Paul Henderson doesn’t need to be in hockey’s hallowed hall – he’s thriving in God’s House
Photos Courtesy Mike Pacitto, Market Pie/National Hockey League/Doug Ball

Paul Henderson doesn’t need to be in hockey’s hallowed hall – he’s thriving in God’s House


When the great novelist Elmore Leonard was asked the reason why his writing style was so spare and bereft of adornments, he said: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

This is what history does.

It’s the erasure at the end of the pencil.

It identifies moments worthy of being remembered by future generations and then consigns everything else to footnotes, or rubs them out entirely.

This erasure applies to sports, too – taking a measure of eras, its star players, and moments in time. The idea is to weigh evidence, pass judgment and eliminate irrelevancies. 

Canadian Press named Paul Henderson’s game-winning goal in the final moments of the 8-game, 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, the “Sports Moment of the 20th Century.”

The famous goal

 

For those of a certain vintage, the series-winning goal is one of those “where-were-you-at-the-time” events, like the John F. Kennedy assassination or Neil Armstrong stepping off the lunar lander.

Hockey icon Foster Hewitt’s high-pitched staccato delivery of Henderson’s series-clincher still raises goosebumps and is indelibly imprinted in the souls of millions of Canadians…

"Here's a shot…Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell. Here's another shot right in front…they score! Henderson has scored for Canada!!!!!”

This dramatic goal (exclamation points added) came with only 34 ticks left on the clock, secured the series win for Canada, and literally left the goal scorer like the remains of a fossilized dinosaur, entombed in amber.

“Hennersen” (Hewitt’s pronunciation) is forever 29, curly-haired, and racing toward the Soviet net as he punches the puck sitting at the feet of goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who stood guard like an iron curtain. He slaps once, then twice, and finally watches it slip across the goal line. Henderson was the first to know it was in, then Tretiak, then Hewitt, and finally millions of Canadians holding their collective breath as they watched on CBC.

It’s hard to imagine the outpouring of joy that reverberated from coast to coast 48 years ago. Or to put it all in historical perspective.

Henderson’s moment was freeze-framed by Frank Lennon’s famous photo as teammates Yvan Cournoyer and Phil Esposito are draped over him. The goal is easily referenced and runs in a continuous 1:18 loop on YouTube

It was the fairy tale ending to a grueling, heart-stopping, and at times vicious series. It went beyond hockey to a clash of civilizations, a battle between isms, capitalism and communism. It was tribal, it was anthropological, “it was war,” said Henderson.

The Americans handled most of the political and military end of the west’s standoff with the Soviets during the Cold War; Canada, thanks to the mutual obsession with hockey, took care of the cultural domination.   

That single moment represented the string of lights hanging over a backyard rink in Moose Jaw and Harbour Grace or coaches drinking coffee and pacing nervously in the hallway before the final of the annual pee wee tournament in Trois Rivières, or moms and dads tying up the laces of their kids’ skates before taking them for the first time onto the world’s longest ice rink, the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.

Author Hugh MacLennan wrote that Canada’s psyche was forged on the smithy of the Plains of Abraham, the battlefield at Vimy Ridge, or every small-town hockey rink. “To spectator and player alike, hockey gives the release that strong liquor gives to a repressed man. It is the counterpoint to the Canadian self-restraint.”

Canada slayed the despised Soviet bear – thanks to one man’s epic feat, Paul Garnet Henderson.

In another odd historical turn, he was literally born to become the all-Canadian hero. On January 28, 1943, he was delivered in a snowstorm while his mother was in a sleigh pulled by a horse across the ice of Lake Huron heading to a hospital in Kincardine. The maple syrupy sentimentality of his snowy birth seemed to suggest he had been ordained to do something great in his life, something that would scream, O Canada.

Because of Henderson’s Game 8 heroics, this country retained its number one power ranking in the hockey world – even if its grip was tenuous and temporary.

