Canada’s Hockey Hero is 74

TORONTO (Jan. 28) — Paul Henderson may present himself as a medical time–bomb ticking toward an apocalyptic end, but you’d never know it by spending 90 minutes in his company. The man that authored, to this day, the most important moment in Canadian hockey history is battling heart–disease and cancer on this, his 74th birthday. Not exactly a riveting health combination. Yet, a deep–rooted faith in Christianity allows Henderson to embrace every waking hour in a manner that would shame virtually any one of us.

First, and for those unaware, a quick bio: Paul Henderson played left–wing in the National Hockey League with Detroit and Toronto from 1962–63 to 1973–74; then with the Atlanta Flames in 1979–80. In between — from 1974–75 to 1978–79 — he skated with the Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls of the old World Hockey Association. On Mar. 3, 1968, he was part of the most shocking trade in the 100–year history of the Maple Leafs — coming over from the Red Wings with Norm Ullman and Floyd Smith for local icon Frank Mahovlich, Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the playing rights to retired defenseman Carl Brewer. The deal sent tremors through the NHL at a time long before cell–phones, the Internet and social media.

And though Henderson scored a respectable 236 goals in the NHL, he will be immortalized for his exploits with a team of Canadian–born NHL players during a now–legendary, eight–game exhibition series in September 1972 against the best hockey rivals from the old Soviet Union. It was the first–ever match–up between Canada’s “professionals” and the so–called “amateurs” in Russia. Four games were played here in Canada — at Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. After a two–week break, four more were held in Moscow. Trailing the series 3–1 with one game tied, Canada needed to win outright in the final three road matches to emerge victorious. Henderson scored the decisive, third–period goals for Canada in Games 6 and 7. He then earmarked himself for eternity by sliding his own rebound past goalie Vladislav Tretiak with 34 seconds remaining in the final encounter on Sep. 28, 1972. Canada rebounded from a 5–3 deficit after 40 minutes to edge the Soviets, 6–5, and capture the series, 4–3 (with the tie in Winnipeg). His winning tally set off an eruption of nationwide joy in Canada not witnessed since the end of World War II, 27 years earlier.

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PAUL HENDERSON AT HIS MISSISSAUGA, ONT. HOME ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON STANDING NEXT TO A FRAMED SET OF TEAM CANADA HOCKEY CARDS FROM THE 1972 SERIES AGAINST THE SOVIET UNION.

Life as a senior citizen has been less kind to Henderson.

Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in November 2009, his time on Earth was slipping away until he ventured to Bethesda, Maryland (outside Washington, D.C.) in late–2012 to enter a clinical drug trial. Henderson had a growth the size of a grapefruit in his stomach and 83 percent of his bone marrow was malignant. Though difficult, the drug–infusion saved his life and allowed him to regain the 25 pounds that had fallen off. He continues to take Ibrutinib (“two little pills”) each morning, which gets him through the day, but tuckers him out by early evening. Then last year, after he turned 73, doctors found a blockage in an artery leading from the heart to the brain. A neurosurgeon refused to operate, citing the near–certainty of a stroke. Otherwise asymptomatic, Paul controls the issue with diet, exercise and blood–thinners.

“I have cancer and I’m at fairly high–risk for a stroke, but everything else is fine,” Henderson laughed over the phone on Wednesday. “If someone had told me just more than four years ago that I’d see my 74th birthday, I would have said they were dreaming. And, yet, here I am. And, happy as ever.”

We arranged to meet at his house in Mississauga, west of Toronto, on Friday afternoon.

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PAUL HENDERSON RELAXES IN THE HOME IN WHICH HE AND WIFE, ELEANOR, HAVE LIVED SINCE 1990.

In a wide–ranging interview, I discussed with Paul the issues that currently impact his life, and those that most intrigue hockey fans of the past two generations. As always, he was candid and sincere.

HOW DOES HE AVOID CONTINUAL WORRY ABOUT HIS PRECARIOUS HEALTH?

