By Dan Robson in Toronto
Paul Henderson sits at a bare table in an empty room with an intravenous line in his arm and a grapefruit-sized tumour in his abdomen. For the past two hours, a translucent yellow liquid has drained slowly into his bloodstream from a bag that hangs next to him on a stand. It’s a vitamin-based treatment he has received at this health clinic in Toronto’s west end since he was diagnosed with lymphocytic lymphoma chronic leukemia in November 2009. The weekly dose is intended to bolster his immune system and slow the cancer creeping through his body. “It’s in my abdomen, my chest, my lymph nodes and my blood,” he says. Still, you have to look closely to see the effects of the disease. He’s lost some weight over the past few years, his face is thinner, his clothes a little looser. But his dark grey hair remains thick and curly. His skin is tanned from a recent vacation. A strict diet and constant exercise have kept up the appearance that he is just another aged legend, not a man who has been told that, at best, he has less than a decade to live. “I just refuse to worry, or get upset, or be fearful,” he says. His soft voice doesn’t waver. “It doesn’t do one particle of good.”
It has been 40 years since Paul Henderson hopped the boards in a cold Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow, capital of the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and skated toward the net, took a wild stab at the puck, and fell. He pulled himself up, circled back toward the net and — with 34 seconds left, in the final match of a series that transcended sport — shovelled a Phil Esposito rebound into the Soviet net. It was Sept. 28, 1972, the day Henderson became a hero by scoring the biggest goal in Canadian history. Then, the series linked the country in a tumultuous, terrifying world where the distinction between politics and sports was less easy to discern. But it’s a period that has slipped further from popular consciousness, into hazy history — only to return in tidy anniversaries, 15 years, then 20, 35, now 40. During the next six months, the goal that lifted Canada over the USSR in the Summit Series will be replayed and discussed repeatedly. There will be history class projects, retrospective articles, TV specials and gala dinners. But this year, as the legends of 1972 gather and wave and smile as we cheer, it is unlikely that Henderson, the hero, will be there.
Right now, Henderson still feels relatively healthy, but with the cancer continuing to spread, he is preparing to undergo intense chemotherapy in hopes of temporarily halting the disease. “There’s no cure,” he explains. Early treatment wouldn’t have helped his longevity, so doctors have waited as long as possible — before he’s in too much pain, or has lost too much weight — to administer chemo. If successful, the treatment might hold off the cancer for another five years. But it will likely come back, Henderson’s been told, leading to another, more intense round of chemo that might provide another couple of years. Henderson doesn’t frown as he says this. He says it plainly. It’s just a fact. “When you have cancer, you can define the trivial from the important very quickly,” he says.
Reflecting on the legacy that he has built in Canadian history, Henderson, 69, says he views the goal differently now. “I look back on it with much more appreciation,” he says. “I have to shake myself some days… Man, that was an incredible experience.” He had joined the camp as one of 35 NHL players selected to take on the Soviets, but it seemed there was little chance for him to get substantial time. “I wasn’t one of the superstars,” he says. But Henderson emerged as a key player, scoring seven goals, including the winners in games six, seven, and eight.
The goal became a fact of life that he’d never escape. “It’s always overshadowed my career,” he says. “There’s no question.” Returning to Canada from Russia, Henderson was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. The celebrity status, he admits, was overwhelming. Suddenly, everybody wanted something from him — endorsements, appearances, photos. The fans expected more game-winners on the ice. Henderson found himself mired in the highs and lows of wins and losses. He drowned the lows in booze. “I was miserable,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to be happy.”
Growing up in the small community of Lucknow, Ont., Henderson’s family was swamped by debt. He often says that he didn’t own a pair of skates until he was nine. His father, a gruff veteran of the Second World War — he was the only man in his squadron to survive a mortar attack — pushed his son to excel at hockey. More than his genuine love for the game, Henderson wanted to become a hockey player to ensure that he was successful, like the players he heard about on Foster Hewitt’s Saturday night radio broadcasts. “I wasn’t going to live the way my parents were,” he says. He spent hours playing hockey with friends in the basement of the local Chinese restaurant, or sneaking into the nearby arena after hours. He started working on his signature in grade five, perfecting the sweeping loop of the P. “I had great penmanship, I practised it for hours,” he laughs, as a nurse steps into the room to check on the IV bag. Henderson went to his first game at Maple Leaf Gardens when he was 12, sitting in the top row, where wall meets roof. He closes his eyes and remembers watching the Leafs and Boston Bruins skate onto the ice. “I could do this for a living,” he told himself. He didn’t return to the cathedral on Carlton Street until his first game as a pro, when the Detroit Red Wings called him up from their junior team in Hamilton. His father picked him up and drove him to Toronto. “You make an impression,” his dad told him. “Don’t let me down. You get out there and you nail somebody.” In his first shift, the only one he’d get that game, Henderson skated onto the ice, elbowed Dick Duff in the head and fought him. Less than 10 seconds into his career, Henderson was in the box. As the ref led him to the penalty box, he looked up to see his dad waving his fist proudly. Henderson excelled, becoming a confident pro — some said cocky, arrogant even. “I was all about being successful,” he says. “I thought happiness came from achievement.”
