Nearly two decades before they teamed up as broadcast analysts covering the New York Islanders for MSG Networks, pioneering Olympic women’s hockey players A.J. Mleczko and Jennifer Botterill set aside their national pride to join forces and win the 1999 national championship as linemates with the Harvard Crimson.
“We were opponents first,” reminisced Mleczko, a gold medalist in women’s hockey with Team USA in 1998 and a silver medalist in 2002. “(Botterill) was the youngest player on Team Canada at the Nagano Olympics in ‘98 and I was one of the younger players on Team USA.
“The next year, she and Angela Ruggiero — who was our youngest player — they both came as freshmen to Harvard, where I had put off my senior year for two years.
“Harvard was not a very strong program when I joined it. We had a couple of lean years. Then here we come back, the three of us, from Nagano, and we had a fantastic year. We went 33-1 and won the national championship — Botts and I on the same line. I was center; she played left wing.
“Through Nagano, I didn’t like Canadians. Obviously, I had an immense amount of respect for them, but we were such heated rivals. We didn’t want to ride in elevators together. It was like, ‘Keep your distance.’
“Back then, Botts coming down (to a U.S. college) was very unusual. A lot of (Canadian women’s players) stayed north. I was so conflicted, because she’s such a great girl. We had so much fun together when we were teammates that we could love to hate each other. We could go out and compete hard but still be friendly off the ice. It’s an epic rivalry, which anybody in the sport knows about.
“Botts and I had great chemistry from the beginning. She was a natural center at that time but we had such good chemistry that they put her on the wing so that we could play together. She was so easy to work with.”
This NHL season, that chemistry has been renewed between the benches at New York Islanders games. Mleczko and Botterill, who won three gold medals and one silver during her four Olympic appearances with Team Canada, are tapping into their on-ice experience as TV analysts for roughly 20 Islanders games each. Splitting the analyst role, the pair work with studio host Shannon Hogan, play-by-play announcer Brendan Burke and color man Butch Goring, who won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders between 1980 and 1983.
“It’s high energy and lots of adrenaline,” said Botterill. “It’s very different from sitting in a studio or being in a broadcast booth to being literally at ice level. I find myself having a bit of a smile on my face — you’re focused and you’re paying attention, but the energy is pretty contagious. Whether it’s the speed of the game or you hear conversations on the bench or the chirping back and forth between the benches, you’re literally right in on the action.”
“I can’t see everything down there, just because of the angles,” acknowledged Mleczko. “When you’re up top, you see how everything develops, the bird’s-eye view. Understanding and accepting that I’m going to miss some things has made it much more fun. With MSG, I have a little bit of leeway because Butch and Brendan are up top. If I don’t see something, I don’t have to talk about it.”
On December 12, Mleczko and her colleagues found themselves with an extra 16 minutes of time to fill when a power issue with the lights in Barclays Center delayed the third period of the Islanders’ game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“It was definitely the first time I’ve been in that situation,” Mleczko admitted. “I’m down there with my headset on, so I can hear Butch and Brendan and I can talk to the truck and they can talk to me. But I wanted to take it off because I wanted to hear what the guys were saying. I did take it off for a while, and then I put it back on and I hear Jim, our producer, calling me sort of frantically.
“In some ways, I enjoyed it. Butch, Brendan and I could really explore some things. At that point, the Islanders were playing well but not scoring goals and their power play hadn’t done anything, so we could really dig into that a little bit.
“It was also hilarious to see the players and listen to them. Reilly Smith kept saying, ‘Let’s just skip the third period, let’s go right to a shootout.’ I think it was Ryan Pulock who came over and said ‘Give the headset to (backup goalie Thomas Greiss): he wants to speak German.’
“They were pretty lighthearted about it. I’m not saying that both teams aren’t intense and passionate and want to win every game they play, but there was no bad blood, so they were able to be sort of funny about it — skate around, keeps their legs loose and understand that both teams are in the same predicament.”