Hockey reporters, fans and historians had never seen the likes. Henderson not only scored the Game-8 winner but set up his own dramatic denouement by scoring the winners in Games 6 and 7, too. This Holy Trinity is unmatched in the history of team sports – as a Google search confirms. Immortals like Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, or Wayne Gretzky never scored back-to-back-to-back game winners in a crucial series. Henderson was Atlas holding up the hockey world.

The Mississauga street named in Henderson's honour

 

The three goals seemed to justify those who wanted to rename the Luzhniki Palace of Sports in Moscow, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The last goal wasn’t as artistic as the other six he scored in the series – and Henderson calls it “my only garbage goal.”

It pales with his Game 7 masterpiece, a whirling, off-balance, one-against-three piece of balletic perfection. But in the end, the series winner will be our lasting take-away, an ethereal moment-in-time. It was as if a galaxy had passed overhead, and a host of angels were singing in perfect harmony. The Tragically Hip’s song Fireworks, describes the national eruption after his immortal act: “If there's a goal that everyone remembers it was back in old seventy two… Isn't it amazing what you can accomplish when you don't let the nation get in your way.”

Henderson was plucked from a list a semi-successful role players, sprinkled with gold dust, and emerged as our country’s star of stars. What’s eerie about his exploits is that when he was invited to try out for Team Canada he wasn’t expected to make the team, let alone history.

His Game 8 goal saved Canada.

But it couldn’t save him.

After returning home as the garlanded hero, he felt empty and taciturn. His mood: black. His outlook: blacker. His temperament: surly, hardened. His future: unknown.

It got worse when he re-joined his Leaf teammates for the upcoming NHL season. He took on all the burdens of the game but enjoyed none of its perks.

The Leafs were awful, and Henderson hated their bigoted, bloviating, Falstaffian owner, Harold Ballard. They clashed over money, the treatment of players, the club’s mismanagement of talent – almost everything.

But his hate-on was symptomatic of a bigger problem. He was filled with anger. He wasn’t a fighter on the ice, but he was constantly beating himself up off it. His mind wouldn’t settle. He couldn’t seem to derive pleasure from anything, even though he seemingly had everything: a loving and supportive wife (Eleanor), a growing family (eventually three daughters) fame, fortune, and the enduring love of a nation hooked on hockey.

Fast forward 48 years. It’s late July, and the Hero of ’72 is 77 years old. His hair is still curly, but snow white. He’s trim and athletic and Hollywood handsome, and the famous Henderson drivetrain continues to operate non-stop. He keeps fit by biking, lifting weights or playing a little golf. But the lymphocytic lymphoma chronic leukemia first diagnosed in 2009 and sent into remission by a series of dramatic treatments at a famed U.S. healthcare centre, is back, weakening his already fragile immune system. He is especially vulnerable during this coronavirus pandemic.

At home with a signed copy of one of his books

 

But this isn’t the same Henderson who was left lost and searching after his star turn in Moscow. The anger is gone. So is his troubled mind. He’s calm, terminally upbeat and calls himself “the luckiest man in the world” – despite his grim medical prospects. When interviewed by The Pointer this past week, he quickly ticked off the reasons why he is the eternal optimist:

• “I’m married to my childhood sweetheart who has been the best partner in the world.”

• “I have three fabulous daughters, and seven loving grandchildren.”

• “I live on a great street in Mississauga that has been my home and oasis for the past 38 years.”

• “I have been given the Order of Canada (2012) and Ontario (2014).”

• “God has a plan for me.”

• “I now get to impact people’s lives.”

That last point referenced his LeaderImpact Ministry, founded in 1985. It has lasted much longer than his 18-year hockey career.

Henderson calls his role these days, the chief “exhorter and encourager.” His ministry is non-denominational and operates around the world. Henderson brings businesspeople together and equips them to train in discipleship and evangelism. He has helped create an extensive network reaching out to find other seekers – those struggling to find meaning in their lives.

The ex-left winger turned ordained minister, promotes these principles through discovery groups.

Paul and Eleanor also spoke at numerous marriage conferences or one-on-ones with husbands and wives for over 20 years, helping them stickhandle through a marital minefield.

