PHILADELPHIA -- Lauren Hart has sung the national anthem before Philadelphia Flyers games at Wells Fargo Center since 1997. But when she walks out to sing before their game against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV), it will have a different feel.
The Flyers will celebrate Hockey Fights Cancer that night. Hart is a survivor of her own cancer battle.
She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999, shortly after her father, Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Gene Hart, had died from cancer.
"I guess in a weird way the fact that it was so close together, we didn't have time to think," she said. "We didn't really have time to grieve my dad and grieve this illness I was about to challenge. There was no other way to go. It kind of kept us together as a family."
Gene Hart broadcast Flyers games on radio and television from the franchise's inception in 1967 through the end of the 1994-95 season. Lauren Hart grew up viewing the organization as a second family, and that family was there for her in her time of need.
"The first person to call me [after her diagnosis] was Eric Lindros, and he said he had heard I had some news and he wanted me to know that everyone was behind me and everyone supported me," she said. "And then player after player called. I knew them, but I didn't know them that well. I had been singing for a brief amount of time. It was pretty spectacular. Then halfway through my treatment [founding owner Ed] Snider and his wife and the guys showed up at my house and threw me a surprise party when I was halfway through. That was incredible. What a morale booster.
"I kept coming here to sing all during treatment, in all my bald glory. It kept me going. It gave me something to look forward to. It made me feel relevant. I had a big record deal [with Columbia Records] and I was touring and I was into my art. When people found out on that end, they weren't so keen on having me around. But everybody embraced me here. It meant everything to me."
She got another surprise in her first game after her cancer diagnosis became public. After finishing the anthem, Flyers coach Roger Neilson was waiting behind her in the Zamboni tunnel to greet her with a hug.
"I remember like it was yesterday," she said. "He ran off the bench, came all the way around to the tunnel and said, 'I'm with you, we're all in this together.' I don't know how to put into words what that all meant. It's so powerful."
Hart rarely missed a game during six months of chemotherapy, and she has been in remission since 2000.
Since then, she has tried to repay the support she received by helping other families in the same situation.
"Any fan that ever calls me or writes me, I will show up on your doorstep, I will come to your hospital room, because it means that much," she said. "That's what helps people get through."
One of those families was the Sniders.
Video: PIT@PHI: Hart sings anthem to Snider on FaceTime
Ed Snider died of cancer April 11 at age 83 at his home in California. Two days before, during the Flyers final home game of the season, Hart carried her iPhone onto the ice for the anthem. On the other end of a FaceTime video chat was Snider.
"There was a point where I realized that he wasn't coming back to Philadelphia," she said. "I knew he was watching on TV but I wanted to sing it to him. I wanted him to feel how alive and excited the building was. I didn't tell anyone beforehand what I was doing. I knew it would be a stir afterward, maybe. I didn't want any focus. I just wanted to let it happen. … Got him on FaceTime right before I went out. I wanted to send him all the love and have him hear the fans and see the fans from the ice, kind of like a GoPro sightline for the whole thing."
When she walks out to sing Wednesday, she'll be singing for other cancer patients and their families.
"It's life-changing," she said. "And I feel it for and with the fans who have gone through it, who are going through it now with a brother or a mother or a father or a sister that have this. It's a great way to show solidarity. What better way than at a hockey game, where our warriors go out every night no matter what, and get the job done. When I was singing, that's what I felt like. They're going to get out there, I'm going to get out there."