AJ Mleczko Talks Women’s and Isles Hockey With THW

During her playing days, AJ Mleczko represented the United States at the first two Winter Olympics to include women’s hockey. Having won a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games, followed by a silver in 2002 in Salt Lake City, she “retired” when she could have conceivably played for another decade or so. Opportunities for women to play hockey beyond college or outside of a national team were slim to none during Mleczko’s playing days. The strides that women’s hockey has made to bring about the NWHL and CWHL were still nearly two decades in the making.

Mleczko’s path in hockey would in fact continue onward, but it led in a direction she would not have been able to foresee. More than 15 years since her last Olympics, she has stepped forth into becoming not only the premier female personality in televised hockey today, but a paramount individual in hockey broadcasting regardless of her gender. Mleczko is the consummate professional in every sense, and she knows the game better than most.

AJ Mleczko
AJ Mleczko joined MSG Networks on Oct. 2, 2018 to provide coverage on New York Islanders broadcasts (Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images – as provided by MSG Networks).

On Oct. 2, 2018 MSG Networks announced that Mleczko had joined their team as a studio analyst for select New York Islanders telecasts. This is in addition to her already widely respected work for NBC Sports’ NHL hockey coverage and her Winter Olympics hockey coverage that has spanned five different Winter Games since 2006. Mleczko is the first woman to work as in-booth analyst for an NHL postseason game on NBC Sports.

*Author’s Note: on a personal level, it was AJ Mleczko’s coverage of the 2006 Torino Games that brought about the appreciation and love for women’s hockey that permeates through and comprises the vast majority of my work. I would not be where I am today were it not for Mleczko’s work. 

THW caught up with Mleczko. She shared with us some of her personal story of how she got to where she is today, and some of the guidance she received along the way. Mleczko also gave some insight on both the Islanders and on the women’s hockey scene as well. We hope that you will enjoy what she had to say as much as we did.

Broadcasting Was Not an Obvious Path to Take

When we have the advantage of time and retrospection, it is always extremely thought-provoking how certain relatively minor decisions, twists and turns bring us to brilliant moments of clarity and enjoyment in our lives. For Mleczko, it was really no different. She took off the skates in her mid-20s, not entirely sure of where things would go next and how hockey would remain in her life. Broadcasting was not something that jumped out at her.

“I think that it was an evolving process,” Mleczko shared. “I’m not sure that there was a moment in time when a light bulb went off. I retired – I’ll put ‘retired’ in quotes – because I was 26 years old. Trying just to figure what I wanted to do. My husband and I decided to start a family. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to come back and play competitively after having a baby, which ultimately I decided not to do. I got the opportunity from NBC Olympics to come and audition for a role with them at the Torino Games for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Honestly, that was the first time broadcasting ever really crossed my mind as a possible avenue for me. Quite frankly, I didn’t think that I performed all that well in the audition, having no experience at that point. I think with anything – with athletes, with anybody in whatever line of work they’re in – we’re always harder on ourselves. NBC saw something in me. They set me up with wonderful people to work with who helped me.”

AJ Mleczko
AJ Mleczko has covered five different Winter Olympics, beginning with the 2006 Torino Games (Photo provided by MSG Networks).

The 2006 Torino Games were especially eye-popping for women’s hockey. USA was shockingly dispelled by Sweden in the semi-finals in a shootout loss, and would end up settling for a bronze medal. Fresh off of two Olympic medals herself, Mleczko offered viewers unique insight all tournament long that truly captured the spirit of the affair and connected fans with the players on all teams. Despite the successful performance in her rookie Games, Mleczko was not certain that Torino would lead to other opportunities.

“Even after those Games”, Mleczko recalled, “I was pregnant with my second child during the Torino Olympics, so it wasn’t something that I thought of as a career path for me. It was more that I really enjoyed doing it. The jury was out as to whether I excelled at it or not. I felt like I improved greatly during the couple weeks that I was over in Italy. You can’t help but do it when you have that many reps in rapid succession, and there really weren’t many opportunities in between Olympics.”

Further Opportunities Blossomed out of Torino

Though she may have been a fledgling with Torino, Mleczko impressed enough that NBC would continue to call upon her. When we work hard at a particular craft and prepare our work well, other opportunities tend to present themselves. The right people take notice and good people, good workers do not go unnoticed.