Henderson has separated out his ministry to help men cope in an ever-changing world. In a time of “toxic masculinity,” incel movements, an uptick in domestic violence and heightened tensions on the home front because of a pandemic that forces many to stay isolated, Henderson’s interventions, his talks and his one-on-ones with men, are geared to help them become better husbands, fathers and civic or business leaders.

He urges men to forgive themselves and others in their orbit. It’s about creating a good value system to direct our lives. It’s about conducting ourselves with dignity in business, raising our kids, interacting with our partner. It’s about redefining success, and redirecting assets.

Some of this can be plucked from our early struggles – in Henderson’s case the tiny hamlet of Lucknow, Ontario, a vacation spot on the shores of Lake Huron. It’s where he emerged as a brilliant athlete (all sports) and his hockey ability drew the attention of pro scouts. His skating was magisterial; he could eat up larger portions of the ice faster than anyone else on his team or the opposition. He had heaven-shaking speed, as if uncluttered by gravity. He would go on to be a junior star with the Hamilton Red Wings, which won the 1960 Memorial Cup, symbolic of junior hockey supremacy in Canada. His talent transferred easily into the red and white colours of the fabled Detroit Red Wings, where he played alongside Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe. A trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs changed his life and set him on course to clash with its bombastic owner. But there was also a battle raging inside himself. Even those hallowed moments in Moscow couldn’t salve a bruised soul.

Let’s focus on a gifted student/athlete who was always filled with a ton of self-regard. “I liked the way I looked,” he tells The Pointer, in a long interview this past week. The dauphin prince was a romantic, and said he’d had a girlfriend from Grade 6. By the time he reached Grade 10, however, he was done with romance – sick of a cycle of infatuation/going steady/breaking up. Two weeks into his restored bachelorhood, while working his part-time job at the local grocery store, “she” arrived and changed his best laid plans.

She was Eleanor, a farmer’s daughter, living on a rural route just outside of town. Henderson knew the moment he asked for her phone number, his fate was sealed. It was Eleanor and Paul, Paul and Eleanor, ever since. If two can equal one, it’s the Hendersons, who haven’t been apart in over 60 years. Their journey went through Kincardine, Hamilton, Detroit, Toronto, and then in late September of ’72, Moscow. Both saw firsthand the raw and real Soviet system, and were appalled. The rifle-toting soldiers. The poor souls in the streets. The lack of provisions in the stores. Henderson remembers a Team Canada outing to one of Moscow’s most famous museums. He was sickened when the soldiers moved in, pushed their rifle butts in the faces of the regular visitors waiting in line, and let the Canadians through. He didn’t want to go in, but when he came out, he emptied his pockets of all the sticks of gum he had collected for them. He scattered the sugary treats across the ground. He laughed with joy when the children flocked like birds to pick them up. Then the soldiers intervened, even stepping on the kids’ hands to stop them.

It’s hard to draw inferences that “the gum moment” impacted Henderson’s play in the final games, but he never skated faster, or was more determined to score. He said he was “never nervous” during those crucial final games, but also recognizes he was in the thrall of something otherworldly. He can’t explain his historic run of superlative play – a level he would never reach again in his long hockey life.

The anger he felt for the Soviet system was like a child finally confronting a bully only after others were tormented, and was matched by his feelings toward Ballard when he returned to the NHL. “He was a buffoon,” he says. “I was full of anger. I just didn’t enjoy my life playing hockey for the Leafs. That sucker Ballard didn’t understand forgiveness. I had a lot of bitterness.”

He read the actions of others as personal slights, and that led to his flight from the Leafs for the newly formed World Hockey Association. He eventually settled with the fledgling Birmingham Bulls in far-off Alabama, hardly a hotbed for hockey.

He wanted to know why his hatred for a political ideology (communism), or an NHL owner could consume him, and fill him with dread. It turned him into something he never was: a complainer. “I regretted some of the things I said, and how I acted with people.”

His self-regard bordered on arrogance.

