Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin celebrate 25 years calling Caps

Joe Beninati and Craig 'Locker' Laughlin knew each other only briefly before they were paired together to call Capitals games for the network that would become NBC Sports Washington. 

Beninati's first impression of Laughlin was that he was "someone who loved to laugh. Someone who loves to have fun." Laughlin summed up his first impression of Beninati in one word: "Short."

Little did they know when they were paired for the 1996-97 season on the Capitals broadcast, that they would remain together for the next 25 years becoming the longest-serving broadcasting partnership in the NHL and becoming as much a part of the team and the game experience to the fans as the players themselves.

Beninati and Laughlin have endeared themselves to Caps fans over the years with their camaraderie which makes their game calls both professional and fun to listen to.

Said Beninati of Laughlin: "He loved to laugh and nothing's changed for 25 years."

The consummate professionals

Joe Beninati

Laughlin first became a part of the hockey landscape in Washington in 1982 when he was part of the blockbuster Rod Langway trade between the Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens. He spent five seasons with the Caps before being traded during the sixth season to the Los Angeles Kings. After his playing career was over, Laughlin returned to Washington in 1990 to become a TV color analyst for the Capitals games with the then-Home Team Sports.

 

After covering the AHL for five years, Beninati was hired by local over-the-air stations WB-50 and DC-20 in 1994 to cover the Caps. At the time, the games were split between HTS and WB50/DC20. It was then that Laughlin and Beninati first met.

"We'd see each other at skates and we'd talk," Laughlin said.

In his first few years with HTS, Laughlin was matched with a number of different play-by-play announcers, including TNT broadcaster Kenny Albert and current colleague Al Koken, who himself has been part of the Capitals' broadcasts since the early 1980s.

But when Albert decided to leave to become the radio play-by-play voice of the New York Rangers and take on more network assignments, Beninati was brought in to replace him for the 1996-97 season.

Bill Bell, who has worked with Beninati and Laughlin through their entire time together as a producer, director and executive producer with NBC Sports Washington, noticed Beninati right away.

"When Joe arrived at the scene, it was great because I obviously had watched him on WB-50, I really liked him," Bell said.

"I found that [Beninati] was a little subdued at the start and I sort of had to bring him out of his shell," Laughlin said.

It became clear early on, however, that the chemistry was there. Even people in the business noticed, too. Being a play-by-play broadcaster is a difficult assignment under the best of circumstances. Hockey can be especially daunting given the pace of play. Giving your analyst the time and space to make points is crucial. 

"You have to be able to understand when they're at their best and set them up for those opportunities," Jim Jackson said, the longtime play-by-play announcer for the Philadelphia Flyers. "And then, as an analyst, you have to make sure you don't step all over the play-by-play guy's call."

Jackson added, "A lot of times, it is kind of natural and automatic where two guys just get along or two broadcasters just get along and you don't even really have to work at it."

"I respect what [Laughlin] does and I don't try to do his job and he doesn't do mine," Beninati said. "I focus on 'what, where and when'. He focuses on 'how and why' and I let him do that and he lets me do my side. If I approach it the right way, whether you're on the air with me, Alan May, Al Koken, Craig Laughlin, if I'm doing my job, the play navigates or dictates where my description's going. But as a play-by-play guy on TV, my job is to put Locker in the best spot to succeed."

 

Beninati has maintained this professional attitude throughout his career. He does not want to be the takeaway on the broadcast, he wants to set up his partner as best he can to make sure he succeeds.

"I would call him the most true pro I have met in the business," Laughlin said of Beninati. "I went through Kenny Albert and those guys and they were all pros and Joe was right in the class with those guys."

"I worked with Joe doing a game for Versus," Keith Jones said, the Flyers analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia whose playing career included five seasons with Washington and overlapped with Beninati. "He was very easy to work with. I think he has an amazing call, I think he's had an incredible career so, for me, it was a great opportunity to pick his brain, watch him operate and get some more experience with another terrific play-by-play guy."

Beninati's professionalism extends well beyond just the play-by-play call. His extensive knowledge of the technical aspects of putting together a game broadcast has been a hallmark of his time with NBC Sports Washington.

