For ‘The Voice’ Dave Strader, return to the booth amid cancer fight is the ‘best medicine ever’
- Dave Strader, hockey's beloved play-by-play guy, is back in the booth for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, refusing to let a rare form of cancer slow him down.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Inside the national broadcast booth overlooking the rink at Verizon Center, Dave Strader gets ready to call his first game in over a month. Settling into the play-by-play chair, he pulls a hefty three-ring binder from his briefcase, crammed with info for this Thursday night, April 13, when the Capitals and Maple Leafs meet for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in about an hour and a half.
Glasses perched low on his nose, Strader flips through pages of laminated rosters; notebook paper with handwritten bio blasts; printed charts of each team’s salaries; and two hardstock cards covered with colorful Post-It notes, arranged into the projected lineups. He prefers using Post-Its because he can shuffle them as coaches tinker lines on the ice. The NHL, especially the Stanley Cup Playoffs, can be so unpredictable that way. Almost four decades behind microphones have taught Strader to expect every possible scenario.
Basketball was his first love, you know. “That’s what’s really weird about me ending up in hockey,” he says. Growing up in small-town Glens Falls, N.Y., he’d huddle under the covers at night with a transistor radio, listening to Andy Musser announce the 76ers or Marv Albert narrate the Knicks. Those were his heroes, the guys who gave him the broadcasting bug. In an early effort to learn their craft, Strader started taping calls on his cassette recorder. He still remembers one massive Knicks comeback against the Bucks, particularly how Albert set up a critical pair of free throws by Bucks guard Lucius Allen: “You will know from the crowd reaction.” The line itself amuses Strader, who delivers it with a spot-on Albert impersonation. But more than that, he loves what Albert did next: shut up. “I thought, that is really cool,” Strader says, “that a guy could say so little and tell you so much and let you live in the moment.”
By his junior year at UMass-Amherst, Strader was calling Minutemen games courtside at the Palestra and Madison Square Garden. The following summer he married his high-school sweetheart, Colleen, a burgeoning dental hygienist who was a cheerleader while Dave played on the Glen Falls basketball team. Upon graduation they moved to southern California. Strader dreamed of becoming the next Albert, the audible author of some NBA team’s journey. Instead, his first paid gig was calling “eight-man football games from atop scaffolding, atop a Chevy van.”
Homesickness tugged the couple back east to Glens Falls, where fate sparked Dave’s career. A minor league hockey team was coming, he learned, an affiliate of Detroit soon to be named the Adirondack Red Wings. Strader had never seen the sport live before. Shortly after the new Garden opened in 1968, Strader and one of his brothers went to watch a day-night basketball doubleheader. The Blackhawks also happened to be in town to face the Rangers, so upon spying Bobby Hull and Chico Maki in the lobby of the Statler Hilton, Strader’s brother geeked out and sprinted to ask for autographs. An unimpressed Strader replied, “Who?”
He had no choice but to learn. For six years Strader called in the minors, doubling as Adirondack public relations department and making $11,000, until Detroit promoted him to the big leagues in ‘85. Strader figures he might’ve just stayed with the Red Wings forever had ESPN’s Tom Mees not tragically drowned in ‘96, which opened the door for a national leap. An eight-year run at the Worldwide Leader ended post-lockout when OLN acquired the NHL’s cable rights and Strader’s contract expired, but not before his thirst for hoops had been quenched with 40 annual college, WNBA and D-league games. He has hopped around sunbelt hockey markets—the Panthers, Coyotes, and currently the Dallas Stars. He worked the Winter Olympics in Torino (‘06) and Sochi (‘14) and called basketball in London (‘12). He has voiced 18 consecutive Stanley Cup Finals for NHL International TV, including Detroit's back-to-back titles in '97 and '98 with ex-Red Wings partner Mickey Redmond. He served as NBC’s postseason No. 2 behind Doc Emrick. And later this year, Strader will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame as the 2017 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, the sport’s highest honor for broadcasting.
Somewhere along the way in Adirondack, Strader received the nickname, “The Voice,” which is like a flame-throwing pitcher answering to “The Arm” or a prizefighter called, “The Fist.” His velvety tones more than justify the label, but Strader isn’t anywhere near bombastic in style. He wears black suit jackets over white dress shirts with have his initials—DRS—stitched into the cuffs. He researches hard, educates viewers, lets moments breathe. Once in 2015, the Dallas broadcast crew was out to dinner at Elway’s Steakhouse in Denver when Daryl Reaugh, the Fox Sports Southwest color commentator and Strader’s partner, stood up. “You,” he said, pointing at Strader, “You make us better, and I want you to know that.” It was Oct. 10, the opening road trip of Strader’s first season calling the Stars; by then the duo had called only one actual game together.
Tonight at Verizon Center, though, Strader is uncharacteristically nervous. Not necessarily because he called just five games this season, all during one Stars homestand in late-February, but because he hasn’t seen the young Maple Leafs play all season. This makes him feel unprepared. He slips on a headset and fiddles the announcer’s console.
