Battling cancer, Strader finds solace in calling hockey
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was midway through a question about why he’d challenged a goal in Game 1 of his team’s first-round series against the Washington Capitals when he noticed broadcaster Dave Strader standing in the crowded interview room.
“All of a sudden he looked up and he said, ‘Hey, bud, great to see you. You look great.’ And then he went back and answered the question,” Strader recalled with a grin.
It was a moment that would pass without note in most other circumstances. But these days, even such simple exchanges resonate with Strader, 61, who feared he might not have many of them left after he was diagnosed last June with a rare, incurable form of cancer of the bile duct.
Strader started feeling poorly during the Dallas Stars‘ second-round series against the St. Louis Blues in 2016. His wife, Colleen, hoped it was a gallstone issue, but Strader was concerned by his sudden weight loss.
Strader, who had been hired by his old pal Jim Lites to call Stars games in 2015, was referred by team doctors to specialists in his hometown of Glens Falls, New York. After more tests in Albany and then Boston, he was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma on June 3.
It wasn’t a gallstone moving into the bile duct. It was cancer. A rare and untreatable form of the disease.
The cancer had moved into his abdominal wall, meaning Strader couldn’t undergo an extensive surgery that would have removed much of the tumor and half his liver.
Doctors removed his gall bladder instead.
One night, as he lay alone at Massachusetts General Hospital, Strader made a decision.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to let this define me,'” said the father of three sons and grandfather of two. “I don’t want it to be the all-consuming, everyday worry of everybody around me. And I’ve always been an optimistic person. I’m a glass-half-full guy anyway, so I said, ‘I’m going to portray that and hope that it rubs off on [my family and friends].’ And it has.”
In the quiet of the broadcast booth at Verizon Center a few hours before he will call a dynamic double-overtime game between the Capitals and Maple Leafs, Strader acknowledges that he has at times wondered why him, why now. But he doesn’t dwell on it. And if there is a place to forget for a moment that time isn’t on his side, it’s here at the rink, a place he has made his home since he first carried a tape recorder into training camp in Glens Falls in the fall of 1989 and tried to make sense of the mayhem on the ice.
There were 80 guys out there skating, Strader recalled, “all wearing the same numbers and just different colored pinnies or whatever they did to differentiate scrimmages. And everybody fought.”
Strader was fresh out of college and serving as the assistant public relations director for the Adirondack Red Wings, the Detroit Red Wings‘ top farm club. He’d been hired by GM Ned Harkness, who offered the college broadcaster who’d grown up dreaming of calling NBA games a chance to call minor league pro hockey, even though Strader had never seen a live hockey game before he was hired.
“Whatever came out on the tape, either Ned liked it or he liked the fact he could still pay me 11 grand a year to do another job,” Strader said with a laugh.
Strader did it all for the Adirondack Wings — including sound, color and stats. But it was his on-air delivery that got him noticed.
“That’s where he got the nickname, ‘The Voice,'” said longtime ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose.
Melrose was a frequent visitor to Glens Falls when he was a player in the American Hockey League, yo-yoing from the big club in Detroit to Adirondack. Melrose and Strader would become fast friends and offseason residents of Glens Falls.
Another regular visitor to the rink in Glens Falls was Lites, then the son-in-law of new Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. Lites’ responsibilities as COO of the Red Wings included oversight of the AHL franchise. Every time he came to check in with the farm team, Strader had Lites on his broadcast. Sometimes Strader would ask Lites if he wanted to stick around and do color commentary. He was serious.
Picture the wild radio broadcasts depicted in the baseball movie “Bull Durham” and you have an idea of Strader’s early broadcast world, Lites said.
When Lites finally got the woeful-but-improving Red Wings a better television deal, he needed a play-by-play man to work with former Detroit winger Mickey Redmond. So he thought of the kid in Glens Falls.
“I know it sounds funny, but it starts with his voice,” Lites explained. “He’s got a great cadence.”
Some guys sound bored, like they can’t wait to get out of the booth, Lites said.
Not Strader. Not ever.
“The excitement in watching the game is inherent in his voice,” Lites said. “He loves to watch the game.”
In 1985, Strader’s first season in the NHL, he and Redmond called only 15 games as the broadcast details got ironed out.
“We were knocked off the air at least twice; the satellite didn’t work and didn’t get on the air,” Strader said. “Our record on television was something like 1-13-1, and the average score was like 9-3 against because that was the 40-point year for the Red Wings.”
Redmond recalls the ease with which he and Strader found chemistry in the broadcast booth.
“Given that Dave had not done NHL hockey and he hadn’t done television, he was very respectful to the game itself, and he was very respectful to those of us who had played the game,” Redmond said.
