Meet the Press

Mark Binetti: From bands to booths

Mark Binetti
Mark Binetti calls the action with scratched goaltender Adam Carlson. (Photo by Mike Wolforth)

Mark Binetti did not stay in his first sports-related trade long enough to experience ludicrous geographic misnomers. Nor did he come to his new calling in time for the most outlandish of the same in another game.

In South Dakota since 2013, he joined the rest of the Rapid City Rush in transferring from the Central Hockey League to the ECHL in 2014. By then, it had been 11 years since their new abode ceased to answer to the name East Coast League. Although, the sport’s topmost “Double-A” entity had stopped living up to that exclusive-sounding moniker ages prior.

Come what may, the former pep-bander and current play-by-play broadcaster is living his share of carry-overs. He is living the bus life for 12 of the 26 weeks on the 2018-19 regular-season docket. The majority of those road trips are the culmination of a week’s worth of preparation.

The Rush’s destinations for 2018-19 are Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. They will also entertain visits from the Atlanta Gladiators and Florida Everblades, but not reciprocate the journey.

Travel-wise, this regimen evokes Binetti’s football marching-band days at the University of South Carolina. Besides his school’s own state, he saw action in seven others: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Entertaining the throngs of the sinewy Southeastern Conference, he made it to eight of 11 opposing stadiums. (He graduated two years before Missouri and Texas A&M upped league membership to 14.) He only missed out on Auburn, Louisiana State and Mississippi State.

“It was a blast,” he told Pucks and Recreation with maximum emphasis. “Seeing how different stadiums and bands did things was eye-opening. And as long as the Gamecocks didn’t have a rough go, the football wasn’t bad either.”

By comparison to what Binetti has now, neither was the mileage. Spared the SEC’s spill beyond the Southeast proper, he joined the Rush for what proved an unexpected CHL swan song.

But barely being in the Mountain, Rapid City itself was one of the circuit’s exceptions to its title time zone. Its 10 teams ranged as far east as Brampton, Ont., for that 2013-14 campaign.

Today’s 13-member ECHL Western Conference boasts a similar geographic spread. Being the third-farthest west, the Rush cannot help charging up four-figure miles one way on some trips.

Contrast that with the 764 miles separating USC from its most distant Binetti-era SEC rival, Arkansas. Or with the fact that the Rush take twice as many annual rides as the Gamecock footballers.

But as with his belated entry into broadcasting as a whole, Binetti benefited from starting small.

“Looking back on it, it really prepared me for what I do now,” he said. “The travel in college football isn’t nearly as rigorous as what we go through in Rapid City. But we bus everywhere with the Rush, and there’s a routine on the road you need to get into to prepare and such. So it prepared me quite well, I think.”

Timely crossovers
Binetti was born in New York, the second of three brothers, and lived in the metropolitan area through eighth grade. For the bulk of that time, music was his extracurricular lifeblood.

The piano, which his mother and maternal grandfather both mastered, was a mandated starting point. Two years of that spawned a web of skills, which Binetti transferred to self-taught clarinet lessons.

“It was a release,” he said. “It was something that allowed me to be a part of something bigger in a band, and was just so much fun.”

In his final year living in New Jersey, Binetti was an all-state musician in his newfound specialty. When his family moved to North Carolina, the accolades snowballed at Charlotte Catholic High School. As a sophomore, he cracked the 2004 South Central All-District Band.

He followed that with repeat appearances on the Charlotte Youth Wind Ensemble as an upperclassman. As a junior, he attended the 2005 Winthrop University Invitational Clinic just south of the state border.

Back at Charlotte Catholic, he broadened his horizons and attained the marching band’s drum-major position. In between, he built on his appetite for more of the same in college with another trip to South Carolina.

On Nov. 12, 2005, Binetti accompanied a friend to the Gamecocks football game against 12th-ranked Florida. His first live look and listen at USC’s legendary “Mighty Sound of the Southeast” sweetened a 30-22 upset.

“After that,” he said, “I did my research into the band, and talked to an old high school friend that was there. After meeting with some of the graduate assistants, and taking a tour of the university, I was hooked.”

As one of 360 students in the Carolina Band, and specializing in the trombone, Binetti devoted nine hours to rehearsal in a typical school week. At the Saturday culmination, preparation would start as early as 6 a.m., depending on kickoff time.

Binetti would rise to be the captain of his instrument’s section. He also had his major in biological sciences to think about. But the literal payoff for his musical dedication substantially alleviated the cost of the curriculum.

Concomitant with Binetti, Dr. George A. Brozak arrived at USC in the autumn of 2006. A former Star Trek TV writer, Brozak assumed the position of director of athletic bands, and instituted a wave of scholarships and stipends. Among other perks, Binetti garnered a scholarship specific to the clarinet in the university’s concert band.

