Nantucket’s AJ Mleczko Playing Key Role In ESPN’s New Hockey Coverage

When the Seattle Kraken traveled to Vegas to play the Golden Knights in their first ever NHL regular season game last week, they weren’t the only ones making a debut on October 12. AJ Mleczko took part in her first NHL broadcast for ESPN that night, working as an ice-level analyst between the benches. ESPN signed a seven-year rights agreement with the NHL worth an estimated $2.8 billion last month to bring NHL broadcasts back to the sports media giant. Mleczko, who was born on Nantucket, was on the call with veteran ESPN broadcaster and anchor John Buccigross and former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher.

“I worked with (Boucher) a ton while I was with NBC so that was very comfortable,” she said. “I have gotten to know (Buccigross) pretty well too. He is just a great guy and has a really good sense of humor. He is easy going and a team player. It was different for sure from NHL on NBC but I think part of that was just the anticipation and the excitement. There are two networks now with ESPN and Turner (TNT) while before it was just NBC who owned the whole national hockey scene. So there is a good competition now.”

Last week marked the first time ESPN has broadcasted NHL games since 2005. Mleczko said the build up to that opening night consisted of a lot of work behind the scenes as she and her co-workers at ESPN continue to develop the network’s coverage.

“I don’t think (the build-up) will be like that for every ESPN broadcast that we do just because it was the first game of the season and it had been 16 years since ESPN had hockey,” she said. “There was a lot of positive anticipation. Then the puck drops and it was just hockey, which is awesome. There was so much going on about how we are going to do this or that, or whether we are going to do one thing one way or a little different. It was nice to just be focused on the game itself once the puck dropped.”

Mleczko said ESPN had been debating whether to allow her to have an open mic while being between the benches because that isn’t the way the network has done it in the past and was more of an NBC method of producing game coverage.

“They understood not giving me an open mic would be handcuffing me though as an analyst so they decided to take a chance and give me one,” she said. “Afterwards they were very happy with it and received excellent feedback. I think they were worried we would all be talking over each other but we weren’t because we have all done stuff like this before. These networks want to present the sport the best they can but also want to do it their own way. NBC has had this for 16 years and ESPN is really excited to make it their own through new camera angles, features and ideas.”

Buccigross said that he initially met Mleczko through Twitter but has had a better chance to get to know her over the course of the past six weeks. Buccigross was also present for Mleczko’s Ice Out Alz fundraiser on Nantucket at Cisco Brewery in August, which raised over $225,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association.

“I love working with AJ,” he said. “She is passionate, fun and tall. I like her voice quality. It’s authoritative and strong. She punches her analysis. She’s relatable, likable, and doesn’t have an ego.”

Mleczko said while ESPN is her main gig and taking up a significant chunk of her time, she will continue to work with the MSG network, where she calls New York Islander games. She will also be an analyst for NBC’s Olympic Coverage in February. She said she will be traveling to Beijing to cover the 2022 Olympics, which will feature NHL players for the first time since 2014.

Mleczko, who won a National Championship at Harvard in 1999 and an Olympic Gold Medal in 1998, has been around hockey her whole life and knows as much about the game as anyone. She was inducted into the New England Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002 and became the first woman to commentate an NHL playoff game in 2018 while working with NBC Sports. She said calling a game at ice level between the benches isn’t anything new for her but something she never takes for granted.

“That is where I call games for MSG and where I have been a lot for NBC, also as a former player seeing the game from that vantage point isn’t that new for me,” she said. “I think it is awesome to be down there and experience the familiar sights, smells, sounds, and obviously the speed. When you sit down there you get a good sense of it. I think TV angles do a great job of presenting this game to people at home but when you see the games in person and the size of some of these guys, the speed, the strength, and the fights, it is just fun for me to be down there right in the thick of it.”

Mleczko has nearly 20 years of experience as an NHL analyst and broadcaster. Buccigross said having a woman’s voice and perspective is always good for the broadcast and improves the space.

“AJ has a good eye and is a good teammate,” he said. “I actually have encouraged her to be more daring in her analysis. She belongs and she’s earned her spot. If it calls to be critical she should let it fly. AJ was a great player and has the analytical mind to fill in the broadcasting gaps I might not get in describing a goal.”

Mleczko said as she has grown as a broadcaster she has learned to work smarter with her game preparation.

“My preparation used to be like a mad scramble to try to jam as much information as I could into my head,” she said. “Now I find that if I have too much information in my brain I will miss something obvious in front of me. I found that I have all of these notes and I do so much preparation for these games, then come game time I can’t even look at them. I see it, I say it, and I have a conversation with the guys I am working with. I have gotten to the point where I am confident in my knowledge. That doesn’t mean people won’t disagree with me. People I work with disagree with me all the time but I have no problem with that whatsoever. The notes are almost like a security blanket for me but I never even look at them.”

ESPN sets Mleczko up with a monitor that allows them to show her clips and video that isn’t being shown live on the broadcast yet. It helps prepare her to circle back to plays during breaks in the action and explain what she saw from the ice with the selected clip playing for the TV audience when she is ready to talk about it. She said she loves having the monitor to help with her analysis but added it isn’t as easy for her to use as someone like Buccigross who is up in the booth on the ninth floor.

Pacioretty and Mleczko at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia (Photo via The Taft School on Twitter)

“If you are up top in the booth it is great to have that monitor showing you something entirely separate from the program because if you want a replay and are talking to the tape room they will say ‘this one right’ to make sure they have the right clip selected that you want to talk about,” she said. “Down between the benches they will run that by me too but I sometimes have to tell them I can’t look right now I have pucks flying everywhere, sticks coming my way.”

Mleczko’s first game featured some players she has developed connections with over the years. Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty and Mleczko both went to The Taft School in Connecticut and played hockey at the New Canaan Winter Club, where their jerseys are hanging from the rafters.

Photo Courtesy of AJ Mleczko

“(Pacioretty) saw me at ice level during warm ups and came over to me to give me a fist pump,” she said. “We were chatting. That sort of stuff is very fun for me to be down there and catch up with those guys. I have done this for a little bit now so I have gotten to know a lot of the players. Jordan Eberle, who is on the Kraken now, well he was with the Islanders who I cover with MSG before being selected in the expansion draft (by Seattle).”

Another player in the game she has ties with is former Boston Bruin and Scituate native Ryan Donato. Donato scored the first goal in Seattle Kraken history with 8:27 to go in the second period of last Tuesday’s game. He was another member of the NHL community in attendance for Mleczko’s fundraiser in August.

“I always have known his Dad (Ted) very well because he used to come to our charity event on Nantucket every year,” she said. “He even brought Ryan when he was little I believe. It was great to see him out there and that goal was a great moment for him. It is one of those things where that stuff to me is fun. Sure I go to morning skate and see them but it is fun to be down there before and during the game where I can see them in their element being able to enjoy what they do because they are really good at what they do.”

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