Dave Strader is set to call two Stanley Cup playoff games this week at Madison Square Garden — a thrill for any announcer who grew up worshiping the early 1970s Knicks and being captivated by the voice and style of Marv Albert.
But Games 3 and 4 of the Senators-Rangers Eastern Conference semifinal series have meaning far beyond that for Strader, who will work Game 3 on NBCSN and Game 4 on Westwood One radio.
He has spent the past 11 months being treated for bile duct cancer, which caused him to miss all but five games this past season as the Dallas Stars’ lead play-by-play man.
Hmm . . . 11 months? He initially was told 11 months is the mean survival time after diagnosis for his rare and incurable condition. But he will pass that mark Wednesday on the off-day between working two NHL playoff games, a statement in itself.
Why keep working?
“I’ve always been an optimistic, glass-is-half-full kind of guy,” Strader, 61, said yesterday. “I just said, ‘I’m not going to let this define me. Whatever path this is going to take me down, I’m going to decide what I’m going to do.’ ”
That included openness in discussing what he is going through, in hopes of a greater good. He said he followed the lead of Stuart Scott and Craig Sager, other sports TV figures who shared their cancer battles.
“I said, look, I’m just going to be up front with it and let people know what’s going on,” he said, “and if I can be an inspiration and help anybody else that gets the news of something similar to this, if I can help them, it’s kind of worth it.”
Strader had his return to the Stars in late February cut short by medical complications, but NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood told him that if he was feeling up to it, he would have a spot in the first playoff round.
So he called the three games in Washington during the Maple Leafs-Capitals series and sounded pretty much like the same guy who had earned the nickname “The Voice.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from. But it was there, and knock on wood, I didn’t lose my voice.”
Strader was careful. He eats a special diet focused on small meals and soft foods and makes sure to stay hydrated. But the simple, therapeutic joy of being back at work presumably played a role in his performance, too.
“I think it’s the body just feeling normal,” he said. “As I’ve said many times, I kind of forget I’m sick or even been through this and I just sort of do the game as if I’d been doing it all year and all this didn’t happen.
“I guess my mind is able to fool my body a little bit that way, the adrenaline or whatever it is, and it’s worked out.”
After Strader got through the first round in fine form, Flood found a spot for him in the second, knowing he needed an East Coast venue to minimize travel from his home in upstate Glens Falls, where he grew up.
Strader’s hockey friends figure to greet him at the Garden as they did in Dallas and Washington.
“The reaction has been unbelievable within the hockey community,” he said. “It’s been incredible, the texts and messages I’ve gotten during intermissions of the games I’ve been on the air, the people that are paying attention and the people that care.
“That is as much of the therapy as the games themselves, hearing from people and just getting out and being in the hockey world. It’s just good to get back and see everybody again in an environment where I’m used to seeing people.”
Strader’s next hope is to get into a clinical trial testing the next wave of cancer treatment. But as he awaits that, he has not had any chemotherapy since early March, which has helped restore his energy.
So on Tuesday it is back to the Garden, which he first visited when it was brand new in 1968. He attended an NBA doubleheader, hooking him as a Knicks fan immediately. (Hockey came later.) Hence his connection to Albert.
“He was the voice and the person that just kind of captivated me,” said Strader, who recalled listening as a high school senior — and recording the audio — when Albert called the Knicks’ 87-86 victory over the Bucks on Nov. 18, 1972, in which they scored the game’s final 19 points.
After Strader spoke about being inspired by Albert in an interview last week, he got a call from him. Albert left a voice message congratulating him on his Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hall of Fame and wishing him well in his battle.
Strader called back and left a message of his own. “I said, ‘Marv, you just have no idea what it means to take the time to call me.’ This is something that when I think back to when I was a kid and what Marv Albert meant to me, to take the time.
“He had said he was glad to see I was able to do some games, especially at the Garden. So, yeah, it’s special for me to go back there.”