MSG Network, Islanders blazing new path with three women on broadcast team

AJ Mleczko provides analysis pregame and during intermissions, reports from the bench and speaks postgame for the Islanders. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It's the first intermission of Monday night's New York Islanders versus Washington Capitals game -- the first time coach Barry Trotz is facing his old team -- and the score is tied at 1. Sitting at a desk, perched in the 100 level, are MSG analyst AJ Mleczko and host Shannon Hogan.

"I'm not surprised there was a lot of jump and energy in this game," Hogan says on the broadcast. "I'm a little surprised it was Valtteri Filppula who scored on the first shot for the Islanders again."

"We talked about him and his whole line, [Leo] Komarov and [Tom] Kuhnhackl, in the pregame," Mleczko says as highlights of the goal cut in. "About how much energy they bring, how many turnovers they create, and Filppula had that beautiful goal against Carolina. But Trotz coming right out with them to start the game, they give up an opportunity, but they're not intimidated by the top line. They jumped right back down."

Behind the cameras, Mleczko knows there are children lined up to catch a glimpse behind the scenes.

"We're very accessible, and there's little girls and little boys up there, but I do think of the little girls," Mleczko says. "They might not realize how cool it is. It may just be normal for them to see two women up there -- to see women talk about men's sports."

Mleczko, a former U.S. women's national team standout, was hired this season to do about 20 Islanders broadcasts on MSG Network. She provides analysis pregame and during intermissions, reports from the bench and speaks postgame as well. When Mleczko is not there, she's replaced by Jennifer Botterill, a former Team Canada player and, (somewhat) coincidentally, Mleczko's teammate on the 1999 Harvard Crimson national championship team.

"A two-woman intermission team? It's so great MSG did that," Mleczko says. "I have to imagine it was deliberate to find two women that we could take on this role."

Women have been carving larger roles in sports broadcasts the past few years, though opportunities can still feel limited. The fact that a network has included three women to analyze and report on a men's game feels like a crucial step forward; it quashes any perception that any are simply token hires. Botterill flies in for the games from Toronto; Mleczko comes in from Boston. It's a serious investment and proof that there's room for more than one female voice, especially if the voices are strong.

"Maybe it once seemed that way, but now it's not preposterous at all to have two women on one broadcast team," says Jeff Filippi, MSG Networks senior vice president of programming and production and executive producer. "It just seemed like a good thing. They were both good, they add diversity to our air, which is something that we look for, and they really know their stuff. So far, we couldn't be happier."

Although Mleczko and Botterill shoulder most of the spotlight because of their status as high-profile former players, Hogan's inclusion should not be minimized. "She's been on the scene a couple years," Mleczko says. "She doesn't have the background playing we do, but she certainly knows her stuff."

Mleczko has worked as an analyst for NBC Sports since 2006, and last spring, she became the first woman to work as an in-booth analyst in an NHL postseason game. That caught the attention of MSG executives.

"I can say, 'That was a nice pass.' I thought AJ did a really good job of explaining the hows and whys," Filippi says.

When Mleczko returned from the second round of the playoffs after calling the Winnipeg-Nashville series, she received a call from Jon Ledecky, an Islanders majority owner. Ledecky asked if she would join the broadcast team. Mleczko, who still does part-time work with NBC, was flattered and intrigued. There was only one problem.

She told Ledecky: "I don't live in New York. I live in Boston with my husband and four kids, who are all in school. This won't work."

Ledecky wouldn't relent. He put Mleczko in touch with executives at MSG. They began discussing how they might be able to make the arrangement work, and they settled on a 20-game slate of Islanders home games -- plus two road games in Boston. "The challenges are obvious in terms of logistics," Mleczko says. "Home games are away games for me. I'm away from my family for two nights."

The network, meanwhile, needed someone to fill the remaining slate. Landing on Botterill was serendipitous. "When I stepped away from my life as an elite athlete, I was intrigued about broadcasting right away," Botterill says. "I got some opportunities with Canadian networks, and it has been a really great way to stay connected to the game, to share my perspective and share my stories."

Her agent was looking for more opportunities and contacted MSG. They brought her in for a round of interviews this fall. To complement Mleczko with Botterill just "felt right," Filippi says.

Botterill was a freshman at Harvard when Mleczko was a senior. The 1999 national championship game against New Hampshire went to overtime. Mleczko passed the puck to Botterill for the winning goal. "When I think of AJ, I think of this photo that captures that moment," Botterill says. "I'm literally jumping in the middle of the air, you see the back of her jersey, No. 1 Mleczko. That's the lasting image of our hockey days together."

When Botterill debuted on the broadcast this fall, MSG aired grainy footage of the goal. The two faced off quite a few times on the rival U.S. and Canadian teams. "We were teammates, then we were opponents, but it's much more fun to be teammates again," Mleczko says.

The two have stayed in touch over the years and have seen each other at various hockey events, but as with many college friendships, it was difficult when lives diverged. "Through this whole process, it's just been so great to connect again," Botterill says.

The irony of the setup is they don't get to see each other much, but they have become closer. Over several phone calls, Mleczko has relied on Botterill for advice on the intermission interviews since Botterill has experience doing that -- and Mleczko did not, but she calls it a "good challenge." Since Mleczko started one month earlier -- Botterill had a bit of a delay with her Canadian work visa -- she has shared insight on the simple logistics of the role: how to get from the studio to the bench, which producers to contact about what, etc.

Botterill, who has two children, says she admires Mleczko because "she's a super mom but super professional, too. She has four kids. She balances it all. She's a superwoman in all aspects of her life."

Together, they hope the new venture is a step forward for women.

"I think things have changed significantly [for women in broadcasting], but I still think there's room for improvement," Botterill says. "But huge credit to MSG Network because they clearly have a huge respect for people who understand the game of hockey and can offer an insightful perspective."

Mleczko hopes the CWHL and NWHL get more television air time. The visibility will help grow the game and create even more opportunities for women. But for now?

"Us being on TV," Mleczko says, "I like that it's become a little bit more of the norm."