“One, two,” he says. “One two. That sounds good, actually.”
It took an alignment of the cosmos for Strader to even come. After NBC Sports executive Sam Flood asked if he wanted to work the playoffs, Strader laid out a list of conditional criteria: The assignment had to be on the East Coast, close enough to Glens Falls, in a city with a downtown arena and located near a major medical center. For that last reason, Strader had met with the Capitals’ team doctors upon arriving at the rink and arranged overnight contacts at Georgetown University Hospital. And it was why, a few minutes before warmups, he puts down the headset and calls Colleen, reassuring her that proper measures were in place.
“I gave him a little bit of what I’m going through.” Strader says. “Feel fine? Yeah…
“Right...No...He’s in my phone, I’m in his phone, and if anything happens….yeah.
“Alright, well I’ll check with you at intermission.
“Alright. Love ya.”
The horn sounds on the first intermission, Toronto ahead by a goal, and the broadcast cuts to commercial. Strader rises slowly, using one hand to steady his back, and fetches a container of peach yogurt from the mini-fridge. Over the past 10 months he’s lost almost 60 pounds and three suit sizes, but his restricted diet still allows only soft foods. So he went to Legal Seafoods twice in Washington. So he brought cottage cheese, cranberry juice and a fruit cup in case Game 1 reaches overtime, which it does in the Capitals’ 3-2 win.
As Strader spoons the yogurt and dissects the first period with partner Brian Boucher, his iPad glows with texts. Support has streamed from all angles since last spring, when doctors diagnosed Strader with cholangiocarcinoma, otherwise known as bile duct cancer. Dallas players wore patches on the ice this season, designed like a microphone with DS inside the stand, while broadcasters around the league pinned the same logo to their lapels.
Never once did Reaugh, who shifted into the play-by-play role while Strader underwent treatment, enter an opposing NHL rink and field at least a handful of well-wishers asking to pass along their sympathies. Last summer, when some Glens Falls friends who host an annual charity golf event for Alzheimer’s research instead dedicated proceeds to the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation, the Stars contributed a package of two round-trip plane tickets, two lower-bowl seats and two nights in a hotel. At home Colleen is running out of shopping bags to stash all the letters and cards.
And now here arrived another wave in Washington, buzzing into the iPad:
Just watched the first period. Welcome back!!!
You sound so strong!! Carry on brother!
Good to hear you on TV Strads. Hope you’re doing great!!
That last one came from John Tortorella, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ head coach. He also texted Strader on Oct. 26, when Dallas hosted Columbus for Hockey Fights Cancer Night at American Airlines Center. Since Strader wasn’t healthy enough to attend, the team had invited his 28-year-old son Trevor, an aspiring Broadway actor, to sing the national anthem and drop the ceremonial puck. Not 10 minutes before the opening faceoff, Strader received a message from Tortorella reporting that Trevor had done the family proud.
Colleen remembers learning about Dave’s disease in May ‘16, after he returned from Dallas’s second-round, Game 7 loss to St. Louis experiencing severe stomach pain. “It felt like I had been kicked with a steel-toed boot,” she says, and all the unknown factors multiplied their distress. According to the CDC, “rare cancers” carry rates of less than 15 new cases per 100,000 persons annually; cholangiocarcinoma affects only 6,000 total in the entire United States each year. Ultra-rare, in other words. One oncologist told Strader that the median survival rate was 11 months, though he was about a decade below the average age, then 60 years old. Hearing this, Strader asked how long the 90th percentile lived. “Three years,” the doctor said. Strader nodded and resolutely replied, “What do we have to do to get to that?”
“That was my mindset from the beginning,” he says, “how we’re going to get into that group that has better luck and better survival numbers and push this horizon back one day at a time.”
Much of this has involved a battery of treatments, ranging from chemotherapy to surgery to stents that require replacement at Massachusetts General Hospital every 10 to 12 weeks. But equally as important to Strader are the breaks in between. One came last summer, when his second grandchild, Charlie—whose smiling picture is the background on his iPad—was born. Though he couldn’t see Trevor belt the Star Spangled Banner in person, Strader made it to Sonoma, Calif. in August for three outdoors shows of the Transcendence Theater Company’s Broadway Under the Stars. Each night Trevor, a tenor, sang two numbers with a female soprano: “Make Our Garden Grow,” from the operetta Candide, and Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma. The latter rendition was the only song to receive standing ovations all three performances.
Clearly Trevor inherited the musical genes from his father. One of Dave’s friends jams in a band called the Sundowners, so whenever they roll through Glens Falls he’ll join them onstage to sing some Beatles tunes at a local bar. (The most recent karaoke session was last month.) He’s also been known to write parody songs for friends. A popular one was based on the observation that, while at ESPN, broadcasts would always open on solo shots of the play-by-play announcer, instead of a wide angle that showed both booth members. It’s called “Single of Me.” Sung to the Beverly Hillbillies theme, the opening verses go like this:
Come and listen to my format for the perfect show…
If you want to please the audience there’s one sure way to go...
