Henderson facing toughest battle: Part I

In 1972, Paul Henderson scored a goal to defeat the Soviet Union and etch his name in the hockey history books. However, these days Henderson is facing a different kind of opponent: a silent one.

Thirty-nine years after scoring that series-winning goal for Team Canada, Henderson is trying to defeat cancer. In November 2009, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia — for which there is no known cure — and it has advanced to Stage 4, the highest stage. He is fighting the disease with the help of an orthomolecular nutritionist, who has him on a strict diet that consists of chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit. It eliminates sugar, which cancer feeds off, along with dairy products, pork, bread and pasta.

Henderson is also on a strict daily fitness regimen that involves lifting weights and cardiovascular work. He purchased a $5,000 treadmill that uses vibrations. He also bought a dry sauna that his nutritionist recommended. It is powered by electricity and uses infrared lights and is designed to sweat out toxins.

“We’re trying to beat cancer from the inside,” the 68-year-old husband, father and grandfather told sportsnet.ca.

In advance of Team Canada’s annual reunion, held Sept. 6-7 in Toronto, ON, and the historic goal scored on Sept. 28, 1972, Henderson spent some time with sportsnet.ca at his home talking about a variety of subjects, which will run in two installments.

SN: It’s been almost two years since you were diagnosed with cancer. What is the status of your health?

PH: The blood work is a little worse and the tumour is a little bigger, but I’m still working out like crazy and maintaining my diet and exercise and that kind of stuff, so we’re monitoring the situation. My biggest struggle is trying to keep my weight on. I’m down to 175. I like to stay around 180. I was 184 for 40 years. I’ve never been over 185. I carry that weight pretty good. Eating is one of my better gifts, but that’s one of the things (battling) cancer. As long as I don’t lose another 10 pounds, I’ll probably be okay for a little while. It’s a day to day thing. That’s the way I live life. I take today. If tomorrow shows up, we’ll take a shot at tomorrow.

SN: So that is your mindset?

PH: I’ve never once ever felt sorry for myself. The wonderful thing about cancer is you can differentiate the trivial from the important very quickly. At 68, it’s pretty important that you’re able to do that. I’ve tried to help other people go through tough times, encouraging people not to fear, that’s something I used to do a lot of. Over the years, I’ve taught myself take today and live it the best you can.

SN: You talked about your legacy; haven’t you already created a legacy with your hockey career, specifically what happened in the ’72 series and helping others?

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PH: You continue to make (your legacy). Every day you have choices and I want to finish well. I’ve always started off that way. Nobody knows (when they’re going to die). I could take a heart attack tomorrow. Something else could take me out. I really believe it’s doing the best you can today and enjoying it — enjoying your wife, your family, your grand kids. For a lot of years I didn’t spend enough time with them. Like a lot of people you’re trying to be successful. Now I’ve lived long enough to know that’s important.

SN: Do you get excited this time of the year because of the reunion and the recollection of the series?

PH: You look forward to getting together with the guys obviously. There’s usually things that happen. It’s just the guys; we talk about the kids, their families, that kind of stuff. Some guys are still involved in hockey, like Dale Tallon (general manager of the Florida Panthers). Some people have some health issues. We’re just a bunch of guys that have a lot of respect for one another. We went to war; it’s nice catching up.

The thing about it is: people (who watched the series) don’t let it go away. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, people still want to come up and talk about it and tell me where they were and what they were doing and it’s amazing how many Canadians say to me, “You should be in the Hall of Fame.” It’s always in front of me because people bring it up all the time. It doesn’t matter where I am, what I’m doing. But it’s also satisfying, too. Now seeing my grandchildren come along and play hockey, I get pretty excited about it. There always seems to be neat things happening, different things.

SN: There have been some suggestions that maybe after the 40-year anniversary it will be time to stop rehashing the series with the team, that maybe it’s time to move on?

PH: Everybody’s got different opinions, so we’ll see. Maybe we’ll do a golf tournament, maybe we won’t. We’ll talk to the guys. If there’s a reason to get together, maybe we will, maybe we won’t. But I think they’re talking about doing something big for the 40th, so we’ll see what happens.

Read now: Part II of the Paul Henderson interview, Fear of Failure.