It’s an Avalanche of goosebumps, as Colorado roars through the NHL playoffs. But true confession: Know what has been more of an honor for me than bearing witness to the puck-handling wizardry of Cale Makar?
Watching broadcaster Peter McNab kick cancer’s keister down the road to the Stanley Cup.
“You honestly can’t understand what it’s like to have cancer until you’ve gone through it,” McNab told me, lowering his voice and leaning in close to share secrets of dark, tough days.
“It’s like being an alcoholic, which I am. People say, ‘What, you can’t even have even one drink?’ They don’t get it’s a desire you have to put away. But then you talk to another alcoholic, and the understanding is instantaneous. It’s sort of the same thing with cancer. I met so many people during the chemotherapy and radiation that understood exactly what I was going through without saying a word, when even their spouses, for all the love, could never get what it’s like to have cancer.”
Diagnosed in September, as summer came to an end, McNab refused to stop working. The severity of the toll cancer took on the University of Denver alum and former NHL player was obvious to anyone who watched him on television. Don’t know about you, but I gained strength by the determination McNab exhibited with every word of analysis he uttered about captain Gabe Landeskog and the Avs.
“Watching and talking about hockey is way easier than thinking about your own (stuff). I can’t imagine going through cancer and not being around hockey, where you had a good team playing well, with so many vibrant people having fun,” said McNab, who endured 18 weeks of chemo.
“My biggest problem was I’d go to bed and couldn’t get to sleep. That led to hours of living inside my own head, which is the last place I wanted to be. There was no place to rest.”
Rumbling through a darkened doorway on Saturday night, dashing to get back in the Altitude Radio booth high atop Ball Arena to analyze every boom-goes-the-dynamite moment of Colorado’s 7-0 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Lightning, McNab nearly ran me over .
I flinched, bracing for impact. He grinned, because nobody loves a big, clean, hip check on the ice more than McNab.
“My favorite player is Darren Helm,” declared McNab, chuckling heartily as he grabbed my elbow in a healthy vise grip. “Helm hits everything that moves. I think he just hit the Zamboni driver between periods, just for the heck of it!”
Life’s shorts. Laughter long. Skate every shift as if it might be your last.
“There’s so much talk about cancer, cancer, cancer. And you think: Can it really be that hard? It was harder than anything beyond my imagination,” McNab said. “You say I was this big, strong, athletic guy. Cancer took that out of me. It emptied me out. So the base of who you are is completely destroyed.”
From the coffee and doughnuts at morning skates to Joe Sakic handing the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque, from St. Patrick performing between the pipes to Coach Roy angrily walking out on the team unannounced, McNab and I have been chroniclers of every chapter in the Avalanche’s 27-year history.
He’s also the best color analyst in the history of Denver sports broadcasting. Of course, I might be biased, because nobody has been more generous in teaching me the nuances of a sport McNab loves.
When inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in early December, his brother accepted the award on McNab’s behalf, because he was too sick to attend the ceremony.
“I had a very bad reaction to a round of chemo at the time. I was in the hospital,” McNab said. “And there are two weeks out of my life that I don’t remember a thing. Can’t put the pieces of the puzzle together even now. The time? It’s just gone.”
With encouragement from family and friends, kindness he can never repay, McNab came out of the darkness, told by his doctor in February his cancer was in remission.
“As simplistic as it sounds, cancer teaches you how truly fragile life is,” said McNab, who celebrated his 70th birthday in May.
When the Avalanche boarded a plane to Tampa on Sunday, looking to sweep the two-time defending champs from the Stanley Cup Final, McNab followed the franchise he has documented on television and radio from the glory days of Peter Forsberg through this glorious revival led by Nathan MacKinnon.
Skip the opportunity to climb in the radio booth and tell the story of Colorado’s first championship since 2001?
“I’m calling Games 3 and 4,” McNabb said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
His glorious mop of hair has started to return from the ravages of chemo. The athletic frame hollowed out by cancer has refilled with much of the vigor that allowed McNab to score 363 goals during his NHL career, which spanned 14 seasons. His mind is razor sharp. His voice booms with a healthy, joyful defiance.
“My strength is starting to come back,” McNab told me. “So I said: ‘The heck with it. I’m going to the Stanley Cup Final in Tampa and will enjoy every minute of it.’ Why not? This might be my last kick of the can.”