In all the downside with the Leafs, there was an upside. During a practice at Maple Leaf Gardens, a man visited the players and left them personalized bibles. Ballard tossed the man out, but Henderson got his card, and took his bible home, placed it on a bookshelf, then ignored it. But he remembered the man’s blissfulness and called to discuss the bible. He started scanning through passages and liked certain snippets of scripture. He read more, dug deeper. It seemed to offer something he had never experienced before: peace of mind.

In the macho, malevolent, and oft times cutthroat world of pro hockey, he kept his inner struggles to himself – sure it would be recognized as a sign of weakness. On March 12, 1975, he gave himself over to the Christian God. It allowed him to minister to himself, and help others. It was his coming-to-his-senses moment – like Scrooge, or George Bailey.

He bristled when a friend urged him to write Ballard a letter, to apologize and ask forgiveness. Then he pulled out a pen and paper. “I was a prisoner of my own bitterness,” he explains. “You have to purge anger or it will destroy you.”

He felt such relief writing the letter, and it doubled when he put it in the mail. A few years later, he ran into Ballard and Henderson asked him if he got the letter. “Yes,” said Ballard, “and I’m very appreciative.”

It took years before Henderson came to realize that when Ballard lost his beloved wife to cancer in 1969, and “became unmoored, lost his keel. I couldn’t imagine losing my wife and what that might do to you. I came to realize what had happened to him.”

The Pointer reached out to Henderson because a group of former players and hockey people were lobbying hard for his induction into this year’s Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF). The vote was taken in late June, and he was ignored again – maybe his last chance for induction. The list of players that were pro-Henderson was long, including luminaries like Adam Graves, Mike Gartner, even the star of stars, Wayne Gretzky. Others like Don Cherry, and Ron MacLean, the Hockey Night in Canada host and star of Coach’s Corner, were adamant that Henderson’s exploits in ’72, plus his career stats, more than qualified him for the hall.

One hockey blogger called his expulsion “one of hockey’s abiding mysteries” and a fellow Mississauga Hall of Fame member, Pat Differ, said an old boy’s club exists in hockey, and the selection committee is too often driven by personality or politics – not rightness, or history.

Some say Henderson simply doesn’t have the career numbers to qualify: a Memorial Cup win, 13 seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) with the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Flames, two all-star game appearances, and five other seasons in the World Hockey Association with the Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls. Henderson logged more than 1,000 professional games, including 785 points and 388 goals.

There has been plenty of push back. In late January of last year, members from all three parties in Parliament rose in the Commons to praise Henderson, who was sitting in the visitor’s gallery. They passed a motion that read: “Given the enormous cultural significance of hockey in Canada, the House encourages the Hockey Hall of Fame to induct Paul Henderson in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canadian hockey and its history.”

“The 72 Summit Series changed the hockey landscape forever, opening up the world game for hockey fans everywhere to enjoy for decades to follow,” said Graves, the ex-New York Ranger and former two-time Stanley Cup winner. The Henderson goal is fixed in his mind because the Tecumseh, Ontario native was four years old in ’72 and just starting out in organized hockey. “In the following years, growing up in Canada, the legendary call of ‘Henderson has scored for Canada’ is a moment I have proudly watched with my family and friends, understanding the historical significance of that incredible series.”

Graves is a Henderson kind of man. He received the Steven McDonald Award five times, given to the Ranger’s player who goes "above and beyond the call of duty", named after a paralyzed New York Police officer.

Even though Henderson was rejected this year, Graves thinks he is a hall of famer in every way – especially when it comes to giving back. He helped Graves’ Smilezone Foundation (transforming existing waiting rooms, treatment rooms or patient care rooms into Smilezones).

Henderson opened the Goderich facility last year and lives close to the Erinoakskids Centre for Treatment and Development in Mississauga. “Paul has played a similar leadership role in numerous other charities throughout his life, using the historical platform of his 72 Summit Series to help thousands of people and important causes across Canada,” said Graves, now 52, long retired from the game, and living with his family in Oakville.

One person who shrugged when he heard of the hall’s decision in June, is Henderson himself. He is unfailingly polite and very touched by the efforts of others to get him in, but he invariably deflects. “I don’t care one iota whether I get into the hall or not,” he says. He thinks it would be unseemly to tout his own accomplishments.

