The Hero Next Door
Photography Paul Alexander
Paul Henderson holds a special place in our hearts of many Canadians, especially those who remember the winning goal he scored against the Soviet Union in 1972 Summit Series.
As most of his fans know, he’s been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia for a while now. When I interviewed him last summer for a piece in Zoomer magazine, he was just about to leave for Maryland to take part in a clinical trial. Now he’s back and at a ceremony honouring him on April 8, he looked very fit and had some good news to announce about his condition.
Henderson, 70, was in Ottawa to receive the Order of Hockey in Canada (awarded by Prime Minister Stephen Harper) where he updated the audience with the progress he’s making. The devout Christian credited his faith and his wife Eleanor, who urged him to get into the clinical trial in the U.S., for helping him through the difficult periods of treatment.
“So it’s three or four days after we get back from Russia and I pull my car up at a stoplight. The man in the next car looks over and recognizes me. He jumps out of his car and comes up to me. The light goes green, and cars are beeping their horns. Everyone’s going crazy. The guy turns to them and shouts: ‘Shut up! It’s Paul Henderson, and you’re not going anywhere till I get his autograph!’ ”
Paul Henderson is a great raconteur. It’s no wonder; he’s been honing that craft for almost four decades now, ever since he scored the most memorable goal in Canadian hockey history, with 34 seconds left in the deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series.
Today, he’s cheerfully regaling stories to the horde – writer, publicist, groomer and photographer – who have invaded his comfortable Mississauga, Ont., home, upsetting the blissful serenity of a hot, humid July morning in suburbia.
Clearly a morning person, Henderson obliges, bellowing out anecdotes, punctuating the funny parts with loud guffaws. The humour – and decibel level – in which they’re told suggest a man who’s spent a great deal of time in hockey and golf course locker rooms.
Amazingly, his willingness to talk to Canadians about the goal never seems to wane. “Early on, I decided I either had to embrace this thing or run away from it. There’s no downside. It’s always been a plus. To this day, it still resonates with Canadians.”
Sept. 1, 1972
The eve of Game 1
“We really wanted to finally put those Ruskies in their place”*
And, to keep the moment alive and resonant, we have an insatiable desire to hear him tell it and retell it. Whether he’s touring the country with his famous sweater (which sold in 2010 at an auction for $1.2 million), attending 1972 anniversary celebrations, speaking at charity events or promoting his autobiography, we just can’t get enough of the man.
Game 1, Montreal, Sept. 2, 1972
USSR 7 Canada 3
“The country was stunned”
His wife, Eleanor, three daughters and seven grandchildren are all helping him get through these tough times. One granddaughter tells him he has to live at least till 2020 to see her compete as an Olympic gymnast.
And he also finds great solace in his faith. In The Goal of My Life, he explains how he became a committed Christian, eventually running a men’s ministry, comprised mostly of CEOs and business owners who meet on a regular basis. “There are a lot of people out there who have the so-called good life, who are searching for something that’s missing. Many fill this void with drugs or alcohol. My idea was to get them into a group, a safe place, where they could ask questions, and I could give them direction.”
Each morning, he spends a quiet hour with his Saviour. “I trust God every day. I’m 69, and no one has lived a better life than I’ve had. I have no complaints. I just take it day by day and refuse to worry. I live each day the best way I can. I refuse to let cancer get me down. If tomorrow shows up, we’ll take a shot at it.”
Game 3, Winnipeg, Sept. 6, 1972
USSR 5 Canada 4
“We felt we let that game get away”
Eleanor was impressed enough many summers ago, in 1959, when the pair met in a store in Lucknow, Ont. She was shopping for lettuce, and Paul, working the produce department at
50 cents an hour, knew right away. Surviving a disastrous first date (which his book describes in humorous detail), they married in 1962 – while both were still teenagers. Today, sitting comfortably together in an armchair, he playfully recounts how, on their first wedding anniversary, he promised Eleanor he would become the world’s greatest lover. And he’s promised her the same thing every year. “Well, I’m not there yet,” he chortles. “So it’s practice, practice, practice!”
Despite her husband’s indefatigable humour, Eleanor lives with the horrible reality of cancer every day. The farm girl with the gamine good looks has been with him through it all. She’s shielded the children from the limelight, steered away unscrupulous phonies trying to get a piece of her husband, devised nutrition plans for his cancer and scaled back his appearances to keep up his energy. She’s someone you turn to in a crisis; in hockey terms, she’d be a savvy stay-at-home defenceman, the type who never gets the glory, but you simply can’t win without.
Game 4, Vancouver, Sept. 8, 1972
USSR 5 Canada 3
“We were embarrassed”
Later, when I broach the subject of her husband’s health, suggesting he seems in great spirits and top physical shape, she nods but doesn’t immediately answer; it’s unclear whether she’s composing a response or just composing herself. Her husband’s health is a subject she understands fans want to know about. But from her pause, I got the sense she wants to deal with it privately, away from this prying writer and the Canadian public.
Her silence is finally broken by the groomer who, sensing Eleanor’s discomfort, artfully changes the subject. I had crossed into an area that Eleanor doesn’t want anyone but family and close friends to enter. So she closed it off in her quiet and graceful manner. I suspect that’s how she’s always dealt with the ever-invasive scrutiny that comes with being married to a figure the public considers its own.
Game 5, Moscow, Sept. 22, 1972
USSR 5 Canada 4
“Such a devastating loss”
Seemingly the only goal that has managed to elude Henderson is being voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Detractors say that, outside of his incredible exploits in the ’72 series, where he scored seven goals, including the last three game winners, he had a solid but not spectacular pro career. A fast-skating winger, Henderson’s first pro action came with the Detroit Red Wings in 1962. He was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in ’68, where he spent seven years under incorrigible owner Harold Ballard before fleeing to the upstart World Hockey Association, playing with the Toronto Toros, who then became the Birmingham Bulls. After returning to the NHL for a victory lap with the Atlanta Flames in 1979-80, he called it a career, scoring the last of his 236 NHL goals.
Game 7, Moscow, Sept. 26, 1972
Canada 4 USSR 3
(Henderson scores winner)
“Honey, I’ll probably never score
a bigger goal in my life”
Moving on means defeating or at least delaying cancer long enough to attain his last two big goals: celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in November and reuniting for the 40th anniversary with all the players from Team Canada. “Those celebrations are going to be fabulous,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to getting all the old guys together. Everyone on the team feels part of it – it’s a feeling that still persists today.”
It was that feeling – the unconquerable team spirit – that ultimately put Canada on the winning side of that series. Trying to describe it, Henderson searches for words before landing on a quote from Anatoly Tarasov, who had assembled that great Russian squad. “We could skate with the Canadians,” he remembers Tarasov saying, “But we couldn’t compete with their spirit.” Paul Henderson remains the flashpoint for this indomitable spirit, the unquenchable will to win.
And so we hope and pray that our hero remains with us a little while longer, so he can bring us all back to that glorious September 40 years ago and remind us, yet again, what great tasks the human spirit is capable of accomplishing.