“When I played for [the late Leafs owner] Harold Ballard, I used to worry constantly (he laughs uproariously). Thank goodness I got away from him. But, really, there’s no sense worrying about anything, which I didn’t understand for a lot of years. We only have today — me, you and everyone else. As you look around the world now, you never know what’s going to happen. So, when I wake up in the morning, it’s going to be a good day. Simple as that. I don’t care about the weather; I don’t care about traffic, or any of the things that bother most people. As for my health… well, I don’t enjoy having cancer. But, I’ve been married to the greatest woman in the world for over 50 years. I’ve got three great kids with good marriages; seven grandchildren and two great–grandchildren. So, to be honest, I can’t think of anyone in the world more blessed than I am. Even with cancer. I’m going to be 74 tomorrow. When I was diagnosed in ’09, I was hoping I’d see 70. Now, don’t get me wrong, the cancer diagnosis was like a kick in the stomach. But I told my wife ‘this is not going to define me; we’re gonna go on living.’ And, we have.”

ON THE CONCEPT OF TRULY TAKING LIFE ONE DAY AT A TIME:

“To be honest, I never thought about that until I developed a spiritual side. For the first 30 years, I looked at spiritual people as being weak. They couldn’t make it in their life so they had to get God on their side. I would go to church on occasion, but I was bored out of my tree. Christianity looked, to me, like a whole bunch of do’s and don’t’s. And, the don’t’s were the things that I liked to do. I always had an edge, because I thought [life] was about me. I was a pretty good husband and father. And, if I did something wrong, Eleanor would slap me upside the head and say ‘stop acting up, big boy.’ But, my circumstances dictated everything. Fortunately, I was a pretty good hockey player. So, if we won — and I scored — life was great. But, if we lost and I didn’t score, I’d beat myself up like crazy. Like I told you, I hated Harold Ballard with a passion. And, he couldn’t care less about me. I finally woke up one day and said ‘so he’s an idiot. Big deal. Try and accept him for who he is.’ And, I began to forgive people. Including myself. I’m not off–side with anybody in the world today. And, of course, a cancer diagnosis implores you to take life one day at a time. The other important thing is being able to laugh at yourself. It’s the best medicine in the world.”

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PAUL, IN HIS BASEMENT, HOLDING A 15–YEAR–OLD PHOTO OF HIS GRANDSONS. ALTON IS WEARING 19; LOGAN 72 — HONORING, OF COURSE, THE YEAR OF THEIR GRAND–DAD’S BIGGEST GOAL.

SPEAKING OF SELF–DEPRECATION, PAUL LOVES TELLING A STORY THAT INVOLVES EX–TEAMMATE JIM McKENNY. THE LEAFS WERE IN PHILADELPHIA (DEC. 19, 1971) TO PLAY THE SOON–TO–BE–“BROAD STREET BULLIES” — ALREADY, A TOUGH, RUGGED BUNCH. WHICH THE ’71–72 LEAFS WERE NOT.

“We’re in the dressing room after the warm–up and it is dead–quiet. I mean, you could hear a feather hit the ground. All we’re thinking about is that intimidating club on the other side. Our trainer, Guy Kinnear, walks in and says ‘what’s wrong with you guys; it’s like a morgue in here?’ And, within one second, McKenny says to him, ‘Hell, if you knew you were gonna die in an hour, you’d be quiet, too.’ Well, it absolutely broke up the room. We started laughing like crazy then went out and beat them [4–0]. I think it’s the only time the Leafs won in there for a long time afterward. And, it was all because of McKenny. He had the quickest one–liners of anyone I played with. To this day, he can crack me up. Instantly.” (Note: Indeed, the Leafs did not prevail again at the Spectrum until Game 1 of a quarterfinal playoff nearly 5½ years later — on Apr. 11, 1977).