“I came home and didn’t really pursue it,” she went on to explain about the close of her first Olympic coverage. “I had a toddler and a baby at home, and I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. How much I wanted to work. What travel schedule I could sustain. Then I got the opportunity through NBC to go to Vancouver, and I think that was the time that I thought, ‘Okay, I did well enough to get a second opportunity, but now I’m no longer a rookie. Now I’m no longer, “okay, we’ll give her a long leash” because I’ve never done this before.’ Between the (two) Olympics, now I actually have to go and be better. Maybe when I went to Vancouver was when I thought, ‘Okay, this is something that they think I’m good enough at to give me a second kick at the can, and I really enjoy doing it so let’s see what happens.”

She has continued to cover the Olympics ever since. Those performances have blossomed into her additional ongoing hockey coverage for NBC Network’s NHL coverage and now most recently the opportunity with MSG Networks.

A Definite Difference Between Olympic and NHL Coverage

AJ Mleczko
AJ Mleczko won an Olympic gold medal for Team USA at the 1998 Nagano Games, and a silver in 2002’s Salt Lake City Games (Photo provided by MSG Networks).

While Mleczko has greatly excelled at both her Olympic and her NHL coverage work, she does point out that there are key differences between the two. The functionality of her job changes based upon what the coverage calls for between the two entities. Across the board however, Mleczko always calls upon her personal experiences from playing the game especially when she takes notice of individual players.

“It may be a little bit different talking about the NHL versus the Olympics only because one of the underlying goals of NBC Olympics is to tell the stories,” she expertly explained. “I really like that aspect of broadcasting. Taking someone like a Noora Räty and introducing her to a whole new audience of her fans to gain. In the NHL it’s a little different because it’s an ongoing season. There are some stories woven into the broadcast, but it’s not the premise behind it. Whereas with the Olympics you have two weeks where you’re building this story, and you don’t know what the ending of the story is, but along the way you’re helping to patch together these chapters of the book.”

There is a natural affinity for defensive skills among players that Mleczko takes an appreciation of. After all, responsibility in her own zone was something she has always prided herself upon.

“I think that in terms looking at a player, I like creativity,” she said. “I like somebody who shows a little bit of flashes of something different. That catches my eye. But I also think that as a very defensive player myself when I played center – a face-off person, a defensive-zone specialist, and then ultimately I transitioned back to ‘D’ and became a full-time defenseman – that I also really appreciate the subtle defensive plays that players make. Being in Boston, that’s why I can really appreciate a player like Patrice Bergeron. He puts up numbers and people know him for his scoring, but the fact that he’s a perennial Selke Trophy finalist or favorite is because of all the stuff he does in all three zones. So I think that that is something that I – whether I am deliberately or consciously looking for it – I know that I can appreciate it when I am watching the game because that was part of my game that I was proud of.”

MSG Role Is a Unique One for Mleczko

It can be both amazing – and overwhelming at times – the quickness of changes in technology and how it all factors into the game of hockey. Tools existent in today’s game were not available during Mleczko’s playing days. Even roles in the broadcast booth have been adapted and adjusted to add more flavor and encompass a variety of opinions. Spectators at home can find allegiance with one or more personalities in the panel of hockey experts presented through our television screens. Mleczko possesses an understanding of how it has evolved.

“All of this stuff that I do in broadcasting,” she stated “my playing days helped me. I will say that if I had done any of this broadcasting while I was playing, I think the analytical side of what I do now actually would’ve helped me as a player, more than vice versa. Looking at the game from a different perspective, it shows why video is so critical. There wasn’t a lot of video back (when I played), maybe a little bit, but now they have iPads on the benches and real-time looking at video. I find that a fascinating development of the NHL.”

Additionally, the evolution in how the game is taught, analyzed and presented has brought changes to Mleczko’s own personal duties. The work that she is doing for MSG is more of a combination or a hybrid of other work she has performed throughout her full career as a broadcaster.

The Logistics of Her New Role

“Now in terms of working with MSG,” Mleczko explained, “I have a little bit of a different role with MSG than I have had with NBC Olympics or when I have done the NHL on NBC. With both of those I have been the analyst or one of two analysts up in the both or inside the glass where I have an open mic and I’m talking about the game during play between the start of the game and the end of the period, and I don’t do a lot of intermission. I haven’t really done any intermission studio work before, and MSG has hired me for just doing studio work – the pregame, postgame, intermission. I consider myself a cross between a reporter and an analyst down where I’m seated facing between the benches because I’m not solely a reporter where I’m just talking to players or doing interviews, but I’m not an open mic analyst because that is what Butch Goring is there for and he’s phenomenal… It is certainly a different role. It’s the same idea that I’m looking at the game analytically. I have to come up with something precise to talk about in the game, as opposed to the rolling analysis where I get to talk freely and openly through the period.”

