For the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets' second-round series, the NBCSN broadcasting crew consists of play-by-play broadcaster Chris Cuthbert as well as analysts Brian Boucher and AJ Mleczko. Like many crews this time of year, the team had limited experience together but was thrust together for important games and needed to forge chemistry on the fly.
Unlike any other broadcasting crew in Stanley Cup playoff history, one of the members is a woman. Mleczko, 42, is the first woman to work as an in-booth analyst in an NHL postseason game. The significance wasn't lost on ice level, but it wasn't overdramatized either.
"That's awesome. A lot of women play hockey and are really good at hockey," said Predators center Nick Bonino, whose wife, Lauren, was a standout player at Boston University. "It's unfortunate it took this long to happen, but we're all really happy about it."
Responded Mleczko: "I think Nick's answer is perfect. I like that he doesn't seem too surprised by it. ... I wish that this wasn't a big deal. I'm thrilled to be given these opportunities by NBC. I also think, soon enough, it'll come that it isn't a big deal."
Mleczko, of course, is a former standout player herself. A Patty Kazmaier winner at Harvard, the forward competed in the inaugural women's Olympic hockey tournament at the 1998 Games in Nagano -- when Team USA won gold -- and picked up a silver in Salt Lake City in 2002. Professional hockey for women didn't exist then, so when the 2003 Hockey Championships were canceled last minute because of the SARS epidemic, Mleczko's playing career unceremoniously ended. She and her husband, Jason, had their first child in December 2003.
"It's different now, and because of the awesome things that Team USA did last spring fighting for equal pay -- it was really hard to make a living back when I played," she said. "It is still hard."
Like many athletes, Mleczko hadn't quite considered what she wanted to do after playing, but she wanted to keep a foot in hockey. In spring 2005, then-NBC Olympics producer Molly Solomon cold-called Mleczko. "Do you have any interest in broadcasting? Solomon asked.
"I said, 'Sure,'" Mleczko recalls. "I had no idea, but that sounds great."
Mleczko took the train from Boston to NBC's studios in Connecticut. She was led to a small, soundproof booth, which Mleczko describes as "a tiny little box." Waiting for her would be her tryout partner: legendary play-by-play man Doc Emrick. "I dressed nicely. I was told to wear an on-camera outfit," Mleczko said. "And I'm sweating. I'm absolutely sweating but trying to smile through it."
And then another twist: The game they would be mock-calling? The 2002 Salt Lake City gold medal game in which Mleczko and Team USA cruised through the early tournament, outscoring opponents 31-1, but fell in a tightly contested gold-medal game to rival Canada. "I had no interest in watching it again, because we lost and it was heartbreaking," she said. "Canada played a lot better than we did, so I didn't want to watch it."
But Mleczko trudged on. "What do I do if I need to refer to myself?" she asked before producers began recording. "They said, 'Just refer to yourself in third person.' It was very surreal," Mleczko said. "I avoided any mention of myself."
After the first period, Solomon provided feedback, which made the rest of the mock broadcast even more tense for Mleczko. "The second period was another level of intimidation," she said. "I was trying to improve on the fly." Luckily, NBC spared Mleczko the third period -- and medal celebration. She said goodbye and got back on a train and received an email thanking her for making the trip. "I thought that was the end of my broadcasting career," she said. "The two hours, it was fun while it lasted."
And then Mleczko got the call: NBC wanted her to work the 2006 Games in Torino. She was "pleasantly surprised to try a new adventure." All the while, her family continued to grow; she arrived in Torino seven months pregnant with her second child, who was due in April that year. "I kept thinking, 'They're going to train me, they're going to help me,'" Mleczko said. "Nope. That's the one thing NBC has done -- it's sink or swim."
Anyone in broadcasting will say the key is getting in reps, and the Olympics provided ample. "We'd call two or three games a day, and if you screw up one game, well, you have another game in an hour. You have time to fix it," she said. Mleczko credits a great producer who helped her, as well as her broadcast mates -- Emrick and Kenny Albert, whom she calls "two of the best in the business."