He doesn’t begrudge the fact Tretiak, the man he scored on seven times in the 8-game series, was inducted in 1989. Or that the bully-boy misogynist Ballard won entry in 1977.

Henderson has a large basket of honours, including a place on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and a place in our Sports Hall of Fame. He is co-author of The Goal of My Life: A Memoir (2012), and How Hockey Explains Canada (2011). How impactful is Henderson’s goal? The sweater he wore in Moscow was auctioned off for $1,067,538 (US) in 2012, the world record for hockey memorabilia according to Guinness World Records. The winning bidder was Mitchell Goldbar, a Canadian shopping mall mogul. None of the money went to Henderson.

The Team Canada star is eager to talk about high-order stuff, like living better, especially in today’s world now in flux, the future looking bleak and disorderly. Henderson knows his goal is a cultural touchstone. The iconography of the ’72 Series conflates with religion, and gives him great currency when he speaks in front of men.

He knows many are drawn to his talks because his life story is compelling. Scoring the goal in the game that won the series also continues to bewitch. But so many are there because their lives are empty, and their mood dark. “A lot of people are fearful,” Henderson told The Pointer. “But people are also reflective. They see family as very important. I always ask these men, ‘what’s going on in your life? How are you doing?’”

Henderson with close friend Doug Ball

 

The answer for too many is “not so well.” He remembers a man who joined one of his golfing foursomes. Henderson suspected he was struggling and made plans to meet him later for lunch and a talk. His instincts were right. He’d just asked his wife for a divorce and was about to purchase a condo and move out. He told him if he left his family, his two sons, 10 and 12, might never respect him again for running out of their mother. The man started to cry. He joined his men’s group, and eventually became a group leader. He apologized to his wife, and the family reconciled.

Many of the men Henderson helps are hockey players, also drawn to his ministry because of his heroic efforts in ’72. Last week he did a Zoom call with over 50 ex-players through Hockey Ministries International.

One of the poignant moments of his career at LeaderImpact was the day he invited Mississauga’s Don Cherry to speak to a group of 600 men at Lionhead Golf Club in Brampton. Henderson first met Cherry at Maple Leaf Gardens, and they talked about faith. Cherry said he went to church every Sunday.

Their conversation led Henderson to invite Cherry to the outreach at Lionhead. His speech was pure Grapes: funny, boisterous, filled with ribald hockey tales. “The men loved it,” says Henderson. “Then he talked about his faith, and started to cry – and he didn’t like it. I remember Don saying to me, ‘Henny, you didn’t tell me this was going to happen.’ He was embarrassed. He let down the mask we all wear. We got to see the real him.”

The real Henderson is Bruce Bowser’s best friend. The 61-year-old former president of Mississauga’s AMJ Campbell, is now chairman of the board. He called Henderson “the most disciplined person I have ever met in my life.” Bowser is a former theology student who believes his friend is most comfortable in his role as a facilitator – helping people find answers. Business leaders are often charged with weaving their way through the ambiguities of the workplace – either inspiring workers, or trimming payrolls, and having to close down plants. Many operate alone, without input, or guidance. Having the final say creates anxiety, and many openly question themselves. Bowser and Henderson said leaders should live by the motto: “If it’s not right, don’t do it.”

Critics might argue that Henderson’s non-denominational Leadership Ministries are directed at the very people who seem to need it the least: the white-collar executives sporting large stock options, and big stipends. But inner peace doesn’t come from a high six-figure salary. Henderson said taking care of inner needs is fundamental to our existence, and happiness. He called it living “light and freely.”

Before Henderson’s interview with The Pointer, he spent two straight days over Zoom, holding conferences with leaders and members of his men’s group. The pandemic has upped the ante and increased the need for engagement. Henderson is still mystified by the technology but loves the results.

Henderson bolted the Leafs and eventually landed with the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls in 1975. His lucky streak continued. He met John Bradford, a successful American businessman who had a ministry. As a new Christian “still searching for answers” Bradford became his guide. He challenged him to look at the spiritual dimensions of his life. Henderson continued his journey after he couldn’t get his American green card and returned to Canada in 1984. One career over, another begins.