Furthermore, when she is not on the bench while game action is occurring, Mleczko has ample time to truly break down plays at length and discuss them more in depth with her audience. She is closely joined by MSG Islanders host and reported Shannon Hogan who is in her third season of Islanders telecasts. Mleczko has also recently been teamed up in her role with an old college teammate and former international opponent. An opportunity that she is extremely thankful to MSG for orchestrating.

“On the flip side,” she said, “during the intermission, pregame and postgame I have a little bit more leeway because we have a three-minute segment where I can really elaborate on the power play, for example, or struggles with breaking the puck out of the zone, or whatever themes I may see throughout the game. I really appreciate the opportunities that MSG Networks have provided me. The possibility that they have allowed me to come for not a full-time gig – it’s part-time – I’m sharing it with my old Harvard teammate and international star Jennifer Botterill. She and I are sort of a tandem team here coming out as analysts on this broadcast.”

Covering a Specific Team Is Always Fun

While Mleczko is professional to the utmost and always offers unbiased insight, she recognizes that covering a specific team – as opposed to numerous teams – has its own unique flavor to it. In many ways that connection to a single team is where professional team sports coverage is most deeply rooted. It is one thing to have an appreciation for the overall game, but being part of a specific team offers a reporter or a broadcaster opportunities for more firsthand knowledge.

“The other thing I’ll say about working with MSG as opposed to working with the NHL, is that it’s fun to follow a team,” Mleczko said. “It’s fun to get behind a team, whereas every time I work with NBC I have to be right down the middle and look at both of them equally. Obviously MSG Networks wants an unbiased broadcast and they want my opinion, the same with Butch and Brendan (Burke). But the focus is certainly on the Islanders, and they know viewers are tuning into MSG to watch their team, and they are usually fans of the Islanders.”

Mleczko has gotten to be more up close and personal with the players, and that has been nice as well. Closeness offers deeper insight, and it further enables a reporter or analyst to take notice of details and other tidbits – or as Mleczko refers to them, “nuggets” – than what would be noticed through more transient coverage.

“Watching them has been really entertaining to get to know these athletes,” she stated further. “I go to their morning skate, I go to their practice, I’ve gotten to know them. Again, I’m not full-time. I’m not Butch, Brendan, and Shannon, and the rest of the team in the truck that’s at every game, all 81 games that are on MSG. But, I think I have become a familiar face to them at least and I’ve gotten to know them so that’s been fun.”

Mleczko has also enjoyed pinpointing specific players that stand out in her eyes:

“Having come from Boston, she said, “it’s fun to see somebody like Johnny Boychuk who was a Bruin for a while, and see how he is one of the older players on the team and I like the way he plays. A lot of people will complain about some different styles, weaknesses that he has, but I like his presence on the ice and on the bench. I have really loved their fourth line. The last few broadcasts I’ve talked a lot about them – Cizikas, Clutterbuck, Martin. They’ve had some injuries through November so they haven’t been together, and they’re finally reunited and they bring so much to the team. I can’t say that it’s really the unsung heroes because I think we’re seeing their faces a lot now. They’re players that are chipping in offensively, but speaking to what I said earlier in the conversation about subtle defensive plays, they’re very good in their own end. They bring a lot in terms of energy and all those things that a fourth line is supposed to bring, but they’re doing it against the top lines in the league.”

Finding Mentors and Guidance Along the Way

Mleczko warmly points out that she has received tremendous support over the years that has helped get her where she is today. Hopefully all of us – no matter what our occupation or calling might be – have found a nurturing, helping hand at some point. “It’s not easy bein’ green”, as Kermit once taught us. We all need someone to guide us along, particularly when we are in the earliest beginnings of our career. Mleckzo is very thankful for those who helped her in that respect.

“I have had a lot of mentors through my years in broadcasting,” she told THW. “Up to this year working so much with MSG Networks, primarily I have worked on NBC and they have such an incredible array of talent. On the air and also people in the truck. There is a director in Lisa Seltzer who has given me a ton of advice through the years. Little subtle things. She is now retiring and not working as much, but she was an incredible resource for me. She’s seen so much in this business. Mike Milbury, people have their opinions about him and he’s got this encrusted persona that I think people read into left and right, and he has been so supportive. He’s told me things like ‘trust my gut’. It’s kind of simple, and that can go across the board to any industry that you’re in. But ‘trust your instincts – you know the game.’

