Caught in the middle: Inside life as a between-the-benches TV analyst

"Did I just see that?"

New York Rangers studio host Al Trautwig couldn't contain his amazement. He had just witnessed bloodied MSG Network colleague John Giannone conduct a live TV hit moments after taking a puck to the face.

"Wow, that was scary…" a flabbergasted Trautwig continued, quickly throwing to a commercial break so he could scoop up his jaw from the floor.

While the incident occurred in early 2013, Giannone is still commonly identified as the dude who had his nose broken by a Marc Staal clearing attempt.

You're not that guy, people will ask him. Oh, I am that guy, he will respond, explaining that the between-the-benches role is one of inherent danger. In fact, 'might get cracked by errant objects' is practically a bullet point on the job description.

"To this day, I don't really know why I was looking at the scoreboard. It's not like I was jumping on the ice for a shift," Giannone said, having a laugh at his own expense during a recent interview.

"I remember I was driving home with my wife and I got a text from my daughter saying, 'You're trending.' I was still fairly new to the whole Twitterverse, so I didn't really know what that meant."

As someone whose office is embedded in a battleground, the between-the-benches analyst, or in Giannone's case, the reporter, is forever vulnerable. Among other dangers, a puck skimming across the width of the neutral zone may suddenly rise above the sideboards and into the small, cubical-sized area separating rival clubs.

"You might daydream. You might be looking up in the stands, or looking down the bench, or looking down at your monitor," said Sportsnet's Louie DeBrusk, ostensibly speaking for every ice-level media member ever. "Next thing you know, you've got a stick or a puck in your face."

Andre Ringuette / Getty Images

There's a certain kind of intimacy one experiences from being the only analyst standing with the players and coaches on the other side of the glass. "It's almost like you're back on the bench again," said TSN's Jamie McLennan, who served as a backup for the bulk of his 12 NHL seasons. "You're living the game from a player's perspective."

An innovation of NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, the between-the-benches role has been a staple of NHL broadcasts since 2006. Nearly 13 years later, nothing really compares in the sports media world.

'Not a place for bravery'

The first rule of calling a game from the trenches: Pay attention or pay for it later.

"That's the key," said Mike Johnson, who works for TSN, NBC, and NHL Network. "If you get caught working - talking to the producer, looking at your monitor, checking your notes - that's when you're in trouble. You lose track of what's going on on the ice."

However, sometimes being attentive isn't a sufficient deterrent. For instance, Johnson lost a watch in 2012 when Claude Giroux unintentionally breached the analyst's office space and whacked him across the wrist, inflicting some serious damage.

"When his stick came flying over towards me, I instinctively stuck out my forearm to block the stick from hitting me in the head. His blade hit my watch. I looked down and the watch was in two pieces on the ground," Johnson said, before joking that he's "still waiting for Mr. Giroux to reimburse me for my troubles."

Ray Ferraro, who's become synonymous with the role during his time at TSN and for his annual appearance in the EA Sports NHL video game, maintains a simple approach. "This is not a place for bravery," he said. "If you think there's a puck or stick flying in there, you better get out of the way. You bail before it's happening."

Every now and then, though, even when the money-making face is shielded and both eyes are glued on the play, the world conspires against the between-the-benches analyst.

Case in point, Ferraro’s cup of coffee took the brunt of the impact one night in 2014 as Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vancouver Canucks' Benn Ferriero collided inches away. As the replay ran, Ferraro provided insight only someone in his position could: "I'm pretty tired," he said. "I need this coffee … right there … not to be on the floor."

Ferraro's face and suit went untouched. "That was close," he recalled over the phone, later plainly stating his mindset: "I'm 54. My desire to be hit with a stick or a puck is very limited."

Pierre McGuire was the first to call an NHL game from between the benches. Over the years, it's safe to say nobody has been caught in the middle of more blood-boiling arguments than McGuire. One particular incident that's etched in his memory comes from the 2012 postseason. Why? Well, seconds before Peter Laviolette of the Philadelphia Flyers and Penguins assistant Tony Granato engaged in an epic shouting match over a controversial hit, McGuire narrowly escaped being clipped by helicoptering debris.

"Laviolette broke a stick across the glass and the blade of the stick went whizzing by my head," he said. "It was a wet blade, so I actually felt the water of the blade come across my face. The blade ended up in the Penguins bench."

Conventional wisdom suggests the between-the-benches analyst should aspire to be a fly on the wall versus an active participant. Ultimately, they are, as McGuire phrases it, "infringing upon the workplace" of players, coaches, trainers, and officials.

With that in mind, most analysts proceed with caution in the battleground environment. Don't relay to the audience everything you overhear, they tell themselves. Translate vulgarities into softer language and any over-the-line remarks should remain rinkside and off the record. Above all, since you're privy to exclusive sights, sounds, and interactions, and are being trusted to keep everything PG, don't go rogue with the commentary.

Ferraro calls this exercise the "decency filter." As in, "I'm not going to say, 'Joe told Pete to go f--- himself.' I'm not going to say that, but I can say that Player A told Player B to go take a hike."

"I will sugarcoat it," DeBrusk agreed. "If two guys are going back and forth and they're f-bombing this, f-bombing that, talking about each other's mothers, I'm not going to go into detail about what they're talking about. I'm going to say, 'These guys are really going at one another. These guys are getting nasty.'"

Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images

'Get off your phone!'