"He has a high level for production intelligence," Bell said. "And what I mean by that is, and I've told him this, Jojo, you could actually work in the production truck with us. You could actually work in the control room with us."

He added, "His level of intelligence and his awareness is a big part of our success."

Beninati's understanding of the technical side also brings with it an appreciation for the work done behind the camera, something Beninati tries to acknowledge in-game.

That effort to credit the crew has not gone unnoticed.

"Jojo has a phrase that he'll use almost every production and that is at some point in time during the broadcast, he'll thank the men and women on our technical crew," Bell said. "That sounds like a small thing, but it's actually a big thing, you know? Because the crew feels that. They appreciate that."

But that's just how Beninati works. It's never been about him, it's been about doing everything he can to acknowledge and to help the people around him excel which, in turn, allows him to excel.

"I'm knitting things together. I'm a traffic cop, I'm a seamstress and all that," Beninati said. "I try to make sure that I'm putting Locker in a place where he can spike the ball. If I've done that, then he knows he's got that kind of time. I've given him that freedom and I want him to have that and it seems to mesh pretty well."

 

Setting up your partner only works if you have the right personality sitting beside you and that's certainly what Beninati has with Laughlin.

"He loves to stir it up," Beninati said. "I would imagine it's the same way he was in the dressing room as a player, is the same way he works our meetings and our different get-togethers on and off the air."

"I've never met a guy who, he injects fun and happiness and joy into the situation and people around him feel that," Bell said. "It's a very infectious thing. That's not something that I think you can always teach that. That's one of those innate qualities that certain people have and Locker has that and he's had that from day one even when he was a very, very inexperienced, green analyst."

Laughlin's innate sense of humor always makes his calls fun to listen to whether or not the Caps are performing well. His demeanor, his cadence, his timing all work to put a smile on your face.

There have been plenty of engaging, entertaining personalities on sports broadcasts who have come and gone. There have been plenty of former players who can bring dry analysis to a game. Laughlin is that unique analyst who can weave jokes, analysis and stories from his past seamlessly into the broadcast.

"He still knows when to let the game breathe, allow Joe to carry the play-by-play in the key moments," Jones said. "But they interweave some great stories about the players of not just their own team, but of the opposition. Their work ethic certainly has paid major dividends for the fans of the Capitals."

As seamless as it all may seem to the viewer, calling a game requires a lot of effort. Both Beninati and Laughlin have put the work in over the years to meticulously prepare for each and every game.

"When [Laughlin] comes to Wells Fargo Center, we have glass partitions between the booths and he just puts all of his notes, tapes them all up," Jackson said. "I remember the first time he did it, I couldn't even see into the booth."

"There's information there, there's preparation there that, in so many ways, has been in the works for a long time and they have transferred that into their everyday bible," Bell said. "It speaks to how seriously they take the job."

 

A broadcasting odd couple

You don't have to watch the broadcast very long to realize Beninati and Laughlin are different personalities.

"We're polar opposites," Laughlin said.

Beninati is known for his sense of style. Few men can pull off wearing a purple suit on TV, but Beninati can. He always appears impeccably dressed, but never flashy.

Beninati's wardrobe has become one of the trademarks of the broadcast and reflects both his meticulous preparation for every game as well as a stark contrast in personality between him and Laughlin.

"He spends hours and hours and hours and hours worried about his wardrobe and everything and I'll go to my closet and just grab the first suit I see before a game," Laughlin said.

There are plenty of strong partnerships in the NHL that can call a good game. What sets Beninati and Laughlin apart is their chemistry. That camaraderie is evident to everyone, both on the broadcast and in real life.

"Every time I see them, it's always fun," Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. "They've got a smile on their face, they seem to love their job. They're two that are just great to interact with on a daily basis."

"They have distinctive voices, they have distinctive styles, they have great rapport with one another and they've developed their own chemistry and their own, I don't want to use the term schtick, just their own style," Jackson said. "It's their own. It's not anybody else's. Nobody else can really duplicate it."

Joe Beninati

But what makes it really work?

Beninati, the buttoned-up professional teaming with the affable, easy-going Laughlin may not seem like a good fit given those disparate personalities. But perhaps that is exactly why it works so well.