After moving on from Red Wings broadcasts in 1996, Strader did national games for ESPN, ABC and NBC that included work at the 2006 and 2014 Olympics — as well as a memorable first night calling a game with Bill Clement between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings in L.A.
Chicago netminder Bob Mason got pulled and rookie netminder Darren Pang came on in relief.
“When Bob Mason got pulled, Bill said, ‘Well, here comes wee little Darren Pang with his wee little white pads.’ Panger had brand new white pads that were about this big,” Strader said with a laugh, holding his hands about six inches apart.
Pang recalled the day well because he’d spent the day at Venice Beach with his old pal Steve Thomas, not expecting to play that night.
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) April 17, 2017
“I was a little crisp, I’ve got to be honest with you,” Pang said.
Pang, who retired from playing after suffering a knee injury in 1990, and Strader would end up working regularly together. They called games for a number of years and spent countless hours together away from the rink playing golf or having the occasional glass of wine.
When Strader went to the restroom between periods, Pang put Scotch tape on Strader’s glasses to suggest that maybe Strader’s vision was off that night.
“I thought I was being funny,” Pang recalled. “Little did I know you can’t get scotch tape off the glasses very easily. The poor guy. He never panicked once. I laughed so hard.”
Clement recalled calling a game with Strader in downtown Phoenix at the Arizona Coyotes‘ first home arena. During the game, Clement bought two 50-50 tickets worth a dollar each. He told Strader they’d split the winnings if either ticket came in. Lo and behold, during their postgame wrap, the producer began gesticulating wildly and told Clement that their number had come in.
The prize was worth $1,400, and as he got on an elevator later, Clement felt a hand slide something into his pocket. It was a $1 bill courtesy of Strader.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know I’m good for my 50 percent,'” Clement said, still chuckling at the memory.
The past 11 months have been a bittersweet time for those close to Strader in the small community that is hockey. Far more bitter than sweet. Strader has been receiving treatment since his diagnosis and has had several setbacks, including cardiac arrest.
Melrose called Strader when he heard the news of his diagnosis and then was at a loss at what to say.
Pang stops a conversation about his longtime friend for an extended, poignant pause. Pang’s mother died recently from the same type of cancer. He admits he can’t quite contemplate what awaits his pal.
Clement, likewise, struggles to express emotions that are not necessarily built for words.
“It’s typical of Dave that he wants to make sure everybody is OK with this,” Clement said. “He’s still more concerned with everybody else’s ability to deal with it.”
Redmond, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer twice, knows well the path that his longtime partner and friend is traveling. When he was diagnosed the second time, in 2008, doctors told Redmond that they did not expect him to survive. He and Strader have talked about the fact that nothing is certain, even the face of most bleak of diagnosis.
Redmond remains impressed, like so many others, with Strader’s upbeat attitude.
“Man, oh man, he sounds good,” Redmond said. “He’s got an inner strength that’s very admirable.”
And maybe that’s why the recent “sweet” part of that bittersweet feeling has made those around Strader so happy, at least for the moment.
After being too sick to work for most of the season, Strader was able to come back and call five games in Dallas this year. He was still feeling good enough to calls Games 1 and 2 of the Toronto-Washington series.
Clement said listening to Strader call those games last week was like celebrating a child’s graduation or some other momentous family occasion.
“It was a kind of elation,” Clement said. “Dave’s goodness kind of radiates. He touches other people’s lives.”
Longtime analyst and former goalie Darren Eliot, who called games on the old Versus network with Strader after the 2004-05 lockout, says his former partner’s battle has provided perspective.
“He’s an inspiration to all of us,” Elliott said. “Whenever we want to complain about a morning skate, we think about how much it means to Dave Strader to be at the rink.”
On Monday, Strader learned that he will be honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame as the 2017 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, given annually for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster. The ceremony will be held in November during Hall of Fame weekend.
The future has new meaning to Strader and his family, but as he has from the outset of this particular part of the journey, Strader focuses on what he knows now and tries not to worry about the rest.
Strader will undergo more tests and has has a line on a couple of clinical trials he hopes will match him up with an immunotherapy drug that’s more targeted to the area of his cancer. He hopes, too, that there will be opportunities to call more playoff games.
“My oldest brother, who’s a physician, his line to me was, ‘Look, just keep pushing the horizon back one day at a time, because that might be the day that you get the call about this clinical trial that fits you or this drug that might help you,'” Strader said. “So far it’s been working.”
His doctors have given Strader the advice they give many patients: If you can, go live your life and do what you love to do.
“It’s been good advice,” Strader said.
Somewhere a horn goes off, as the pregame rituals at Verizon Center unfold. Strader looks down at the papers in front of him in the booth.
Game time looms, and there’s still work to be done.