By Carol Schram
When hiring a between-the-benches analyst for New York Islanders games for the 2018-19 season, MSG Networks broke new ground by selecting A.J. Mleczko. The one-time forward for Harvard and Team USA was a women’s hockey pioneer, whose many achievements include a gold medal at the 1998 Olympics.
“We’re always looking for diversity on the air,” said Jeff Filippi, MSG Networks’ executive producer and senior vice-president of programming and production. “We're looking for diversity of people, we're looking for diversity of backgrounds, we're looking for diversity of viewpoints. It makes for a more interesting telecast.”
Inquiries around the hockey world led Filippi to Mleczko, who was working as an analyst for NBC.
“She immediately intrigued me as a candidate because she was very good on air," Filippi said. "She was very qualified. She had a sensational hockey background, somebody who would obviously feel comfortable in the position between the benches, playing at the level she played.”
Mleczko was interested, but she couldn’t commit to a full-season slate. On top of her work with NBC, she lives with her husband and four children near Boston, more than 200 miles away from New York City.
Enter Jennifer Botterill, Mleczko’s former linemate at Harvard. A three-time Olympic gold medallist for Canada, Botterill also had some television experience, north of the border. The two teamed up to share the job. “This is really cool,” Filippi said. “To have two people fill the role that we had intended for one, who are both unbelievably qualified, women, and have a great and interesting connection.”
It wasn’t difficult for Mleczko and Botterill to gain acceptance with the Islanders’ audience. “We felt what we needed to do, for those who may not have known, is establish their credentials,” Filippi said. “Once you start doing that, it all falls into place because they are so qualified, and the reaction has been terrific.”
On game broadcasts, the pair work with Shannon Hogan, who has been hosting Islanders broadcasts since 2014, along with play-by-play man Brendan Burke and analyst Butch Goring, who won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders in the 1980s.
Though they played against different opponents, in different eras, Mleczko says that she and Goring typically see the game more similarly than people might expect. “We’ll have our meetings with the production crew,” she said. “Butch and I will start talking about something, and we go down this road. Then the meeting will end, and Butch and I are still talking about it. Shannon will always say, ‘This is what people want to see, you guys up there, just talking hockey and figuring it out.’ ”
Added Botterill: “It’s been a really supportive environment to work in. Brendan and Butch have been so professional and so supportive for our roles. Shannon’s so thorough with her research and preparation. A.J. and I try to be the same with every situation that we're in.”
Because they fill the same role, Mleczko and Botterill rarely cross paths. But near the end of their first year on the job, they teamed up to handle a pair of late-season Islanders road games when Hogan was unable to travel during the late stages of her pregnancy.
This past summer, Mleczko was extra busy during the Islanders’ run to the Eastern Conference final. She bounced back and forth between the MSG studios in Manhattan and NBC’s headquarters an hour away in Stamford, Conn., where she served as an analyst for national playoff broadcasts.
Botterill watched with interest from back home in Canada. “That's a locker room that has a lot of belief,” she said of the Islanders. “They would have liked to go even further. There's no doubt about that.”