Joe Beninati is one of the best at calling the play by play in sports!
As a college freshman, Joe Beninati starting calling hockey games on television, and now the rest is history. If you are a Washington Capitals fan and watch them on Comcast SportsNet, chances are you’ve heard of Joe B calling the games with such precision.
I knew it takes a lot of work to do play by play for any sport, but I didn’t realize how much work Joe Beninati actually puts in to make you part of the game. I had the opportunity to get Joe B’s insight on doing play by play, as well as advice for students looking to do play by play for a living.
Steve Rudden: You’ve been doing Hockey play by play for over 20 years now, but how long did it take you to get so smooth at it? I’m on this SportsCastr.Live App and have the opportunity to call baseball, basketball, and hockey games, and hockey is probably the hardest sport to call.
Joe Beninati: One of the most difficult challenges to broadcasting hockey is to make an extremely fast-moving sport sound slower and under your control. That does take a great deal of time to master if any of us truly can. I was fortunate enough to call my first hockey game on TV when I was a freshman in college, so I have had a ton of “reps” since then.
In order to sound “smooth, flip card” your player recognition skills have to be quick and accurate. You can’t be fumbling for who’s who and expect your call to sound good. Then you need to learn how much description is necessary to keep up with the flow of the game. Obviously, that will vary whether you are calling a game on radio or TV. Once you figure out the proper “verbiage” you need to focus on cadence, not too fast (you will tire-out yourself and the listener/viewer) and not too slow (you won’t keep up with the puck very well).
Try your best to be articulate, entertaining, and informative. That’s easier said than done when it comes to broadcasting hockey, but in time you’ll get the hang of it. There’s no set timetable for when that will occur. Lots of practice is required before that smoothness sets in.
SR: When you do the play by play for NBC Sports and the Caps are playing, is it hard for you not to always talk about them since you are the play by play guy for the Caps on a regular basis?
JB: This is an interesting question, one which most fans might not think to ask.
There was a time from 2005 through 2011 where I was calling the Caps locally on CSN, while at the same time working another 20-25 games with the NHL National TV package which was airing on Versus (VS). Many of those nationally televised games involved the Caps. In those instances, when you are working as a national TV game-caller, my belief is that you should deliver the game even-handed, 50-50, unbiased.
On nights when I was calling a Washington / Pittsburgh on VS., that meant every Alex Ovechkin goal should have been met with the same verbal enthusiasm and intensity as a goal by Sidney Crosby. With 23 years of calling the Caps under my belt, that was not a natural approach for me, but it was something I had to be very mindful of in advance of any national game I was calling that involved Washington.
On a local CSN level, we think a 65-35 split is more comfortable, and occasionally it jumps to 70-30. But nowadays when NBC Sports is taking our CSN show nationally (which doesn’t happen all that frequently, I think it was twice last year) we definitely make the effort to be more balanced in our story-telling.
SR: How much prep time goes into each and every game? How long before the game do you try to arrive at the arena?
JB: The simple answer to this question would be, “much more than you might imagine.”
There are many levels to my game prep. First and foremost, I like to prepare a flip card that contains line combinations, defense pairings, injured players and healthy scratches for both teams. Within that flip card, I have a good chunk of biographical information that I will list for each player on both teams.
A good friend of mine helped me computerize this flip card system, which I use for hockey, football, basketball, lacrosse, etc. Over the years that has helped me work up a very good-sized database on all the players in the NHL. The system is totally adjustable from day to day. I would say it takes me close to two hours to fully prepare the flip card for a Capitals opponent, and I am usually doing that background work three or four days in advance of the Caps playing that team.
I spend lots of time reading through newspaper websites, blogs, etc. looking up information on Caps players and their opposition. On game-days, we receive close to 50 pages of statistical background from each of the two teams communications staffs and the research team at Elias Stats Bureau. I rip through those pages in the morning to see how much good stuff I can add hand-written to the flip card.
By 9 AM on game-day, our CSN Producer, Steve Farrell, has finalized our “format’ for the night’s broadcast. Basically, it’s a very detailed outline of how we’d like the show to “open” at 7 pm, which then leads to all the additional video elements and graphics and sponsored elements that will be at our disposal for the night. I like to spend 30-45 minutes prepping out my approach to the different elements of the format, lead-ins, tag-ups, additional thoughts, or how I can connect Craig Laughlin, Al Koken, and Alan May to these elements.
