Paul Henderson scored one of the biggest goals in hockey history 50 years ago Wednesday, helping Canada beat the Soviet Union in Game 8 to capture the 1972 Summit Series.
With one victory, two losses and a tie on home soil to open the Cold War showdown, the Canadians then fell in Game 5 in Moscow with three contests to go.
Needing a trio of wins to secure hockey bragging rights against a battle-tested and will-drilled opponent Canada’s NHL stars had severely underestimated, Henderson scored the clincher in both Games 6 and 7 before bagging the series-deciding goal in dramatic fashion with 34 seconds left in the finale.
The 79-year-old spoke with The Canadian Press ahead of the anniversary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As you look back 50 years after the goal, what stands out about that moment?
A: “I remember saying to my wife after we lost the first game over there, ‘If we don’t win the last three, we’re gonna be known as the biggest losers in the history of Canadian hockey.’ Now we’re probably the team of the century. Canadians, we’re not great at celebrating a lot of the time, so it’s very satisfying.”
Q: What do you remember about the sights, the sounds, the smells ahead of Game 8?
A: “My wife said she’s never seen me that intense. I guess I wasn’t very friendly, but I was just so focused. Get me down there and we’ve got to win this game. The interesting thing is how it affected me in the moment. After I scored, we went back to the bench and (head coach) Harry Sinden — I’d only been out on the ice 10 seconds — said to Ron Ellis, Bobby Clarke and I, ‘OK you guys finish the game.’ I said, ‘Harry, I’m done.’ I would be petrified to play the last 34 seconds. I was mentally done. I couldn’t play. It probably took me at least 25 minutes to take my skates off. We had a couple of beers and it was just, ‘Oh my gracious, we’ve done it.'”
Q: You’ve recounted the goal thousands of times, but what details stuck with you?
A: “Our line was on the ice and we came off with about 90 seconds left. Harry Sinden sent out Phil Esposito, Yvan Cournoyer and Peter Mahovlich. And then Sinden came down to us and he said, ‘If there’s any time left, you’re going.’ That surprised me. We had another line of Hall of Famers up next. The Russians had told us if the game ended in a tie, they were going to claim victory because they had scored one more goal that we had in the series. I just stood up and thought, ‘I gotta get on the ice.’ I started yelling at Peter. Frank Mahovlich was sitting beside me (going), ‘What are you doing?’ I didn’t pay attention to him and kept yelling. Fortunately, (Peter Mahovlich) came off. I never did that before and I never did it again. I’m not sure any player has ever done that.”
Q: What made you get up and yell to get on the ice?
A: “Maybe because I scored the winning goal in the two previous games. But can you imagine the risk I took? Imagine I jumped over the boards and the Russians went down and scored and we lost the series. I’d be talking to a reporter in Siberia today. I can’t explain it.”
Q: Canada was celebrating at the final buzzer. What was it like for the team?
A: “Total relief. We weren’t jumping around or going crazy or spilling Champagne. We were just sitting there looking at each other across the dressing room. Everybody was just done. We were spent.”
Q: What do you remember about that about that group of NHL stars?
A: “We became a team at the end. I really felt sorry for some of the Hall of Famers. They just couldn’t find the right combinations. We knew (fellow Maple Leafs forward) Ron Ellis and I were going to play together. It was just, ‘Who would be our centre?’ Bobby Clarke played a lot like (Toronto teammate) Norm Ullman. We were very conscientious defensively. We felt that we might be able to make it as the shutdown line. That’s exactly what happened because Ronnie was skating against (Russian star Valeri) Kharlamov most of the time. Then I got a little fortunate with my speed. I scored seven goals. Without Bobby Clarke I would have never ever have the series that I had.”
Q: What was the feeling heading into the series?
A: “The Russians kept winning at the Olympics. NHLers couldn’t play there. That sort of irked us — ‘OK, come play the big boys.’ We knew they were good. But I figured, we’ve got 12 Hall of Famers. My thinking was if our goaltenders have a bad game and their goaltenders have a really good game, they might tie or even win one. But they sure as hell won’t come near winning this series. We had no weakness anywhere. Unfortunately we just totally underestimated their physical abilities. We just underestimated them. All of us did. Then we went over there, they win their first game and you know what? They thought they couldn’t lose … then they underestimated our will to win.”
Q: What do you remember about the scenes back home?
A: “The whole country watched it — coast-to-coast, every person was Canada. I got a letter from a guy after the series was over that said, ‘Paul, I was a Brit living in Nova Scotia. When you scored that goal, I became a Canadian.'”
Q: Did it feel like you were living out a moment in history?
A: “We were playing hockey. I knew it was a big goal, but the blasted thing has not gone away. People come up to me, it doesn’t matter where I am: ‘You should be in the Hall of Fame.’ I tell everybody, ‘The worst thing they could do is put me in the Hall of Fame.’ If you put me in there, nobody would be ticked off anymore and then they’d forget all about me.”
Q: How did your life change?
A: “It was ridiculous. I’m going down to a rink about three days after I got home. We pull up the red light and the guy in the next car sees me, jumps out and says, ‘I need your autograph.’ We’ve got both lanes backed up and other drivers are honking. The guy yells, ‘Shut up, this is Paul Henderson.’ Then the guy behind gets out of his car wanting an autograph. It was bizarre.”
Q: Does it surprise you that we’re still talking about the goal a half-century later?
A: “No one on the team would have ever believed 50 years on we’d still be celebrating. We had no idea it would have the magnitude it did.”