An August 2003 kidney transplant began a downward spiral of problems that read like a medical textbook's worst case scenario multiple infections; gall bladder surgery during which a laser nicked his liver; lymphedema; a loss of blood pressure; and a fall that broke his leg in three places.
"They had me not living through the night three different times," Strelow, 71, said. "It was pretty touch and go."
But now Strelow is taking part in his first training camp in four years. And while the intervening time has limited his mobility Strelow uses a motorized scooter on the ice, for example it has not damaged what goalie Evgeni Nabokov calls the "gifted eye."
Strelow, Nabokov said, "can see little things that you do wrong and he can tell you this or this. Maybe you put your glove down too much. He always sees something ... he always tries to correct you."
On Monday, Strelow was doing just that during a 90-minute goalie practice as he orchestrated a series of drills that had six shooters fire puck after puck from precise areas on the ice. "Learning is repetition," he preaches.
If Nabokov was in net, Strelow would watch him while talking with Vesa Toskala about his stint minutes earlier.
"Little fundamental things you overslid too soon on this shot, or whatever," Strelow said.
Both goalies say they welcome the on-the-spot critique.
"It's amazing what kind of hockey sense he has," Toskala said. "Those are little things that are hard to explain."
Strelow's return comes when some around the NHL say the Sharks have a goalie problem too much of a good thing. Outsiders predict friction because Nabokov and Toskala see themselves as starters.
Strelow, like General Manager Doug Wilson and coach Ron Wilson, doesn't see an ego problem. And Strelow doesn't expect to spend time talking about the issue.
"I don't worry about that at all," Strelow said, adding: "They know that I don't care about who plays goal, just that whoever plays, plays well."
Strelow became the Sharks full-time goalie coach in July 2000 after serving as a consultant for three years. He came with impressive credentials: goalie coach for the late Herb Brooks on the 1980 U.S. Olympic "Miracle on Ice" gold medal hockey team, three NCAA championships with Brooks at the University of Minnesota, previous NHL experience in Washington and New Jersey.
Even while recuperating in his St. Paul, Minn., home, Strelow stayed in touch with his goalies, watching games on satellite TV.
He shared his thoughts daily with Assistant General Manager Wayne Thomas, a former goalie coach, and talked weekly with Nabokov and Toskala.
Being here, Strelow says, has a big advantage.
"Eye contact," he said. "I can look at you and I can feel if you're receptive or if there's any trouble communicating."
Coming to San Jose also allows Strelow to work with the Sharks' goalie prospects. During a scrimmage at Logitech Ice, he sat in the media room overlooking the rink with Taylor Dakers and Thomas Griess.
Strelow says he will stay with the Sharks as long as his health allows. For now, his son, Ingo, has come up from Los Angeles to help his father get around.
Medical issues remain. A regular blood test is part of his regimen. He hurt his back in rehab. He has put on about 35 to 40 pounds water retention caused by the lymphedema.
Sharks players and the front office say its great to have Strelow around again, not only because of his goaltending knowledge, but also because it's a sign how much his health has improved.
Ron Wilson even turned his return into a motivational moment at a team dinner last week.
"I told everybody he was cryogenically frozen for three years until we were ready to win the Cup," Wilson said. "And that's why he's back."
Strelow looks at his survival to this point similarly.
"I think maybe it wasn't my time because I hadn't won a Stanley Cup," he said. "That's the goal. I've won Olympic gold medals and I've got NCAA championship rings. I want a Stanley Cup ring and I'm not getting any younger."