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Beninati a national voice

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

The score is tied 1-1 late in a tense game against the Boston Bruins when a Washington Capitals right wing gets loose with the puck. Joe Beninati, standing six stories above the Verizon Center ice, takes note. His face becomes tense. His voice rises.

And with a dramatic slap-shot goal comes the call:

"Alexander Semin... with a BUZZ... BOMB!"

Another big moment for the Caps, who hang on to win 2-1. And another rousing call from Beninati, who has seen more than his share of dramatic wins and tough losses in his 14 years as the team's play-by-play man on Comcast SportsNet.

On this night, Beninati is in the middle of a stretch of six hockey games in a week's span and is looking forward to a few days off for the All-Star break. But first he must focus on making his way to New York for a game at Nassau Coliseum in 36 hours.

He is not tired.

"I'm pumped up right now," the 43-year-old Beninati says, his blue pinstripe suit still sharply pressed and his small suitcase in tow. "You talk to the players, and they will tell you about that adrenaline rush. I get a little bit of that."

The rush from a Caps victory has been commonplace over the last two years as the team has surged from NHL bottom feeder to playoff contender. And as the Caps' fortunes have risen, so too has Beninati's national profile. In addition to working more than 70 Caps games on Comcast SportsNet, he also works nearly two dozen nationally televised NHL games on the Versus cable network, where he is the No.2 play-by-play announcer behind Mike Emrick. He is the voice of Pac-10 and Mountain West college football on Versus, and during the summer he broadcasts ESPN's weekly Major League Lacrosse games.

"I've always wanted to have that kind of versatility," Beninati says, adjusting his bright purple tie. "In the last four to five years I've done eight different sports. I wanted to have that flexibility, and I didn't want to be just a one-sport announcer. I think it always helps at a network level to do more than one sport well. They're more apt to call upon you."

Working Caps hockey, however, remains his core duty. Beninati has been with Comcast SportsNet and its predecessor networks since 1994, most of the time alongside analyst and former Caps ring wing Craig Laughlin and Comcast producer and director Bill Bell, who rave about his work ethic, attention to detail and his passion for hockey.

"If you tell him he's going to work a tiddlywinks contest, he's going to know everything there is to know about tiddlywinks," Laughlin says. "That's the way he is."

Beninati's path to the broadcast booth did not begin in the womb, as has been the case with many prominent play-by-play men. As a boy on Long Island, he often fell asleep to the muffled sound of Marv Albert from his family's living room television. But his career ambitions sent him to Bowdoin College in Maine to pursue a biology degree with the intention of becoming a doctor.

Those plans got sidetracked, however, when he was injured during his freshman season as a goalie for Bowdoin's hockey team. While sitting out that season, he got involved in the campus radio station and was asked to describe games for them on the radio. He quickly drew the attention of other local high schools and colleges and was asked to do television broadcasts for a local cable access station.

"I'm 19 years old, 20 years old, and people are saying, 'Can you do one for the local high school basketball teams and football teams?'" he said. "And all of the sudden the phone rings at home: 'Mom, Dad, I don't know about med school.'"

Beninati earned his degree in biology but then spent two years in the Bowdoin athletic department while also calling games. Several years later, Beninati found himself as the play-by-play voice of the AHL's Maine Mariners, followed by the Providence Bruins. Five years later, he was hired by WDCA-TV (Channel 20) and then Home Team Sports, the predecessor to Comcast SportsNet.

Now, the unmarried Beninati is as busy as ever, and his past week was one of the most frenetic of his year. Five nights before the Bruins game he was in Dallas, working a game between the Red Wings and Dallas Stars for Versus. Then he flew back to Washington for a Caps home game against the Edmonton Oilers. Then it was off to Pittsburgh, then back to Verizon Center for the Bruins game.

The Edmonton game posed a series of challenges for Beninati. The game itself was fast-paced from the start, testing his ability to juggle game action with the many announcements commonly inserted at the beginning of a broadcast. What's more, Beninati had not seen the Oilers play this year, save for a handful of games on television.

But the game went off without an obvious hitch. Last names of Oilers players like Visnovsky, Grebeshkov and Brodziak rolled off Beninati's tongue as if he had learned them by rote.

"That's part of my skill and part of my trade," he said after the Oilers' 5-2 win. "I take pride in that. I try like all you-know-what to not make any mistakes. We should be able to identify the players even without their numbers. There are always little clues we're looking for. I don't need to see Sidney Crosby's number 87. I just know it's him. I know the way he skates."

To prepare, Beninati usually spends the day at home or in his hotel reviewing stats, watching video or calling sources. All of the information he needs for the game is outlined on a single-page chart. On most game nights, Beninati arrives at the arena by 4:30 p.m. and immediately begins reviewing the promotional spots he will be voicing during the broadcast.

"The guy is relentless in terms of his preparation," Bell said. "We all try to stay two or three games ahead, and I think Joe is two or three games ahead of that."

Marc Fein, senior vice president of programming with Versus, praised Beninati's level of prep work and said Beninati has an "unprecedented amount of knowledge about the NHL and college football."

"He is one of those announcers who you can put into any on-air situation and know he'll do a good job," Fein said.

And for longtime Caps fans, Beninati's ascension to the national scene is long overdue.

"For someone who has consumed more than a thousand of his broadcasts over the last couple of decades, it's just been clear to me that he has just steadily risen," said John Keeley, founder of On Frozen Blog, a Web site devoted to the Caps and the NHL. "I think he's achieved that consensus designation of being a top-tier pro. Anybody who has consumed a full game or three of his games here in Washington would agree."