ON SURELY BEING THE ONLY PLAYER EVER TO TELL HAROLD BALLARD TO “SHOVE IT”. HENDERSON DID SO IN THE SUMMER OF 1974, AFTER BEING OFFERED A FIVE–YEAR CONTRACT BY THE WHA TORONTO TOROS. GIVEN THEIR OWNER’S FRUGALITY, AND MISJUDGMENT OF THE RIVAL LEAGUE, THE LEAFS HAD BEEN DECIMATED — LOSING KEY PLAYERS BERNIE PARENT, JIM DOREY, RICK LEY, BRAD SELWOOD, JIM HARRISON AND GUY TROTTIER. IT RUINED A GOOD, YOUNG TEAM AND BALLARD WAS FED UP.

“To be honest, I’m not proud of what I did back then, but neither was I a Christian yet. I had agreed verbally to a contract with the Leafs, but [Toros owner] Johnny Bassett came along and offered to double my salary. Harold heard about that and wanted to meet with me and (Henderson’s agent) Alan Eagleson. So, we got together in the old Hot Stove Lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens. Ballard came in and said ‘Aw, that damned WHA, they’re driving me crazy. You sure as hell don’t deserve it, but I’m sick and tired of losing players. I’ll match [Bassett’s] salary, but I’m not giving you a signing bonus because you’re already here. You’ve got a five–year, no–trade [offer from the Toros]; I’ll give you a two–year, no–trade.’ He put the paper down and said ‘sign it.’ As if he was doing me a favor. I looked him straight in the eye and said ‘Harold, take this contract and shove it up your…’ He was so mad, he picked up the table and threw it across the room, then marched out. I’d had more than enough of Ballard; I just despised him. But, a large part of me wanted to stay in the NHL, just in case the Leafs became a contender. Bassett had also signed Frank Mahovlich (away from the Montreal Canadiens). So, I phoned Frank one day said ‘Jeez, Bassett has offered me a great deal, but I’ve never won the Stanley Cup and I’d hate to miss a chance.’ And, Frank said ‘Paul, if that’s the case, you’d better sign with us (the Toros) because the Leafs will never win a thing with Ballard running the show.’ So, that was the deciding factor. And, it turned out to be the best thing I ever did for myself in hockey.”

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HENDERSON (19) AND TEAM CANADA ’72 LINEMATE BOBBY CLARKE DURING A GAME IN RUSSIA.

ON RE–LIVING “THE GOAL” NEARLY 45 YEARS AFTER HIS BIG MOMENT IN MOSCOW:

“I hear about it from someone virtually every day, and that’s just fine. I kid you not — twice in the past ten days, people have bought dinner. Me and Eleanor were out with another couple and I said to the waiter ‘please bring me the bad news (the check).’ And, he said ‘no bad news tonight, Paul, I have good news. See that guy in the white shirt four tables down? He just picked up the tab.’ I said ‘are you kidding me?’ So, I went down and thanked him and the man said ‘Paul, all these years I’ve wanted to do something for you after scoring that goal.’ It was so kind. Then [on Thursday], I was having lunch with three of my very good buddies. The [restaurant] manager came over and said ‘Paul, this one’s on me.’ He knew it was my birthday and he looked after the bill. But, Howard, the thing I really enjoy [about the aftermath of the goal] is that there’s no downside to it. People come up all the time and say ‘oh man, I was in school that afternoon’ or ‘I was at work’ or ‘I was watching on TV at home’. It’s always such a pleasant memory for them. I was in St. Catharines the other night to see my grandson play hockey. Afterward, a young boy, no more than 15, came up to me and said ‘I read about you in my history book the other day. We’re just doing a project [on the ’72 series]. Can I get a picture with you?’ My grandson later informed me that I’m in his Grade 10 history book. He had a test or exam and one of the questions was ‘who, in 1972, scored the biggest goal in Canadian hockey history?’ And, the other kids said to him ‘thanks for being in our class.’ Everybody got the answer right.”