Whether the game is on F-S-N or even N-B-C…
Wide shot, matchup, single of me!
Now the first thing you know, there’s the analyst in the shot…
Just because he played the game, he thinks he knows a lot…
But if you ask the focus group what they’d rather see…
Wide shot, matchup, single of me!
And so it was perfectly fitting that NBC Sports studio host Kathryn Tappen threw the matinee broadcast to a single shot of Strader on Feb. 26. Eight months after his first chemotherapy treatment, he had received medical clearance to call five Stars home games. Since national TV picked up this Sunday matchup between Dallas and Boston, Flood carved out a few pregame minutes for The Voice to speak. “Strades, I know when you got your diagnosis, you wondered if you would ever be back in the booth,” Tappen said. “Well, here you are.”
From the first procedure, which removed Strader’s gall bladder but detected that the cancer was migrating to his abdominal wall, hockey served as a steady distraction. On game nights Strader still filled out his game rosters and scribbled down stats, sometimes falling asleep on the couch with the three-ring binder across his chest. Even as the Stars slipped into mediocrity—one season after earning the Western Conference’s best record, they would miss the playoffs and fire coach Lindy Ruff—Strader remained an enthusiastic presence, regularly texting Reaugh and calling the production crew with analysis. He kept looking for chances to return but never felt strong enough to endure the full routine—morning skates, pregame segments, and finally three hours of nonstop action. “I needed to know I was in a place where I could do it,” he says.
In the meantime the Stars kept Strader’s spirits lifted. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the team invited him to attend its final game at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on Dec. 29. Over breakfast at the hotel, Strader received his 2016 Lone Star Emmy for live sporting events, which Fox Sports Southwest had won for a first-round game last postseason; several players then asked to snap pictures with Strader and the trophy. In the locker room after warmups, Ruff asked Strader to read the starting lineup, so he channeled his inner Knute Rockne and gave a rousing pep talk. Defenseman Esa Lindell proceeded to score within 16 seconds. “They weren’t able to hold on and win it,” Strader says, “But I took credit for helping spark them to their first goal.”
To the organization, seeing Strader in the booth again brightened an unexpectedly gloomy campaign. “It was one of those injections,” Reaugh says, “a moment late in the season that seemed to really mean something.” At his first game on Feb. 18, Dave and Colleen walked from the parking lot to the arena with forward Antoine Roussel, who then recorded his first career hat trick in an overtime win over Tampa Bay. Team president Jim Lites, the same executive who gave Strader his first full-time job in Adirondack, remembers conducting an interview together for NBC News, which Strader spent snapping selfies because he’d never seen Lites in makeup.
To Strader, calling those five games was “the best medicine ever, the best part of therapy.” But he finds energy from plenty other sources. On his iPhone, Strader has saved quotes from Craig Sager and Stuart Scott, the late broadcasters who fought and died from cancer. And every so often he rewatches Jim Valvano’s famous 1993 ESPYs speech for inspiration. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this and be public, a lot of people would look at this initially as being entirely hopeless,” Strader says. “I never ever wanted to look at it that way.”
Even when friends ask, though, how can he possibly explain the true depths of his treatment? The trip to see Trevor in Sonoma coincided with the end of Strader’s third chemotherapy session, which left him feverish and experiencing night sweats. A second combination of drugs triggered a ventricular cardiac event, in which Strader’s heart was moments away from stopping before nurses shook him back to consciousness. Upon getting back from Detroit, he checked into the hospital and went into neutropenic shock because his white blood cells were bottoming out. Just because two weeks before flying to Washington, Colleen says, her husband “could hardly walk to the washroom. He had a cane. He was pushing around his IV pole.” Doctors told him chemo is done and surgery isn’t an option, so he applied to several clinical trials and is waiting to get matched with an immunotherapy drug to target his tumor. He’s anxious to advance to the interview process, “to see if we can knock this back and buy some real time.”
Strader betrays none of this while working Game 1. He bounces in his chair at Verizon Center, animated in his gestures. He spends intermission giving advice to Boucher, an ex-NHL goalie who’s still learning to call from the booth. He digs into the cottage cheese before overtime, currently gaining weight (five pounds) for the first time since the diagnosis. He lets the moment breathe when Capitals forward Tom Wilson strikes the game-winning goal, holding a finger up to Boucher to let his partner know, Not yet. He’ll be back at the same perch Thursday for Game 5, and maybe Game 7 if the series gets there. Who passes up the playoffs?
Before the first trip to Washington, Colleen worried so much that she developed stomach problems—how Dave would get there, where he would stay, what food he would eat. Her fears were mostly eased when Dave connected with the Capitals’ doctor, who referred him to a colleague at Georgetown. Then she tuned into the broadcast, heard The Voice, and saw her cell too was blowing up with friends, everyone amazed at how healthy Dave sounded.
“He’s back working,” Colleen replied to them. “This is what he loves to do. This is where he needs to be.”