Forty minutes before the puck dropped, with Verizon Center crowd just a shell of what it grew into and the press box still warming into bustling activity, Dave Strader started walking toward the microphone.
The 61-year-old broadcaster paced by a row of Washington Capitals photographs. He twiddled his glasses in his right hand. He smiled at everyone he passed, the same people who greeted Strader with “How are you feeling?” and “It’s great to have you back” leading up to the Capitals’ playoff opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
He ducked into a narrow hallway, searching for the “NBC Sports Network” sign, then turned the handle and stepped into the center-ice booth. The door clicked behind him, and as he has for 37 years, he sat down to call a hockey game.
“For the four hours, five hours, six hours I’m here, I don’t feel like I’m sick” Strader said while sitting in a near-empty arena Friday. “And I don’t even feel like the last nine months even happened.”
Strader has spent those nine months undergoing treatment for bile duct cancer, and his battle is ongoing. After joining the Dallas Stars’ broadcast team at the start of last season, he was able to call only five games this year. But a break in treatment freed him up for the start of the playoffs, where he called the Capitals’ 3-2 overtime win over the Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series.
He reached fans who have heard his play-by-play for the Red Wings, Panthers and Coyotes, nationally on ESPN and NBC, and around the world on the NHL’s international Stanley Cup stream. He is fulfilling the promise he made to himself in the summer that he wouldn’t let cancer define him. That he would not stop doing all he has ever known.
“There haven’t been many positives with his situation this year,” Stars President Jim Lites said. “But Dave being back in the booth again for the playoffs is one, for him and for us, the listeners. That is where he is supposed to be.”
In 1985, the Red Wings were turning their broadcast into a simulcast with television and radio. Lites, then part of the organization’s ownership group, needed a play-to-play voice for the television side. Before searching too far, he remembered the kid from Glens Falls, N.Y., calling games for the franchise’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Strader was doing everything in Glens Falls — setting up his own broadcast equipment, keeping team stats while calling the games, managing public relations and so on. Now he was moving his family to Detroit for 15 television opportunities. The Red Wings were outscored, on an average, 9-3 in those games. They won only one of them.
But a gentle baritone was coming over the airwaves, making those losses feel like bar-side chats with a childhood friend. “The Voice” was born.
“It just caught on right away. His voice was perfect,” Lites said. “And that is why they call him ‘The Voice’ now. It’s almost indescribable.”
That is why Lites targeted Strader when the Stars needed a play-by-play announcer before last season. Strader settled in next to color commentator Daryl Reaugh, and the pair clicked right away. The Stars finished with 109 points and made it to the second round of the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues.
Then Strader started feeling stomach pains. He was up until 4 in the morning before Game 6 and told Reaugh he nearly had to sit the call out. He worked Game 7, the Stars were eliminated, and he went to see a doctor, who diagnosed bile duct cancer. If they had caught it sooner, which rarely happens, there could have been an operation.
His only option was chemotherapy, and he was told it would be a steep climb.
Strader moved back to Glens Falls and started treatment at a hospital in Albany. The first chemotherapy didn’t work well. The second led to cardiac arrest induced by ventricular tachycardia, which speeds the heart rate and is rarely experienced by patients of that particular chemo. Luckily, he was a few blocks from the hospital and could rush into the intensive care unit.
Once there, doctors physically shook him back to consciousness.
“I came to and said, ‘What happened?’ ” Strader recalled. “They said, ‘We had to paddle you.’ ”
It took eights weeks to get his heart back to normal, and that is when Strader started considering a short stint in the Stars’ booth. He had to check three boxes: Did he feel well enough to travel and do a good job? Was his schedule free of appointments and treatment? Did the doctors think it was a good idea? He returned for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 18 and finished a full five-game homestand.
That is when NBC’s Sam Flood said he would leave a few playoff spots open for Strader, if he were feeling up to it. Strader had a setback with a third chemotherapy and spent 17 days in the hospital. But he pushed through and has gained weight for the first time since starting treatment.
At a recent appointment in Albany, a doctor nudged him toward another call.
“I’ve read your chart, I’ve read your report, and I look at you, and I can’t believe I am looking at the guy I am reading about,” Strader remembered the doctor, who is not his regular oncologist, saying. “So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
That led him to Washington this week, where he called an overtime winner Thursday night. After Tom Wilson beat Frederik Andersen, Strader yelled, “Scores! Tom Wilson!” before letting the crowd noise take the microphone for 40 seconds.
Sitting 20 rows off Verizon Center ice Friday, Strader smiled as he talked about that moment. It felt like playoff hockey, in which inches and seconds can turn a fourth-line forward into a hero. It felt like his life, in which every day provides an opportunity to do something special.
“They can use all the chemotherapy and chemicals and all that,” Reaugh said. “But the best thing for Dave is hockey. And the best thing for hockey is to have Dave.”
As noon passed and the Maple Leafs wrapped up an optional practice, Strader snaked through the arena looking for more excitement.
In one hand was his iPhone, the small screen that kept him connected to the NHL all season. Under his right arm was a binder, which held meticulously detailed rosters of each team. He ran into Brendan Shanahan, who he overlapped with in Detroit many years ago and is now the Maple Leafs’ president. He later ducked into Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock’s post-practice news conference, and Babcock stopped mid-answer to say, “Good to see you, Dave. You look great.”
Strader is taking this all one day at a time. He has an appointment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston next week to determine the next steps of his treatment. He may call a few more playoff games for NHL Network Radio, but that will depend on scheduling and how he feels.
If he’s able to, however, he said he would love one more chance to sit behind the microphone, take a deep breath and provide the soundtrack to everyone else’s playoff hockey experience.
“When I show up Saturday, I’m Dave Strader the announcer, not Dave Strader the cancer patient,” he said. “That’s the difference. That’s what this allows me to do, just be myself again.”
A previous version of this story misidentified Strader in the second photo. Strader is at right, with fellow broadcaster Darren Pang in the middle.