Bradford seeded in Henderson the idea of a men’s group, and like hockey, it quickly became the ruling passion of his soul. Bradford’s friendship remained strong, but in 2009 a cruel coincident changed both their lives. Bradford called to say he had cancer. A month later, Henderson got the same diagnosis. Before Bradford passed, he urged his friend to go to the famous National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the primary agency of the United States government that was responsible for biomedical and public health research. In 2012, Henderson became part of a clinical trial, and this, he believes, saved his life. Last spring, the cancer returned, and the pandemic blocked any chance he had to fly to Maryland for more treatments. Instead, he’s a patient at the Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, also connected to Bethesda.

In Birmingham, Henderson started a bible study group with 10 people. Just last week, he Zoomed the original group of men, some he hasn’t seen in over 30 years. Last November, a handful of these same men came up to visit him in Mississauga. One was Johnny Musso, the Birmingham native and former all-American running back at the University of Alabama. He told Henderson the reason for the visit was because “we need the Henny touch.”

Henderson said for much of his life, including the glorious September of ’72, his inner self was a house divided against itself. His great success only exposed him for what he was, a solipsistic delusionist with no guiding principles to make sense of his life. A crisis of faith opened him to the possibilities of wholesomeness, and in the end, he asked himself: “Why not God? Why not the scriptures? Why not me?”

Henderson gives thanks every day, prays in the morning, works the phones in the afternoon. He worries about a society in flux, with a raging pandemic challenging all of us, and forcing everyone to re-examine their lives. Some are looking for an outlet to practice their faith.

A Hockey Hall Of Fame induction isn’t something Henderson dwells on. Besides, he’s already in the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, and Team Canada ‘72 went into the HHOF as an entry. The team honour suits Henderson better because hockey, marriages, even faith, work better if you’re part of a group, he says.

Are we channelers of our own fate, or victims of it? Jung said we ‘arrive at’ rather than ‘create’ our fate. If that’s true (and many think it is) then Henderson arrived at the Team Canada training camp with a special light in his eyes. He then created something unforgettable during the 8-game series. He found that “inner power” which is secretly hidden in the vanity of all great men and women.

The truth is, the greatest moment in his athletic career still gives him pause. He admits that the Game 8 winner stands out as the ultimate example of selfishness.

With just a few seconds left on the clock, Henderson was anchored to the bench, then stood up and began yelling at Peter Mahovlich to get off the ice. He was the winger on the Esposito-Cournoyer line. In hockey, especially at the top rung, this is a no-no. The left-winger thinking it was a coach, raced to the bench and Henderson hopped onto the ice. He headed for the Soviet goal, and his date with destiny. “The Henny Touch” made connection with the loose puck – and his life, and the history of hockey in Canada changed forever.

Henderson admits he has never called a player off the ice before or since. But he was in the grip of something bigger than himself – the man born for such a moment.

Was the boy born in the sleigh destiny’s child?

Societies are elevated and rewarded by those "who are inspired" wrote James Hillman in his seminal tome, The Soul’s Code. The hero, he added, is the one who performs deeds for the glory of the whole – in Henderson’s case, the entire country.

Life is often a fractured tale that spools out in unnatural order. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the tumblers fall into place and the lock springs open.

In two years, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Team Canada’s win, and Henderson’s heroism. Some members of that team have already passed, but Henderson hopes to stickhandle past his current medical challenges and be there.

The clock is ticking down on his life, and he told The Pointer, “I have no fear of dying. I’ve been blessed all my life. I put all my faith and trust in God. He will tell me when it’s time.”

History is the great arbiter. It leaves out the moments we would skip anyway.

Henderson’s goal has taken on religious connotations, as have other amazing sports moments –  like Franco Harris’s “immaculate reception” in the ‘72 NFL playoffs, or Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.

In Henderson’s memoir, he said, “God had his hands on me.”

Yes, the man some call St. Paul still basks in a halo’s glow – his accomplishment simply too enormous for historians to erase.

 


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