"As a team sport athlete, I really like that broadcasting brings that team atmosphere," she said. It also turned out Mleczko was a natural.
"I've been around hockey long enough that I have confidence in the way I see the game," she said. "I feel good about my knowledge, I feel confident in my opinions about things. That's all they are, opinions on hockey."
Mleczko, who has four children -- ages 14, 12, 10 and 6, two boys and two girls -- loved getting opportunities with NBC at the Olympic games. She's worked the past four winter Olympics and broadcast field hockey at the 2016 Games in Rio. "But I'm not getting the reps in between," she said. "So even though I'm a veteran Olympic broadcaster, every time I go, I feel like I need to shake the rust off."
At Pyeongchang this year, NBC made another ask: What was she doing on March 6, and would she like to broadcast a Boston Bruins game? It was a natural fit for Mleczko, who lives in Boston, is familiar with the Bruins and wouldn't need to travel. She did a ton of prep work, especially on the Bruins' opponents, the Detroit Red Wings.
The game was on a Tuesday. On Saturday, Mleczko was coaching her daughter's hockey practice when one of the players lost control and slid right into Mleczko's legs, knocking her to the ground. Mleczko was wearing a helmet and says she followed concussion protocol. On Saturday and Sunday, she battled headaches and sat in a dark room. Mleczko, who has pledged her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, is an advocate of concussion awareness and wants to use the example as a reminder to always wear a helmet when coaching. She says she was fine in time for Tuesday's game, but there were other distractions. Since it was a hometown game, The Boston Globe wanted to spotlight her. She had also just come back from her time in South Korea.
Mleczko did well enough in the game that NBC gave her a game a week for March and then the playoff assignment -- which has been thrilling, but also unpredictable. Like all broadcasters, she doesn't get her schedule until sometimes a day or two before a game, which makes coordinating child care another challenge (she credits a great husband and friends).
Mleczko is her own harshest critic -- "If you're speaking for a long period of time, you're not going to love everything that comes out of your mouth" -- but has received good reviews both internally and externally. For example, NBC keeps extending her playoff assignment. When she was at the airport flying from Nashville back home to Boston after Game 2, she found out NBC wanted her to stay on for the rest of the series. She made a quick pit stop home, grabbed her passport and a new set of clothes, and pivoted to Winnipeg.
"All the players have been fantastic and easy to talk to," Mleczko said. "I'd be remiss in not mentioning there are other women who do do this. Cassie Campbell, a former competitor of mine and big rival [with Team Canada], but we've become very friendly -- mostly through doing the Olympics -- and she does great work. Meghan Duggan is doing postgame for the Bruins. Monique Lamoureux is doing work with NHL Network. Haley Skarupa has done stuff with the Capitals. It's really cool to see these doors are being opened, and there are more and more opportunities coming."
As Mleczko continually prepares for her current assignment -- she says it's common to use only about 3 percent of her notes in a broadcast -- she thinks about one of her biggest mentors, Emrick, whom she has called three gold-medal games with (not including their mock broadcast of the 2002 game).
"He doesn't get caught up in details even though he somehow spits them out -- that's not what he's focused on," Mleczko said. She also loves how he can look at the bigger picture and ask unexpected questions. For example, at the 2014 Olympics, Emrick asked USA coach Katey Stone: "When you leave Sochi, what do you want people to remember about Team USA?"
"It was a cool question," Mleczko said. "It wasn't about the power play, it wasn't about this player as a superstar or the lineup, it was about the big picture and what do you want to take home about your team."
So the same question is posed to Mleczko: After these playoffs, what do you want people to remember about you?
Mleczko pauses. "I hope for my preparation and my knowledge and not for being a woman," she said. "I hope I'm not just remembered for being a woman in the booth in a Round 2 NHL playoff game. I hope that people listen to the game and they're not constantly reminded that a woman is calling this game. It's hockey people in the booth talking hockey."