"If I had to summarize it, I would probably say it's the admiration that one has for the other," Bell said. "Locker may never admit this -- maybe he will. He admires Joe's work ethic and I think Joe, he admires what Locker brings to the table. And plus what we don't see behind the scenes is Locker's preparation. When Joe realized, wow, this guy is into it, he wants to be really good, I think once Joe realized that, then he got more invested and, boy they took off."

That would not have worked without a buy-in from Beninati. As the play-by-play announcer, he drives the broadcast and sets up Laughlin. For the tandem to be successful, Laughlin knew early on that Beninati would have to open up a little bit.

 

"Locker doesn't take himself seriously," Bell said. "I think my dear friend Joe, he's wound a little differently."

"He's figured out that I want to make sure it's TV, it's entertainment, we've got to have some fun here and there," Laughlin said.

Getting Beninati to open up is made easier by Laughlin who is good at drawing that side out of him. He makes sure Beninati is in on the joke, not just teeing Laughlin up for a punchline.

"Joe wants to be that perfectly straight-line guy and what's happened is I've pulled him into my direction," Laughlin said. "Which is fun, making sure we have a blast, making sure we laugh a lot and making sure that we joke around and that I have jokes with him and he'll joke with me and I'll question what he wears and his glasses and his hair and I'll talk about all that stuff and I'll have laughs with him. But he's now caught on. It's my nature. I want to have fun and Joe B has fit in perfectly."

"Joe, he will take himself seriously and I think Locker can talk him down off the bridge, so to speak," Bell said. "And, at the same token, JoJo, he elevates Locker's game sometimes. Locker, he's always professional, he always shows up, but there are times and moments in the game where I think Joe has helped Craig realize, 'OK, let's take it up a notch here.'"

To listen to Beninati and Laughlin on the air, you hear two guys who enjoy each other having fun together watching hockey. Fans can't help but have fun with them. That does not just come from Beninati's professionalism or Laughlin's ability to crack a joke, it comes from the deep admiration both have developed for the other.

"You don't have to love that guy that you're working with to make it work in our business," Beninati said. "I can think of a lot of examples of guys who don't necessarily get along off the air but work well together on it. I've just been blessed to know that I love the guy I'm working with."

A part of the team

The Capitals' first season was in 1974. They have been an NHL team for 47 years and for 25 of those years, Beninati and Laughlin have been on the call. To many fans, they are as much a part of the team and as part of the experience of Caps hockey as the players themselves.

Joe Beninati

"You know when you turn on a Caps game that it's those two and they've been doing it for so long together that it's just kind of part of what you expect to hear when you turn on a Caps game," Jackson said.

 

It's not just the fans and other broadcasters who feel this way. Perhaps the ultimate sign of Beninati and Laughin's professionalism is the respect they carry within the locker room and the team itself.

"I think, just in general, their voices kind of resonate hearing them so much and knowing them over the years," John Carlson said. "Just around town, if they're not asking about a player, that's the first tandem I get asked about all the time."

"With those two guys, they do an amazing job at doing their job, being very positive and supporting our team," Wilson said. "Sometimes in media it's tough to be liked by everybody, but I think they're doing their best to be that."

That respect truly manifested itself in 2018 when the team celebrated the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

When the Capitals won the Cup, it was a rare moment in which Laughlin and Beninati were not together. Laughlin's wife, Linda, had been recently diagnosed with cancer so, for the Eastern Conference Final and the Stanley Cup Final, Laughlin remained in the Washington area while Beninati traveled. When the Caps won on the road, Laughlin was in Washington, Beninati was in Vegas.

"About a week after, after they've been running the town, we're having dinner," Beninati said. "He and his family and I are having dinner at Nobu and [Laughlin's daughter Courtney's] social media, hey, the Cup is at Cafe Milano. And I'm like, oh, that's not that far away."

Beninati and Laughlin had not been able to see the team together since they won the Cup so, on a whim, they decided to see if they could make their way to the party to offer their congratulations.