Today it’s impossible to understand how Henderson views the goal, how he accepts his cancer, without acknowledging how fundamentally his perspective on life shifted when a pastor knocked on his door and asked him to be part of a Christian hockey camp in 1973. “What do you pay?” Henderson asked. “We don’t pay,” the pastor replied. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” Henderson laughed. But the pastor, Mel Stevens, pushed further. “You seem like you’ve got an edge to yourself,” he told Henderson. “You really seem like a frustrated, angry young man.” The Canadian hero was broken. He met with Stevens for two years before dedicating his life to Christianity in 1975.
Henderson has since used his celebrity to share his devout faith. He runs a spiritual mentoring program for business leaders in Toronto, and speaks regularly at churches and Christian events.
He cherishes the moments he gets to spend speaking at schools, sharing hockey history with inquisitive kids and wide-eyed teachers. He loves being dragged into hockey dressing rooms to offer some wisdom and inspiration. And, as was the case in late February, being on vacation in the Bahamas as fellow Canadians question whether it’s really him, and then apologetically ask for a photo. But more than anything, these days, Henderson is holding close the things that mean more to him than a goal ever could — family. He travels as much as possible with Eleanor, his wife of 50 years this November. He hosts his grandkids for sleepovers at “Granny’s Hotel,” getting down on his knees to play mini-sticks. He attends their hockey games, yelling as loud as any fan and offering encouraging talks to both teams when the final buzzer sounds. For years, he says, he felt obliged to speak at events or attend special functions. Now, he’s taking a step back. “I’m not nearly as important as I used to think I was,” he laughs. “It’s a wonderful discovery.”
Henderson sits and chats for nearly an hour after his treatment. He frames the conversation, and his life, in the context of his faith. “God says just handle today, and so that’s all I do,” he says. “And if tomorrow shows up, I’ll do the same thing. But I have no fear of dying.” He acknowledges that chemo is going to be a painful battle. “I wish there was a way around it,” he says, “but at this point it doesn’t look like there is.”
Two days later, Henderson is a featured guest at a fundraiser for Hockey Ministries International at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke, Ont. Men of all ages — most were alive in ’72, some weren’t — from across Toronto have gathered to play a tournament run by former Leaf Mark Osborne. During lunch, Henderson is joined on stage by Ron Ellis, his good friend and former linemate. They sit next to a poster of the famous photo of Henderson jumping into Yvan Cournoyer’s arms after scoring that legendary game eight goal. “Celebrate 72″ the poster reads, “40 years, strong and true.” They answer questions about the Summit Series, getting laughs with a rehearsed routine. “I scored seven goals — six of them were really nice goals except for the last one,” Henderson tells the men. “And for 40 years! ‘Henderson makes a wild stab for it — and falls.’” The room erupts. “Not very endearing,” he quips. Ellis follows: “He got the goal, but I had something to do with it. I was sitting next to Paul on the bench. I made sure I stepped back so he could get over the boards without tripping.” The crowd applauds.
As they linger afterwards, a small crowd forms around Henderson. He poses for photos and signs sweaters. Ellis stands nearby, scribbling his name a few times and chatting with fans. “This is the key one,” he says of the coming 40th anniversary of the Summit Series. Ellis is on the team’s organizing committee. (Henderson was also on the committee, but has taken a leave of absence.) Of the ’72 squad, members Bill Goldsworthy, Gary Bergman and Rick Martin have all passed away, along with John Ferguson, who served as an assistant coach. “This is the one where everyone is fairly healthy. Five years from now, 10 years from now, we’re all going to be in our 80s. So this is the one we really want to enjoy.” Several players have already been part of a reunion in Russia, and events honouring the series across Canada will start early this summer.
Four decades since Canada’s claim to hockey greatness was challenged (and barely secured by a miracle with 34 seconds left), the series is starting to take a place in history books that drifts just outside of the realm of empathy for a new generation of fans. For 20 years, at least, you could hear the echoes of Foster Hewitt’s call — “Henderson has scored for Canada” — and feel part of the hysteria that swept the nation. Now, inevitably, it’s a little harder to discern — more of an honoured moment in time than a point of visceral pride. At least for those who didn’t live in the moment, and can’t imagine that this nation roared louder or felt stronger than it did when Sidney Crosby scored the overtime winner at the Vancouver Olympics. Still, for many, the 40th anniversary marks a return to something that is very real.
Henderson entertains a semicircle of fans for about 20 minutes before excusing himself. “Well, I’ve got a two o’clock appointment, boys,” he tells the pack of beaming men. He bumps fists with them as he walks away, careful not to contract dangerous germs. He walks across the corridor, down some stairs, and is gone.
Excited, the men stay in a group sharing their stories of “the goal.” They recall the exact grade and classroom they were in, down to the teacher’s name, when they crowded around a TV, watching a live feed of the game from Moscow. They remember the tension that weighed them down, shoulders hunched, watching and waiting and hoping. They remember the moment, the relief, the thrill that sent them roaring into the streets. And the men ramble on, like the boys they were. They celebrate a series long gone, and its icon, still here. It’s the hope of Henderson’s family, and his country, that he’ll remain in the celebration for years to come. Lord willing, Henderson says, there’s always time for one more miracle.