cup win in 2018.  But her missing out on that excitement does not diminish from her contributions to the television experience these days.  It might escape notice because she does it as easily and flawlessly as she does, but in hosting in-studio segments for NBC SportsWashington pre-game, between periods, and post-game, she keeps the action moving and engaging, smartly and seamlessly without being an intrusive presence.  And, perhaps her most valuable contribution is in being able to hold her own in bantering with Alan May at the studio desk.

Which brings us to Alan May.  As a commentator, whether in the studio or between the benches during games, he might be unique, or at least a member of a very special and rare breed.  He has developed over the years a style that takes advantage of his years as a player to communicate the game and its subtleties without degenerating into indecipherable jargon that a lot of former players-turned-analyst in just about any pro sport often do.  He is also immune from being a mere “homer,” perfectly willing to shine a bright light on shortcomings the Caps might display from time to time.  He brings the same feistiness to Caps broadcasts that he brought to the ice as a player for the Caps over five seasons in the early 1990’s.  Those attributes make him an essential element for watching Caps games.

And don’t forget Brent Johnson.  Getting the goalie’s eye view is an added plus in the Capitals television coverage arsenal.  He breaks down goalie performance in a way even the casual fan can understand, and he has a level-headed style that fans can identify with.  He and Alan May make for an informative and entertaining pair in the studio analysis.

On the radio side, Caps fans of long standing remember Ron Weber as the original radio voice of the Caps who became an icon in Caps media history.  It is a hard standard to live up to.  But John Walton has done just that.  Since arriving in DC in 2011 from his position as communications director radio voice of the Hershey Bears (where he broadcast some big games with the Bears winning Calder Trophies in 2006, 2009, and 2010), his post-win call of “Good Morning, Good Afternoon, and Good Night!” became an unmistakable Walton signature.  Whether big games or small, his enthusiasm in his play-by-play style has earned a devoted following, and while his call on Alex Ovechkin’s 800th goal was memorable, it is his call in the Cup-clinching Game 5 of the 2018 Stanley Cup final, especially in the dying moments of the Capitals Stanley Cup win is perhaps the most memorable play-by-play moment in team history…. 

Walton is announcer out of a classic mold, and Capitals Nation is lucky to have him as the radio voice of the club for the last decade.

Ken Sabourin does not have an easy job.  Without the visual element of a television broadcast that fans can see for themselves, the color analyst on radio must be adept in communicating the “how” of things that happen on the ice completely and succinctly while not interfering with the play-by-play. Sabourin, another former Capital from the early 1990’s, has been at this for two decades with the Caps and has become an analyst that navigates the difficulties of his job adeptly.  He has been a fine complement to John Walton on the radio side.

Ben Raby is something of a jack-of-all trades.  He appears on radio, in print, on social media, and whether doing features or hosting radio shows or providing commentary and analysis, his ability to cross over from one medium to another and do so with an ability to provide add to the wealth of information available to Caps fans is perhaps unique among those who cover the Caps.

On the print side, being a beat reporter strikes us as a difficult job, especially in an age of social media that must always be fed with timely, accurate, and unique information and perspectives that draw readers and keep the information machine humming.  And, to do it under time pressures, whether covering games, following stories on and off the ice, or focusing on players in a manner fans would not otherwise experience.  Samantha Pell has not been covering the local Caps beat for all that long, but she certainly has made a mark with her attention to the needs of modern media to keep information flowing and to do so in a way that draws fans.  She continues a line of Caps beat reporters who have given depth and body to Caps coverage, and who have built faithful followings among Caps fans.

On a more national level, Tarik el-Bashir, who once covered the Caps beat for the Post and now writes for The Athletic is, for our money, the best team-centric NHL writer for that media outlet (or pretty much any media outlet).  He never fails to provide a unique angle to his stories, whether focusing on players or the team generally.  And while it might be overlooked by fans sometimes but is difficult to maintain on a consistent and reliable basis, he writes in an entertaining style that makes readers look forward to his next story.  His work is worth the subscription to The Athletic, and if you aren’t reading him, you’re missing out on a lot of valuable insight and information.

And that brings us to the “official” media, so to speak.  Mike Vogel is, and has been without a doubt, one of the most valuable elements in the constellation of Caps media.  Whether writing game stories, background pieces or “Skate Shavings” for, or partnering with John Walton on Caps Report, his years of experience from the inside of the organization gives fans an authentic and comprehensive look at what goes on inside the Caps machine.  

Then there is the in-game voice of the Caps.  Wes Johnson is just the best at what he does.  From player intros that bring the fans out of their seats to his announcement of goal scorers (“Alex O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-VECH-KIN” will ring in Caps fans’ ears long after Ovechkin’s playing days are over) to unleashing the fury late in games, he keeps Caps fans in the stands entertained and on the edge of their seats, and knows how to build the excitement as the game moves along.  He is the best reason, other than the on-ice action itself, to attend a Caps game.

If I have left anyone out, that’s on me.  It is just that Caps fans have so many riches in the coverage of the team – before, during, and after games – that it is sometimes difficult to keep all the possibilities and personalities straight.  Theirs is a contribution that Caps fans should never take for granted, either for the effort and dedication they bring to their craft, or in the quality of their work.  They bring the game to life, day after day, and we appreciate what they do.