"We had to talk our way upstairs, the team's there by themselves not feeling any pain at all," Beninati said. "The Cup's there and Locker and I were both of the same school of thought, you don't touch that. I've been in the room with it standing this close to it hundreds of times, but never touched it and Locker's never touched it."

There is an absolute reverence for the Stanley Cup within the hockey community. One of the unwritten rules of the Cup is that you don't touch it unless you have won it. Beninati and Laughlin intended to follow that rule, but the players had other ideas and each began encouraging them to not just touch the Cup, but to pick it up.

"One by one, hey, pick it up," Beninati said. "No, no, no. Pick it up! No, no, no. I can't. Every single one of them. It was kind of cool. To share that with him and to have the players want us to feel that connection is something I'll never forget."

 
Joe Beninati

Best friends on and off camera

"The three of us are friends in every sense of the word," Bell said. "It's not just professional colleagues, we spend a lot of time together off the air and traveling and you get to know a person pretty well when you spend a lot of time with them."

The chemistry you see on camera between Beninati and Laughlin, that's not an act. That's not something that they play up just for show. They truly are best friends even when the cameras aren't rolling and, over the years, that has led to some hilarious moments.

Among Laughlin's favorite memories of his time with Beninati is a prank he pulled one Halloween. Knowing Beninati to be the buttoned-up professional that he is, Laughlin was determined to make him lose it on air.

"I think it was the night before Halloween and we are getting ready for a hit at the glass at [Capital Centre], the old rink, the last year probably of Cap Center," Laughlin said. "We're getting ready for a news hit at the glass. Joe's watching warm-up and we're looking out on the ice and everything. He didn't see me put on an 18-by-18-inch ear."

Laughlin had obtained an oversized ear that he put on just before they went live. Beninati had no idea.

Suddenly, the cameras go on, the pair goes live and Beninati tosses it to Laughlin.

"And then he turns to me, he says, 'Hey Locker, now what do we expect here in the first period?' And I've got that big 18-by-18-inch ear stuck to my ear. So it's this huge, elephant-sized ear and I say, 'Pardon me? Pardon me? I can't hear, pardon me?' And Joe broke up like I've never seen him break up on TV. It is the greatest clip ever."

Laughlin's shenanigans were not limited to the broadcast. One instance got him into some hot water with then-Washington head coach Ron Wilson.

"I will never forget how small I felt, how quiet and wanting to creep away and hide when [Laughlin] and Bill Bell commandeered the team escort off of an airport runway tarmac," Beninati said.

The team was flying to New Jersey and Beninati, Laughlin and Bell were on the team plane. It was an off day so some players and coaches set up a car service to pick them up. Separately, so did Beninati, Laughlin and Bell.

 

"We also called a town car service to pick us up," Bell said. "So Locker and I get right off the plane, we hop right in the town car and we see JoJo's being hesitant. We're like, Joe, we're going to go! We're going to go! Joe doesn't want to go, we take off."

The only problem was, it wasn't their car. It was for Wilson.

"Locker talked to them and managed to get a ride from them," Beninati said. "They leave us -- I don't know why or how they did -- but they leave us and 10 minutes go by. Fifteen minutes go by. 'Where's the escort?' I don't know. I don't know what happened. And I'm sitting there sweating. I'm literally right behind Ron Wilson and I'm trying to shrink. 'Where's the escort?' And all of a sudden, 'Locker took it? What?!'"

"We took his car," Bell said. "Then, somehow, the one that we ordered never even showed up."

As nervous as Beninati was at the moment, it's not a story he can tell today without laughing.

Joe Beninati

Those are the moments only friends can look back and laugh about, but these are the moments Beninati and Laughlin have shared together throughout their careers.

"To me, he's turned into over these 25 years, I would say he is my best friend and that sort of tells you the story," Laughlin said. "Because of our relationship, he has turned into my best friend."

"He's been a best friend, he's been a brother to me, he's been a confidant," Beninati said. "He's been someone I can always go to in any sort of situation where, if it's something that's work-related or something that's personal, we've lived through and shared a lot of really great times and a lot of tough times family-wise. Losing family members, moms and dads. I can't say it enough, he and his family have treated me like family for those 25-plus years and I've felt that connection."