Mark Binetti

(Photo submitted by Mark Binetti)

“Doc’s mindset behind it was to grow the base of the band simply by rewarding them for their sacrifice,” Binetti said. “It seems easy to say that, but to actually follow through with it meant a good deal to those of us in the program in his three seasons.”

Brozak has since moved on to other institutions, but Binetti attests to his long-lasting mark at USC. Ditto the late Jim Copenhaver, who directed USC’s band program at large for 35 years, retiring the year Binetti graduated.

Copenhaver’s tenure transcended the university’s rise to prominence among pigskin pep bands. To that point, in September 2017, USA Today ranked the “Mighty Sound” third among its top 10 college football introduction shows.

“Mr. Copenhaver was an incredible individual who just loved music, and loved teaching it,” Binetti said. “So many of the people I was in the band program with went to USC just because of him. They knew they’d be world-class musicians or music educators simply because he was the director of bands. He was loved by everyone in the music community.”

Copenhaver died at age 71 in November 2014, Binetti’s sophomore season as the Rush announcer.

“The impact of his passing was felt nationally,” Binetti said.

Besides his collegiate family, Binetti’s bloodline savored finales of their own during his senior season. For his final performances at Williams-Brice Stadium, his grandparents traveled from New Jersey for their first live glimpse of college football.

Business-like as usual that day, Binetti now admits he sacrificed a little enjoyment of family antics at the pre-game tailgate. With a noon game time, it was one of those 6-a.m. last-minute tune-up sessions.

“Sadly, I was blissfully ignorant to my grandfather roasting my dad for everyone cooking in trailers and on mini-grills with these gigantic spreads,” he said. “But hearing my dad recap it all was absolutely hilarious. My grandfather passed away four years after that game, so it was definitely special to look back on.”

As it happened that day, the Gamecocks doubled up on intrastate rival Clemson, then ranked 15th in the nation, 34-17. Their other home win over a ranked team (No. 4 Mississippi) that year marked the beginning of South Carolina’s “Sandstorm” custom.

In the decade since, the stadium DJ has routinely given the band a breather and aroused a rave-like rally with the Darude techno classic. The ensuing visual, complete with white towels for every spectator, is not unlike that of a professional hockey playoff crowd.

Mark Binetti on ESPN

A screenshot of one of Binetti’s close-ups on ESPN with the Carolina Band. (Photo submitted by Mark Binetti)

Invincible ambition
Hearing Binetti summarize the story of his rise to the Rush booth vaguely evokes Vince Papale.

Like the unlikely NFL walk-on immortalized in cinema by Mark Wahlberg, Binetti logged a little time on a gridiron. But to crack the competitive ranks of pro hockey play-by-play, one might assume, he must have called action in college.

Yet if someone asked him where he called his college puck, he would say he didn’t call college puck. In fact, he called no athletic action whatsoever as an undergraduate. That is how mighty a commitment the “Mighty Sound” was.

The Carolina Band was also expected to be the grand finale of Binetti’s involvement of sports. After he graduated in 2010, he was supposed to pursue medicine. After all, his mother, both maternal grandparents and one uncle have all worked in the field.

But then there was Jason Shaya, his fellow transplant from the northern U.S. to the Carolinas. While Binetti was a senior in Columbia, Shaya was in his third year broadcasting the ECHL team in Binetti’s adoptive city of Charlotte.

Hailing fron Michigan, Shaya had also gone to a hockey-free university (Madonna in the Detroit suburbs). After working as a sports producer with his local NBC affiliate, he enjoyed play-by-play stints with short-lived Detroit- and Chicago-area teams in the now-defunct United League. With more bountiful offerings at the de facto Double-A level in “non-traditional” markets, he found the Charlotte Checkers in 2007.

Binetti had been in town since 2002, and had taken an easy shining to the Checkers. For the better part of their 17-year ECHL run, they were affiliated with his beloved New York Rangers.

Acting on a belated craving for a sports-oriented career, Binetti reached out to Shaya in 2010. Their initial discussion left him disillusioned, and he turned to Chicago, where his brother works as an anesthiologist. But a lack of openings up his presumed alley turned him back to Charlotte and, for a time, back to college football.

“My brother had a friend that was a production assistant at ESPNU,” he said, “and said they needed loggers to watch games and help them cut highlights. After about two weekends on the job, I realized that I loved it too much to not try and see it through in sports.”

By this point, the Checkers brand had been promoted to the AHL. One of the few personalities to withstand the overhaul, Shaya accepted Binetti’s bid for a rebound.