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WATERCOLOR PORTRAITS OF “THE GOAL” HANGING IN PAUL HENDERSON’S BASEMENT.

REMEMBERING WHERE HE WAS FOR THE “PAUL HENDERSON MOMENT” OF THE CURRENT GENERATION — SIDNEY CROSBY’S “GOLDEN GOAL” IN OVERTIME AGAINST THE UNITED STATES THAT WON THE MEN’S HOCKEY TOURNAMENT FOR CANADA AT THE 2010 WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES IN VANCOUVER:

“Man, did I go crazy that day. Eleanor and I were out in Victoria, B.C. — at The Empress Hotel — speaking at a marriage conference. After a couple of sessions, we took a break to have something to eat. I got to see half the second period and the entire third period of the gold medal game. It looked like we were going to win and then that bloody [Zach] Parise scored right at the end [of regulation] to tie it up. And, I said, ‘oh crrrraap!’ We had 300 couples there and it was time to start another session. So, I went to the microphone and said ‘listen, if anyone has a radio on and if Canada scores, just yell it out. But, if the U.S. scores, don’t say a word.’ We’re about 10 or 15 minutes into [the session] and a lady screams out ‘Crosby has just scored! Canada wins!’ Well, I went bonkers. Everyone was cheering and I actually started to sing O Canada. And, my wife said to me ‘don’t do that.’ I’m the worst singer on Earth. I like to sing, but I couldn’t carry a tune across the street. And, I actually sang O Canada over the microphone in that room. Dogs were probably howling in agony outside. Then, someone told me there were a bunch of American couples in that session as well. So, I had to apologize. But, they were really good about it. And, you know, Sidney Crosby is one guy I have never met. I haven’t crossed paths with him anywhere. I don’t have many things left on my bucket–list, but sitting down and having lunch with him is certainly one of them.”

ON HIS SECOND–FAVORITE HOCKEY MEMORY:

“Oh, no question, winning the Memorial Cup with the Hamilton Red Wings in 1962. What a thrill that was. We were not the favorites by a long shot, but we came together just at the right time.” (Note: The best–of–seven series against the Edmonton Oil Kings for the junior hockey championship of Canada was split between the Guelph Memorial Gardens; the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium and the old Hamilton Forum — or Barton St. Arena. The Red Wings won the Memorial Cup with a 7–4 victory in Game 5, at Kitchener). “Our coach, Eddie Bush, said ‘guys, you’ll get to the NHL and have lots of time to win the Stanley Cup. But, if we’re going to win the Memorial Cup, this is the year for us to do it.’ And, what a moment that was. Loved it!”

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PAUL’S FAVORITE BASEMENT MEMENTO: SIGNED BY ALL MEMBERS OF TEAM CANADA 1972.

ON ARGUABLY HIS FAVORITE MAPLE LEAF GARDENS MEMORY (ALSO INVOLVING HAROLD BALLARD):

“I was playing with the Atlanta Flames [in 1979–80] the year the four WHA teams (Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg) merged into the NHL. It turned out to be my last game at the Gardens (Mar. 17, 1980). I scored two goals and got an assist, and we beat the Leafs, 5–1. And, I was named the first star of the game. I skated out of the [north] Zamboni gate to take a bow and it was right next to that bunker where Ballard and [King] Clancy used to watch from. I came off the ice and instead of turning left and going to the [visitors’] dressing room, I turned right and went up behind the bunker, where ol’ Harold was walking down a flight of stairs to leave the building. There I was — in my full, red Atlanta uniform. I shouldn’t have done it… but I did. I waved and said ‘hi Harold’. He looked at me with a big frown on his face. Like I said, I’m not exactly proud of that moment today. But, it happened.”

