Photo credit: Chris Gordon
Way back in the eighties when trading cards were still packaged with a stick of bubble gum, a young, bright-eyed right-wing by the name of Craig Laughlin was featured on his first ever card. O-Pee-Chee, a Canadian candy company, produced the 1983-84 season set which also featured rookie cards for Scott Stevens, Phil Housley, and Brian Bellows.
Fast forward 28 years, Laughlin can now be found in the Capitals broadcast booth alongside play-by-play man Joe Beninati. The broadcast duo has been calling Capitals games together for 17 years. While the two took completely different paths to get to their current jobs, The Panini Group has now distinguished Joe B. with the same honor Laughlin received in his playing days. Yes, Joe B. now has an official trading card too. And it comes signed!
Voices of the Game
Photo credit: Panini America’s blog
On March 26, 2010, Panini — an Italian company which also produces books, comics, magazines, and stickers — acquired a five-year license from the NHL and NHL Players Association to make trading cards. In one of their first sets entitled Crown Royale, Panini’s brain trust wanted to make their own mark on the industry.
“We wanted something different,” the company’s License Acquisitions Manager Alex Carbajal explained in an interview. “Something different than the same old player. Something that fans of hockey could really dig. So one idea that came out [in our meetings] was Voices of the Game. Let’s have the announcers be a part of the set.”
The train of thought among those inside Panini: fans of each team would feel a strong connection to their own particular announcer and it would become a must have collectible. “Not only are you collecting the players,” Carbajal said.” You want to collect every part of the team.”
Panini decided to produce 100 cards each of noteworthy announcers such as Don Cherry, Darren Pang, Daryl Reaugh, and Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Miller. The cards were signed and then placed randomly into packs.
When the cards were released to the public later that year, the Voices of the Game insert became a big hit for the brand.
But hockey cards can only remain novel for so long. So what would Panini do for the next set?
“Really? You want to pay me for my autograph?”
One team that was not represented in 2010-11 15-card set was the Washington Capitals. Collectors in North America took notice.
Said Carbajal: “When we first announced the set on our Panini America blog last season people were really giving us a hard time saying, ‘But we really wanted Joe Beninati!’”
So this year, when Panini picked their new cast, Beninati was an obvious choice. But would he agree to it?
“Really? You want to pay me for my autograph?” Carbajal vividly recalled Beninati saying when he first broached the subject.
In the end, Joe B. overcame the momentary shock and signed the paperwork to make it happen.
“When I heard from him that they wanted me to be a part of the set this year, I didn’t wait more than two seconds to give him the go ahead,” Beninati said. “You’re honored by it. I was flattered by it. To be included in that set, meant a great deal. Those are the kinds of things you come across time to time in your career that you’re genuinely touched by.”
Several months before the scheduled release of Panini’s 2011-12 Crown Royale, Joe Beninati received a package in the mail at his Virginia home. It contained 200 cards of himself to sign. There also were directions to sign 10 of them with a special touch.
The year before, the Penguins’ colorful play-by-play man, Mike Lange (we’ll hold our tongues here), was part of the Voices set. Unlike the other announcers who followed the directions, Lange secretly signed a few of them with a special inscription of his signature calls. “People really dug them and tried anything they could to get their hands on them,” Carbajal revealed. “So this year, we decided to do that with all of the announcers.”
While Beninati doesn’t really believe in those types of canned calls — “I don’t want to run around with my hair on fire yelling, ‘Great Googly Moogly he scores again!’” — he did acknowledge that there were some things that he says during broadcasts that have stuck. After putting some thought into it, Joe B. came across three sayings he could actually inscribe onto the cards, one of which has special significance to Caps fans.
“Five of them I signed ‘Fires and Scores!,’ said Beninati. “Four of them I signed ‘Bombs Away!,’ and only one of them — only one card of me in the entire set that’s signed ‘Simply Sensational.’ That’s the tagline to Ovechkin’s goal against Phoenix in his rookie year, which obviously stands as the goal and one of the greatest sports accomplishments I had the pleasure of describing.”
“I should never say ‘simply sensational’ ever again,” he continued. “I didn’t know I was going to say it that day in Phoenix, it’s just what came out. It’s just how I reacted.”
But that one special inscription isn’t where the connection to Ovi ends — Panini made Beninati’s card number eight in the set, a sentimental fact not lost on the play-by-play man.
“When you have a job as a play-by-play announcer, you live for moments where you can basically enhance what the athletes are doing,” he said. “When you have the opportunity to work for Alex Ovechkin — I’ve worked with Alex Ovechkin as my main subject for 7 years — boy you know you’re going to have some moments to describe. Anybody that has watched Alex play in his first 7 years, would know that he’s a play-by-play guy’s dream.”
Once done signing, Beininati then mailed the cards back to Panini’s American headquarters in Texas, and the cards were put into packs.
“The announcers are so funny because some players they take a little longer to sign,” Carbajal said. “The announcers get the cards back to us in one day.”
Locker Not Impressed
Photo credit: Chris Gordon
So far, the set — which also features two of Beninati’s broadcasting heroes HHOF’er Mike Emrick and Bill Clement — have been well-recieved by collectors. Joe B.’s signed card has fetched $10-$15 each on eBay, his specially inscribed ones have been going for over $50, as much as an Alex Ovechkin autograph.
But there was one thing that Beninati wouldn’t do: tell his broadcast partner about his honor.
It all came full circle when we came in to do a photo-shoot for the post. Locker didn’t know about the card beforehand. After one look, he burst out into uncontrollable laughter, a state which continued for several minutes.
The former hockey player would be surprised however, if he checked eBay. Joe B.’s rookie card goes for nearly 5 times more than his on the open market.
The entire process of having this card created and signed shows a small glimpse into what we Capitals fans get to hear every night with Beninati: Hard-work, thoughtfulness, and professionalism. It’s why Joe B. is the best in the business at what he does and why this card is so special: it’s 1 out of 200. A true Capital collectors’ dream, just like Panini envisioned.
Now it’s up to you to get your hands on it.
Additional reporting by Chris Gordon.