Perhaps the strongest advice Mleczko was first planted with came during her work in Torino. The seed from that has grown and has continued to permeate throughout her career.

Mleczko recalled, “Back in Torino, it was actually Bill Clement who said to me – and I’ll always remember this – ‘You have to prepare. You have to have all of this information. You’re going to spend hours preparing for these games. You’re going to have all of this information in your head and in front of you, and you’re probably going to use about 2% of it. If you’ve used 5% of it, that means you’ve gotten a lot of nuggets in, but you have to be ready, you have to be prepared because you don’t know who is going to have a great game and what you’re going to have to talk about or talk about them. I think that’s the best advice for the Olympics – my storytelling.”

Covering the NHL is a bit different, however. There are still in fact opportunities to do storytelling, but the main point however is to get across to the viewers what is actually happening in the moment. It is all about the present, and what is making a given team a success or a flop. It’s a balancing act for sure, but Mleczko handles it admirably.

“What I have found on the flipside working the NHL is that a lot of times I want to be as prepared as I can and it gives me confidence, and I want all these stories and all these pieces of information, but at the end of the day, the game tells the story and my job is to analyze what’s inside. I want to be prepared, but my job is not necessarily to talk about the past – it’s to talk about the present.”

Mleczko’s Thoughts on Women’s Hockey

Having played the game herself and covering the international contests for many years, Mleczko can astutely speak to the women’s game. One of its greatest proponents that she is, the progress that female hockey players have made over the years is and will forever be dear to her heart. Though she may cover the NHL the most regularly, Mleczko keeps her fingers on the pulse of the women’s game and is excited for what lies ahead.

“When you talk about young up-and-comers,” Mleczko said, “somebody like Cayla Barnes is now a freshman at Boston College. She was also on the gold medal team in PyeongChang. She is so young that she is still certainly an up-and-comer. She started last year as a freshman and was called up to the ‘big leagues’, if you will, on the Olympic team and she’s now back as a redshirt freshman. She was a really fun talent to watch last year. I think that some of the goalies they have are incredible, how young they are. Maddie Rooney and a couple others who are now coming up.”

As are many of her colleagues and the numerous players, fans, and other supporters of women’s professional hockey, Mleczko is a proponent of “One League” – the concept of unifying the two currently separate women’s hockey leagues, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). Combining the two leagues is what would be best for the sport, the best for the players, the best for the fans, and most especially the best for future young ladies who dream of playing pro hockey.

“I would love to see a unified league,” Mleczko stated clearly, “and I think that at some point what both leagues have done is so tremendous. I can give absolute, incredible credit to both leagues for what they’ve done. I think that at some point you unify them, which doesn’t mean that one has to fold, you just come together and create an incredible product.”

How Broadcasters Can Support Women’s Hockey

Here is the main crux of Mleczko’s thoughts on women’s hockey. What advice would she have for broadcasters who are doing their darndest to grow and build women’s hockey? She worded her thoughts beautifully, and it seems to be so fitting that they would from Mleczko’s mouth. After all, she was the one who really first brought the Noora Rätys, Pernilla Winbergs, Maria Rooths, Florence Schellings and others to North American fans. Mleczko did so through her storytelling, and in her own right did her darndest to bring women’s hockey to where it has gotten to.

“I think at the end of the day,” Mleczko said, “it is just respect. TV crews, whether it’s the on-air talent or ‘people in the truck’, to understand that these are professional athletes just like their male counterparts, and they are playing at a very high level of this game that we love. To respect, and to tell the stories. Whether it is the story that is unfolding in that particular game, or whether it is bringing their personalities to the homes of little girls and boys who want to emulate them. Telling the stories about the hardships that they have faced, because it’s true. There are a lot of hardships. There are less and less each year, because we didn’t have a league to play in back then. So I think it’s fantastic that these athletes have the opportunity to do this and to make some money playing the sport. But at the same time they still have a lot of other things they have to deal with. Telling the story about these individual athletes, but also not losing track of the fact that they’re playing a great game and to analyze it like they would any other sport.”

Thank you, AJ. We eagerly look forward to many more years of your Olympic coverage. Who knows – maybe someday you will even be providing your expert analysis for an NWHL game at some point? Anything is possible. In the meantime, we will enjoy tuning into MSG Networks and following your work with one of hockey’s most fabled franchises. Regardless, we appreciate your efforts all the way around.