ON THE NEVER–ENDING DEBATE OVER WHETHER HE SHOULD BE IN THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME:

“Truthfully, I don’t think I belong there. A lot of players had much better careers [in the NHL] than I did. But, it sure seems to irk people in this country. They come up to me and say ‘is it the hockey hall of fame or the NHL hall of fame?’ But, I have no problem not being in there. If it ever happens, I’m not gonna turn it down — that’s for sure. Otherwise, I’ve been blessed with a number of honors in my home land: the Order of Canada; the Order of Ontario; I’m in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Hall of Fame. So, I’m not hard done by. If I never get into the Hockey Hall here, I still know who I am and what I was able to accomplish in the game. To be honest, I only think about it when people ask me.”

ON FOLLOWING OTHERS INTO THE HALL ONE DAY — POSTHUMOUSLY:

(Henderson laughs out loud). “Well, if so, my grandchildren will be able to enjoy it. Look, I appreciate the thoughts of people that say I should be in the Hall. But, obviously, the selection committees through the years don’t have the same opinion; for whatever reason, they haven’t felt that moment in Moscow is worthy of induction. On the flip–side, there are some dubious guys already in the Hall. People that made it because they had the right ‘friends’ in the game. I mean, look at a fellow like Dean Prentice. He played 22 years (1952–74) in the NHL and scored 391 goals. How are those not Hall of Fame numbers. But, Dean didn’t have anyone pushing for him. A lot of it is political. Anyhow, life is too short to worry about that stuff.”

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IN 1997, TO COMMEMORATE THE 25th ANNIVERSARY OF THE FAMED SUMMIT SERIES, CANADA POST ISSUED A SET OF 10 STAMPS. PAUL HAS THEM FRAMED IN HIS BASEMENT.

ON HIS DISGRACED FORMER AGENT, ALAN EAGLESON, WHO PLAYED A BIG ROLE IN ORGANIZING THE 1972 CANADA–RUSSIA SERIES BUT WAS LATER CONVICTED OF FRAUD AND EMBEZZLEMENT. HE SERVED SIX MONTHS OF AN 18–MONTH PRISON TERM AT THE MIMICO CORRECTIONAL CENTRE:

“Look, Alan never stole any of my money and he’s one of the reasons I was invited to the Team Canada camp in ’72. If he had ever just come to us and said ‘guys, I screwed up. Please forgive me.’ But, he’s never done that. To this day, he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. We’ve had a number of reunions for that 1972 team and we always meet among us to determine if we should invite Eagleson. Truthfully, I have felt we should put the past where it belongs; forgive, and move on. Again, that comes from my strong Christian faith. But, so many of the other players say that if he’s invited, they will not show up. Still, I can tell you that if Alan had come forward and said ‘guys, I’m sorry… I got carried away and did wrong’, a lot of us from that ’72 team would have forgiven him. But, he just couldn’t. He wouldn’t ‘lower’ himself to do that. And, so, he’s made his own bed. It’s too bad.”

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HENDERSON HAS BEEN A WORKOUT FIEND SINCE HIS CANCER DIAGNOSIS. HE AND ELEANOR EXERCISE DAILY ON A SERIES OF FIVE DIFFERENT MACHINES IN THEIR BASEMENT.

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YES, IT WAS “SELFIE” TIME BEFORE I SAID SO LONG TO CANADA’S HOCKEY HERO ON FRIDAY.

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PAUL WAS GRACIOUS ENOUGH TO SIGN THESE TEAM CANADA BOOKS AND DOCUMENTS TO MY SON, SHANE; MY DAUGHTER, LAUREN, AND YOURS TRULY. WHAT WONDERFUL KEEPSAKES.

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

4 comments on “Canada’s Hockey Hero is 74

  1. Howard I really enjoyed this article, one of your best…I hope you do more of these with former players..

    John Smit
    Delhi, ON

  2. I’ve met athletes from most of the 4 major sports in North America. This piece confirms what I already knew. Hockey players are easily the best people of all of them.

  3. Simply the best blog. Howard your writings and photography skills bring back so many memories. Thank you. Tom Kehoe.

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