One of the biggest changes to NBC’s hockey coverage this year has come from the addition of analyst AJ Mleczko, who carried on her role from Olympic hockey coverage by calling a regular-season game (with Kenny Albert in the photo seen aboand then picking up a regular postseason assignment alongside Chris Cuthbert and Brian Boucher. Mleczko has fit in well there and earned plenty of plaudits, but she told Philly.com’s Sam Donnellon this week she’s not sure yet if she wants to pursue full-time work in broadcasting:
“I’m not sure I can answer that question,” she said. “Right now it’s the playoffs; it’s exciting; it’s unpredictable. And it’s all I can do right now to just focus on these games and to be as prepared as I can be. I’ve been given this opportunity and I’m thrilled to be here and I want to be prepared. I want to come to the game every night ready to go and put my best foot forward. But looking into the future, I just don’t know.”
The 42-year-old Mleczko told Donnellon it can be tough to spend so much time away from her family (she has four children aged six through 14), and that’s certainly understandable. It’s also not a sure thing that there would be a full-time national slot available to her; NBC has more games each week during the playoffs, so they pick up extra announcers (including Cuthbert, who normally works for TSN in Canada) beyond the ones they use during the regular season. But there are numerous hockey fans who would like to hear Mleczko more regularly, and she’s done a great job of fitting in with Cuthbert and Boucher so far.
Update: NBC’s Sam Flood told The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch Mleczko will “definitely be part of NBC’s NHL commentary team next season,” so it sounds like we will hear her more often on NBC broadcasts going forward.
What’s maybe especially interesting with this particular three-person booth that this hasn’t stuck to the trope of Boucher (who was a NHL goalie for 13 seasons) analyzing goalies and Mleczko (who played both defense and forward at Harvard and played for the U.S. women’s hockey team, winning Olympic gold in 1998 and silver in 2002)breaking down skaters. Indeed, Mleczko told Donnellon it’s sometimes been the other way around:
“I love his perspective,” she said. “What’s funny is that at times, his observations will be of the shooter and I will come back with something about the goalie being off balance or not at the right angle. And I think it’s because he looks at the shooter more because that was his focus as a goalie. And I look at the goalie because that was my focus as a shooter.”
That can speak to the advantages of a three-person booth, and to not narrowly defining the roles of each person in a booth. The end product during these playoffs has often been a fluid and insightful conversation, with Cuthbert, Boucher and Mleczko all meshing well. And it’s interesting to see NBC expand their use of three-person booths this way; most hockey broadcasts have traditionally been one play-by-play voice and one analyst, sometimes with a rinkside reporter for injury updates (that’s more common on Canadian broadcasts than U.S. ones), with the big previous change being putting the analyst between the benches instead of in the broadcast booth.
But this broadcasting team now features Mleczko in the booth and Boucher between the benches, and that’s something we’ve also seen on NBC’s main team (Mike “Doc” Emrick on play-by-play from the booth, accompanied by primary analyst Eddie Olczyk in previous seasons and Mike Milbury this year, with Pierre McGuire between the benches) over the past few years. And while that can require more coordination (Mleczko compared their producer to an air-traffic controller), it also brings the benefits of having analysts in both locations.
The bench analyst can get a close-up look at plays along the boards and relay what they hear from the coaches and players, while the booth analyst can get a better angle on the entirety of a play as it develops, something that can be difficult to see from ice level. If done poorly or with the wrong group, a three-person booth can be a mess, but this one has certainly worked well and shown off the benefits of that setup. And Boucher’s had high praise for Mleczko, too:
“There’s a cadence,” Boucher said. “It’s just a feel. And you get a lot of direction from the producers in the truck, letting you know what replays are coming up, who is taking what. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes in making a smooth show and not having us step on each other’s toes. But it’s been an easy transition simply because she’s such a likable person. Actually, it’s been a lot of fun.”
We’ll see how much more work Mleczko takes on next year, and how regularly she’s featured. But her work during the playoffs has been impressive, and it will be good to hear more from her.