Later I became a hockey parent as our son Laurent grew up playing youth ice hockey in the Washington, DC, area. For most of that time he played for the Mount Vernon club. And every springtime the Mount Vernon coaches offered a series of 6 clinics for hockey parents wishing to try the game themselves. While attending one of those sessions at age 51 I was talked into joining an "over 21" team in Hockey North America's Capital Beltway League (which I continued for the next 10 years).
Two years later Laurent enrolled at Clarkson University, where he decided not to play hockey after the junior varsity tryouts proved to be too violent for his tastes. Craig Laughlin, who had been a star with the Washington Capitals while Laurant was growing up, played his collegiate hockey at Clarkson.
One Christmas Laurent gave me a Clarkson hockey jersey with the name Laughlin on the back just above Craig's old number, 22 (which Clarkson has retired in his honor). Naturally, I decided to wear that jersey when one day I attended a hockey clinic supposedly run by Craig. However, the main instructor was a woman figure skater, who at one point grabbed me to point out something I still hadn't known, but should have:
When skating forward on hockey skates (which unlike figure skates have a significant curvature), one places one's weight on the rear two thirds.Immediately I became a much better skater.
Toward the end of the session Craig finally showed up on the ice. And just when I was thinking he would never notice, here he came ...zooming across the rink to demand where I had gotten my replica of his Clarkson jersey, evidently unaware that his alma mater was peddling them to students.
Craig Laughlin, his accent, his phrases, his Sharpies
|Left to right: Al Koken, Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin (Courtesy Comcast SportsNet)|
Not long after Craig Laughlin started his post-hockey career as a television analyst, his bosses at Home Team Sports arranged for him to work with a speech coach. Laughlin’s Canadian accent, he was told, was a bit much, and the coach would help him talk more like an American.
“Boy, that worked out,” noted Joe Beninati, Laughlin’s longtime partner in the booth.
Indeed, Laughlin decided not to pay attention to the speech coach.
“I didn’t listen to him,” Laughlin told me Saturday evening, a few hours before calling the Caps game against Montreal for Comcast SportsNet. “I mean, it’s hockey. I wanted to still be a Canadian talking about hockey.”
Mission accomplished, eh?
Laughlin’s unique verbal stylings have gotten a bit of national attention in recent days, as highlights of Matt Hendricks’s wacky shootout goals landed Laughlin’s calls on national sports sites.
“Freezes the goalie, and then there’s more moves than a barrel of monkeys,” he excitedly says in one of the clips.
“I used to play that frickin game all the time, a Barrel of Monkeys, some game I played as a kid,” Laughlin explained.
“In his imaginary mind,” Beninati chimed in.
So yes, the pair’s constant on-air ribbing continues away from the camera, with the one-liners coming too quickly (or with too many off-color words) for me to record.
Beninati, Laughlin and reporter Al Koken have been together for 16 years, longer than any other professional broadcast team in this market, and all three said the combination worked immediately.
“I like to think that’s why they made the decision they made, and with Al, that made everything blend together,” Beninati said. “I was thrilled when they put the team together. I’d like to think we clicked right away.”
But Laughin’s irrepressible personality — on Saturday he slapped me repeatedly during our chat, lobbed playful insults at anyone in the room, and talked about signing autographs for fans while calling live game action — shouldn’t obscure his dedication. Saturday night, he had nine hand-written looseleaf pages of notes in front of him; he throws them away after the game, and starts from scratch 82 times.
The notes are done entirely in Sharpies; “I’m obsessed with Sharpies,” he told me. “I need Sharpie. I probably have 30 of ‘em in my bag right now. It’s nice and bold, I can look down and see it from everywhere. And Joe likes the smell of Sharpies.”
(Beninati grumbled over this, too. “That’s why Joe and I are so good together,” Laughlin then added. “He uses million-dollar pens, and I use Sharpies.)
Despite the non-stop repartee, Laughlin said he isn’t in the booth to make jokes, and neither is he there to tell repeated stories about his own playing days.
“That was never gonna be my gig; my gig was going to be to analyze the game, and to teach the audience the game of hockey,” he said. “Someone said to me, Craig, pretend you’re at the bar with the boys, and you’re talking about the game. You have to explain the game so they can understand the game, so they can be educated and then criticize. And it has to be entertainment. It has to be fun, it has to keep you interested....
“Hopefully we’ve brought some education to the fans, but we’ve done it in a fun and entertaining way. It’s a game, right? Look at all the things going on in this world. It’s a game, and it’s fun.”
At least two D.C. hockey fans have told me that their introduction to understanding and then loving the sport came primarily from Laughlin. But even though he will speak passionately about his goal to “be the best analyst” on the air, Laughlin’s unique style comes out regardless. Examples
Kabong to the Coconada
“That was probably through cartoons or something,” he told me. “I used to do all the Batman things — Kapow! Bam! I just think kabonging is something that happens. You get kabonged, it’s not a good thing. See, he got hit, that could be anything. But you get kabonged....”
During a recent broadcast, Laughlin said a player was “scooterizing through the neutral zone.”
“My God, he just butchered the English language,” Beninati joked. “You butchered that one.”
“No, I made it up,” Laughlin disagreed. “You can’t butcher something that’s not real....I’ve got to watch my step here and there. [Beninati] is Mr. English.”
The Snow Snake
“The snow snake’s been around for a while,” Laughlin said. “It’s an invisible thing — he tripped over the snow snake. Sometimes it’s better than being hit by the bazooka. Shot at the blue line doesn’t sound as good as the snowsnake.”
Talking Over Each Other
Laughlin praised Beninati for the way he sets up him and Koken up, and the way they don’t get in each other’s way.
“Although I do love calling goals,” Laughlin joked. “That’s one of my pet things I love to do, speaking over his goal calls. He swats me sometimes. I’m talking to him personally — I’ll be talking about something like how he wears flip flops and white socks — and he’ll give me a slap.”
“Boy, I can’t wait for this to come out,” Beninati cracked.
“At least you’ve got a good topic,” Laughlin said.
If it isn’t obvious, the men — who also spend a considerable amount of time talking hockey and planning out their broadcasts — consider themselves great friends away from the rink. Laughlin has offseason hip surgery planned, and Beninati said he’d be one of the first people to visit him in the hospital.
“And I’ll heckle him, and he knows it,” Beninati told me. “I’ll say they should have drilled him in the coconada. To heck with all the sawing in the hip, they should have gone for the coconut.”
And as for the broadcasts?
“We always want what’s best for the show,” Laughlin said, before reconsidering. “As long as I’m taken care of. We’re all in it for the betterment of the show, as long as Locker looks good.”
By Dan Steinberg | 12:00 PM ET, 04/02/2012