By 10 AM, I am either at the practice rink in Arlington or in the opposition rink in whatever NHL city the Caps may be visiting. We spend a couple hours there talking with coaches, players, and fellow broadcasters and writers, etc., attempting to get as many work-able quotes that we can sprinkle into the telecast. Information directly from the coaches and players helps to validate where we go with our storyline.
I like to be at the rink on game-nights by 4 pm, three hours before “showtime.” There’s a pre-production meeting I like to have with our producer in the truck around 5 pm, where we can go through a few video elements and where he can take me step by step though the format so I am confident that I have things in order the way he likes.
I do some voice-over work at 5:30, teases and billboards. By 5:50 pm we have a full run-through with all announcers and techs going through the elements of our show “open”. By 6:15 pm Craig Laughlin and I are doing a FaceBook Live 6-7 minute segment. We watch the two teams warm up for about 10 minutes before we tape two segments of the open and by 7 pm it all starts for real.
SR: Did you have a favorite hockey team growing up? Was it the New York Islanders?
JB: I was born in New York City, but spent only the first month of my life there before my mom and dad moved out to Long Island. My father was a New York City firefighter who was a New York Rangers fan. I can’t say that I really had a favorite team while I was growing up.
Sure, I listened and watched tons of Ranger and NY Islanders games as a kid and I had lots of respect for those teams, but I would say that I had more favorite players than teams.
Two players who vividly stand out to me were Philadelphia Flyers goalie Bernie Parent from the 1970s and Chicago Blackhawks center Denis Savard from the 1980s. As a youth hockey player, I was goalie and Parent was my favorite to watch. He was so important to the Flyers Cup-winning teams in the mid-70s. Savard was one of the most entertaining players I can remember for his speed and shifty-ness and puckhandling skills. Put him in action in the noisy Chicago Stadium and I was hooked!
The Islander dynasty teams from 1980 through 1983 over-lapped with my four years in high school. A lot of my friends were devout Isles fans, and like I said, I had a great deal of respect for how good they were and how often they came through in the clutch, but I really can’t say I was a huge fan of theirs or really any one team.
SR: What are your top 5 play by play moments that you’ve witnessed in your career so far?
JB: An exceptionally difficult question for me…one that I can’t help but agonize over since I have been blessed to see and describe so many incredible moments.
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
1) Sergei Fedorov scores all five goals in a 5-4 Detroit OT win over Washington in 1996.
2) I called the longest game in Division 1 Men’s Lacrosse history, Virginia beat Maryland 10-9 in a game that went into the 7th overtime in 2009.
3) Alex Ovechkin scoring “The Goal” in Glendale, Arizona back in his rookie year January 2006.
4) 2016 college football season, the season-opening game for Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers honor Sam Foltz, their outstanding punter who died in an automobile crash during the off-season, with a missing-man formation.
5) Alex Ovechkin, NHL goal #500 January 2016.
This is such a tough question. The five listed above can be placed in any order, they were all spectacular and I am sure that I could add on many, many more.
SR: What kind of advice would you give students interested in doing play by play for a living?
JB: I always advise young broadcasting students who are interested in play-by-play to take creative writing courses. I find that if you can write well and articulate your point of view colorfully, it seems to invariably help out when it’s time for public speaking.
I’m not saying that play-by-play is scripted, we know it changes from minute to minute within a game. What I am advising is for the future play-by-play person to learn how to deliver his or her thoughts and description in a creative way.
We get better at things through practice and I cannot stress that enough for future play-by-play announcers. Watch the Cavaliers and the Warriors, mute the TV, and call the game yourself into a recording device. Turn on the Stanley Cup Final, eliminate Doc & Eddie & Pierre, and do the game yourself. Go to a local ice hockey rink and make believe the men’s league game you are watching is really the Canadiens and Bruins, then describe what you see into your recorder. Visit a high school football game and make the two teams turn out to be Bears and the 49ers, have fun with it, but call it like you were the next lead voice on FOX.
The only way to improve is to practice. That’s where you will find your own voice and the proper cadence and rhythm with which to use it.
If any of you have the chance to watch a Washington Capitals game on television in the DC Area, I want you to listen to Joe Beninati. Just listen to him once and you’ll be hooked.
He’s passionate and he loves the game of hockey. You can hear his enthusiasm all game on almost every play, especially when it comes to shots on goal, good saves by the goalie, or if anyone of the Caps score.
I want to thank Joe Beninati for taking the time to answer my questions as it has been an honor to get insight from one of the best. If you want to follow him on social media, he’s at JoeBpXp on Twitter.