Ellis, Henderson United in Prayer

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Aug. 28) – Having encountered the euphoria of winning a Stanley Cup and the misery of severe depression, Ron Ellis has long been pragmatic. In that vain, the former Maple Leafs right-winger is acutely aware of a singular moment.

“This could very well be the last time most of us get together,” Ellis said over the phone today when discussing the 40th anniversary reunion of Team Canada 1972. “Ten years from now, those of us still around will be in our late-70s or 80s. So, I’m thinking this is probably the final opportunity we’ll have for a significant gathering.”

Ellis, now 67, was a member of the Canadian-born NHLers that clashed with the Soviet Union during an iconic, eight-game showdown in September 1972. His best friend in hockey – Paul Henderson – famously scored the decisive goal with 34 seconds left in the series finale at Moscow. Now, as the most acclaimed, illustrious team in the history of Canadian sport assembles for one last hurrah, Ellis is largely preoccupied with Henderson’s plight – a courageous, yet irrevocable battle with cancer.

“Given all that he’s been through in the past couple of years, Paul is doing exceptionally well,” said Ellis, who is confident his hockey soul-mate will live to enjoy the 40th anniversary of the goal he scored on Vladislav Tretiak. That moment will occur in mid-afternoon, Eastern time, one month from today – Sep. 28.

PAUL HENDERSON LEAPS INTO THE ARMS OF CANADIAN TEAMMATE YVAN COURNOYER AFTER SCORING DECISIVE GOAL OF THE LEGENDARY CANADA-RUSSIA HOCKEY SUMMIT WITH 34 SECONDS REMAINING IN GAME 8 AT MOSCOW – SEP. 28, 1972.

“Late in the spring, Paul was accepted into a drug-trial program for cancer patients in Bethesda, Maryland,” Ellis explained. “He did not undergo traditional chemotherapy after his diagnosis – preferring to fight the disease through natural means. That worked for a long while until his blood-tests began to go awry. Now, he’s into his third month of treatment in the experimental program and the results have been encouraging. He went down initially to be assessed and was put on medication [in pill form]. He returns to Bethesda once a month to be monitored.”

A media gathering, on Wednesday, at the new Mattamy Athletic Centre in Maple Leaf Gardens will outline details of the month-long Team Canada celebration. Game 2 of the ’72 series was played at the Gardens, long-time home of the Leafs, which was co-purchased several years ago by The Loblaw Company and Ryerson University (Leafs moved to the Air Canada Centre in February 1999). A downsized hockey rink has been constructed in the upper-reaches of the historic building – roughly at the level of the former green-colored seats – and will serve as home to the Ryerson Rams.

Ellis will be at the media reception along with 1972 teammates Marcel Dionne, Vic Hadfield, Bill White, Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert. Everyone is hoping that Henderson will attend, but his activities are duly governed by how he feels on a day-to-day basis. The Canadian sports hero has co-authored an autobiography – The Goal of My Life – with Roger Lajoie, my former colleague at Sportsnet-590, who will emcee Wednesday’s event. The book is slated for release on Sep. 11 and Ellis has appropriately written the Forword. As part of the Team Canada commemoration, more than 15 players from the ’72 squad will travel to Russia on Sunday for a week-long engagement.

“Obviously, that’s too big a trip for Paul to make so I’ll be there with a bit of a heavy heart,” Ellis said. “We’ve been close pals from the moment Paul came to Toronto (with Norm Ullman and Floyd Smith in the March 1968 trade that sent Leafs icon Frank Mahovlich to Detroit). Almost immediately, [coach] Punch Imlach placed me on a forward line with Paul and Normy and we played together quite successfully for a number of years. Paul and I have been extremely close ever since.”

RON ELLIS AS A YOUNG MAPLE LEAF IN 1967-68.

The 1972 Summit marked the first-such engagement between the best NHL players from Canada and the top skaters from the former Soviet Union. Originally thought to be a formality in Canada’s favor, the month-long event turned into a monumental struggle after the Soviets romped, 7-3, in the opener at the Montreal Forum.

Subsequent games were played in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver before a two-week hiatus. The series then resumed with four matches at the Luzhiniki Palace of Sports in Moscow. Energized by a raucous contingent of more than 2,500 fans from Canada – and countless telegrams of support – the visitors rebounded from a 1-3-1 series deficit to improbably win the final three games: Henderson scoring the decisive goal in each encounter. His tally with 34 seconds remaining in Game 8 – re-lived through the years with Foster Hewitt’s legendary cry of “Henderson scores for Canada!!” – provided our country a 4-3-1 edge in the series.

It touched off a tumultuous, coast-to-coast celebration that has continued – in one form or another – to this day.   

Ellis initially encountered Henderson as an opponent during his rookie season with the Leafs in 1964-65. The native of Lindsay, Ont. was a member of the 1967 Stanley Cup team – reliably patrolling right-wing for the Blue and White over 15 seasons (except for a two-year sabbatical after the 1974-75 campaign). In 1,034 regular-season games, Ellis registered 332 goals and 308 assists for 640 points. More than 30 years after his retirement, he still ranks sixth among Leafs’ all-time scoring leaders, behind only Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler, Dave Keon, Borje Salming and George Armstrong – all of whom have been feted by the club with a banner-raising ceremony.

Presumably, the new Leafs’ ownership will seek to amend the oversight of its predecessor and similarly honor Ellis. In the meantime, the classy and popular ex-Leaf will forge ahead with Team Canada’s 1972 reunion and continue to feel blessed for each and every day spent with his long-time hockey soul-mate.

“We both have a strong faith and that has carried us through Paul’s cancer struggle,” Ellis said. “We long ago gave everything to the good Lord and I’m confident He has been walking with Paul through this difficult process. I get through it with a lot of prayer, which is a great comfort – for both of us.”

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