Mleckzo and Botterill have joined the Islanders’ broadcast crew as the team transitions into a new era following the departure of captain John Tavares as an unrestricted free agent. With new general manager Lou Lamoriello making personnel decisions and defending Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz now behind the bench, the team is also going back to its roots, playing 12 home games this season at Nassau Coliseum as it prepares to return to Long Island full time in a new arena starting in 2021-22.
Through 34 games, the Islanders are also in the thick of the Metropolitan Division playoff race, looking to reach the postseason for the first time in three years.
When asked to name players that have stood out for her this season, Botterill starts with new captain Anders Lee. “He’s always so articulate and I think he’s just a great choice for a leader. If you hear Trotz speak about him, he says you can’t ask for much more from your captain.
“Another guy — I think (Josh) Bailey has been great. If you think in terms of consistency, in terms of doing what it takes — he fought in the (December 8) Detroit game. Or being consistent on the scoreboard — the line of Bailey, (Mat) Barzal and (Anthony) Beauvillier has been excellent.
“Barzal is just fun to watch — he’s an exciting player. He’s dynamic and fast and skilled, but I’d say Lee and Bailey are the two guys that stand out for me as quality people, solid leaders and just what your team needs.”
“I enjoy and appreciate Barry Trotz and his perspective, his knowledge of the game,” she added. “Being around the team, I get the sense that they are buying in, that they also respect him and value his opinion. I do think the team is trying to finalize their identity, what they bring to the table, but I’ve been very impressed. I think the key from my perspective is maintaining some consistency throughout the season, but do I think that they have the tools to be successful, to make a playoff run? Absolutely.”
“Trotz and Lou Lamoriello are very experienced,” added Mleczko. “They know what they’re doing. The buzzword that’s being used is structure — they have this structure and they have this system and then players have to buy in.
“I do think the players have bought into it, but I also think that it’s an ongoing evolution to try to figure out what it all means. Is it where you stand in the defensive zone or how you act? Is it how you react? How you respond when you have a goal against?
“Being where I am, between the benches, it’s been really fascinating to watch Barry Trotz. He is so calm and cool on the bench, doesn’t get ruffled very much. I’ve seen him get a little frustrated with refs when he doesn’t like a call — not in a way that he’s screaming and yelling at them, but you just see that he barks a little bit more about things like that. He sat Mat Barzal for 10 minutes in one game because of a bad penalty but he didn’t scream and yell. He just put his hand on his shoulder.
“I couldn’t hear what was said — obviously, I’m not *that* close. But he’s not afraid of making an unpopular decision that he, I’m sure with Lou’s input, thinks will help the team in the long run.”
Based in Boston, Mleczko commutes to New York City by train for Islanders home games and is also covering the team’s two road games against the Bruins this season. Botterill travels in from her home base in Toronto. She has circled her calendar for New Year’s Eve, when she’ll head 90 minutes south for the Islanders’ game in Buffalo, where her older brother Jason is in his second season as the Sabres’ general manager.
“He was in Pittsburgh for 10 years, working with the Pittsburgh Penguins,” she said. “We both have two young girls, too, so it’s nice when my parents come to visit from Winnipeg that we can all get together a little easier. It’s the closest that my brother and I have lived to each other in many years.”
“They’re such a wonderful family,” said Mleczko. “I didn’t know Jason because he was always on the road but her parents were always coming to games. Her mom is a two-time Olympic speed skater. Her dad’s a well-known and well-versed sports psychologist. (Jennifer) has the genes to manage both the physical and the mental.”
“I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was 15 about my goal of going to the Olympics one day,” reminisced Botterill about her parents’ influence on her career. “The advice he gave me that day — he said ‘Well, why not you? If somebody else can be there, why can’t it be you?’
“It shifted my entire perspective, because I thought it was a long shot. I didn’t know if it was possible to make that Olympic team.
“I think it was sort of the encouragement that he gave both my brother and me, to set our standards maybe just a little bit higher than we initially think possible. I think that’s something that we’ve both applied to our careers, certainly as athletes and then our careers post-sport as well.”