Although players are focused on pursuing the puck and analysts are balancing their responsibilities in calling the game and avoiding errant objects, the between-the-benches role can allow for organic interaction between the athletes and the media.

"You read the situation," said Johnson, who suited up for 661 NHL games for five different teams. "Generally, if they want to engage with me, they'll either look at me and check out the monitor, or squirt water on me. Or, if you have a pre-existing relationship, then you can feel more comfortable initiating the contact."

Brian Babineau / Getty Images

On the final day of the 2014-15 regular season, the Dallas Stars leaned on Johnson for out-of-town updates because captain Jamie Benn was neck and neck with New York Islanders captain John Tavares for the scoring title. It became a running bit all game.

"Tyler Seguin would come over and ask, 'So, what does he have to get in the third period?'" Johnson said. "And I'm like, 'He needs two points to tie him but he's got more goals, so he'd win.' And he's like, 'OK,' and would skate off." (Benn went on to claim the Art Ross Trophy by a single point.)

Other interactions are plain odd and unexpected, as Bryce Salvador can attest. Last month, MSG's Devils analyst, and a former New Jersey defenseman, watched Detroit Red Wings forward Andreas Athanasiou hop into his space between the benches in an effort to avoid a too-many-men penalty.

"It was one of those slow-motion type of events where all you're thinking is that he's going to land on your feet and slice my toes off," Salvador said with a nervous laugh.

Athanasiou settled safely and avoided any kind of infraction, much to the chagrin of Salvador's former teammates. "The Devils guys were like, 'Why didn't you hold him?' It was almost my instinct to hit him, push him," said Salvador, who retired in 2015 and still has close friends on the team. "You're caught between being an analyst and a player."

The player-analyst ribbing might begin in warmups with a snowing and could potentially continue for the entire game. During the last era of Ottawa Senators hockey, for example, McLennan was never safe from the captain's chirps.

"Erik Karlsson used to tease me because in commercials I go on my phone," he said. "But it's not like I'm sitting there calling my wife or something. What I'm doing is I'm checking scores in the league or staying up to date on things. Looking at shots on goal, attempts, and dig in on the game through my NHL app.

"You're on your phone and not paying attention and Erik Karlsson will give you a jab. 'Get off your phone! You're always on your phone!'"

'You can feel it'

At its core, the between-the-benches gig is about feel.

Feel for when to jump into the call; feel for the interactions between players and coaches, and amongst players; feel for what to say and what not to say; feel for what to do when the lights go out.

MSG's AJ Mleczko, who joined the Islanders broadcast team this season as a between-the-benches reporter, has already dealt with all of the above and has developed a unique feel for the game through her position.

"When you're in that spot and there's no glass between you and the ice, or sometimes between you and the teams, you can really get a sense of the momentum shifts," she said. "You get the emotional and psychological perspective, the body language. You can see all of that on TV but you can sort of feel it when you're down there."

Analysts also need to have a feel for what to do when their broadcasting equipment falters. McLennan has plenty of first-hand experience in that scenario since he's been forced to conduct a blind read on several occasions, including one after a spectacular move by Auston Matthews.

"Matthews made this unreal play with his foot, where he put his skate on the puck and spun it around. He kicked it to Connor Carrick, Carrick walked in and got a really good shot. But I had no monitor," he said proudly. "I just told my producer, "Tell me when that play rolls.' And I picked it up live and just went, 'Watch Auston Matthews' right foot!' I was completely blind. You couldn't tell the difference. The timing worked."

Other times, the tech issues aren't so innocent. Just ask Ferraro, who made headlines in 2012 after both an imitation of Dion Phaneuf's voice and a bashing of Paul Martin's play appeared on an online stream of a midseason Maple Leafs-Penguins game.

Chatting with a TSN producer and play-play-play man Chris Cuthbert amid some downtime, Ferraro had forgotten to press his talkback, a button that sends his audio to the crew and no one else. "It's not my finest day, that's for sure," Ferraro said of the infamous wire cross.

"You forget," he added. "Sometimes you're in a break and I want to say something to the play-by-play guy, or vice versa. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it doesn't happen. It's just every once in a while where somebody will send us a note saying they heard us on (NHL streaming service) GameCenter. And you're like, 'Oh, I hope I didn't say anything.' You just don't know. If you have to trace back through your conversations with a coworker, half the time you can't remember what you've said."

Darren Pang of FOX Sports Midwest offered a defense of Ferraro years later, saying he could envision a scenario in which he makes a similar mistake.

"Sometimes you forget that it's a $25 plastic button you're relying on," he said. "The same can be said for anything, like a referee making a bad call or a team allowing a bad goal against. That's the way we all think when we're watching a hockey game. We're all smart asses and we can be cynical at times and get right to the point. Luckily, I have not had that happen to me."

Given there are fewer between-the-benches analysts than teams in the NHL, and the fact that they often share an office at ice level, there's a deep understanding of, and respect for, each other's job. From the best view in the house, every analyst can marvel at a spinning puck, pinpoint the exact way a player holds his stick, and feel the force of a bone-crushing hit delivered a foot away.

The space between the benches is a romantic spot. If you're lucky - or unlucky in some cases - you may even trend on Twitter after taking one for the team.

"I just went back out between the benches and reported the third period," Giannone said, picking up where he left off with the puck-meets-face story from 2013. "The occupational hazard is part of the allure down there, to be honest. I mean, it made for super good television."

John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

Caught in the middle: Inside life as a between-the-benches TV analyst
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