The Checkers’ younger broadcasting brother started as a statistician and storyline builder. He then broke onto the air by filling in pre-game, post-game and intermission segments. From there, he started taking cracks at play-by-play, applying lessons he had absorbed through up-close observation during ESPNU football productions, during the second periods of home games.

“Once I got the opportunity at ESPNU, and got my first air time with the Checkers, I just knew this is what I needed to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

After two years under Shaya’s wing and a slew of go-nowhere applications to teams in Junior A, major junior and minor pro, Binetti received Shaya’s greatest assist for their last shift in Charlotte. While working at a Wells Fargo bank to supplement his income, he heard of Rapid City’s vacancy from his mentor.

In less than a month, he dished up his demos, pressed with continued interest, got the job and moved back north. He arrived in his new South Dakota home the day 2013 training camp commenced.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” he said.

Mark Binetti

Daniel Tetrault was Binetti’s color partner before becoming the Rush head coach. (Photo by Mike Wolforth)

‘…the same between both worlds’
All of the crowds surrounding Binetti have plummeted in sheer volume since he shot up to South Dakota’s Mountain edge. He is apt to note that, at a capacity eclipsing 80,000 spectators, Williams-Brice Stadium at USC could more than fit Rapid City’s population, which is estimated at under 75,000.

The difference between those figures almost amounts to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center’s capacity of 5,119. Naturally, Binetti’s audience is not in that seating bowl, but an unquantified figure beyond the building.

Regardless, the number of people standing by his side has drained from 359 to one. Only a rotation of color commentators will blend another voice in with his output for the listeners.

That aside, he says, “I’d argue that there are more parallels than differences” between the band and the booth.

“If there’s one difference, it’s that you can’t really rehearse broadcasts,” he continued. “Sure, you can have meetings on what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, storyboarding pregame shows and such. But you can’t ever really script and practice anything.

“Plus, if you do, it comes across as inauthentic, and it kills your credibility as a broadcaster. So much of what we say, how we react, and the emotion that goes into and comes out of broadcasting is spontaneous.”

Even a reprise of old patterns can catch Binetti off guard. His two years as Shaya’s intern in Charlotte marked an instant immersion in AHL-caliber hockey. Unlike the lower levels, nearly every player is a protected prospect, and arguably matches the skill of overseas major leaguers.

Granted, the preceding Checkers had just logged 17 seasons in Double-A before giving way to the new edition. But Binetti had not seen as much of them since going to USC. While he was there, he was so absorbed in bands and biology that he also missed out on another ECHL team, the neighboring Columbia Inferno.

The Inferno would fold in 2008, after Binetti’s sophomore year. He partly regrets failing to catch their games because their mascot, Blaze, was portrayed by one of his fraternity brothers. In addition, defenseman Justin Sawyer played in Columbia during Binetti’s freshman year, then on the first Rush team Binetti worked with.

About that team: Rapid City granted Binetti a blast back to Double-A, albeit in the Central League to start. He figured he was in for a spectacle a little closer to Slap Shot than the “A” will ever produce.

“I thought I was in for a huge change in pace and speed,” he said, “and was surprised to see how wrong I was. The CHL was very physical, very veteran-laden. But it was a great league to break into the professional ranks with.”

“Once I got the opportunity at ESPNU, and got my first air time with the Checkers, I just knew this is what I needed to do for the rest of my life.” – Mark Binetti

Nonetheless, it was on thin ice at the time. Membership whittled from 10 teams to nine early in the 2014 offseason. Arizona and Denver’s teams, both languishing in the ever-pivotal attendance column, then withdrew for the approaching campaign.

With only seven active chapters to speak of, the Central League gave out and latched on to a welcoming ECHL. The Rush, who had always stayed within the 4,000 attendance range, were properly rewarded by the rescue. And a mere 10 days after the late-coming merger was announced, Binetti was back behind their mic.

Upon stretching his Rapid City tenure to five years this past spring, he has stayed at the same base longer than anywhere else since his days as an all-state middle-school musician and long-term in-the-making medicine man in New Jersey.

In that span, he has discovered gratifying quantities of leisure time and attractions to fill it with. He has taken up adult-league hockey and softball, joined Knights of Columbus and kept his voice sharp in the summer via American Legion baseball broadcasts.

But he has yet to add pure-sport percussions or winds to that mix. “It kills me that I haven’t been able to,” he admits. “I dust off the instruments every now and then and practice, but it’s really been a long time.”

That does not, however, mean he is letting his inner musician log mothballs. His second-nature instincts from the metropolis and the Carolinas get ample new use in his vocation.

“I liken calling a game to sight-reading music,” he said. “The pressure of people listening to you, the amount of preparation needed to be successful at both music and calling a hockey game and the performance ‘game-face’ mentality are all the same between both worlds.”

Al Daniel

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