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Canadian hockey icon Paul Henderson was a part of Team Canada 72 and scored the winning goal against Russia. This September marks the 40th anniversary of the Summit series. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian hockey icon Paul Henderson was a part of Team Canada 72 and scored the winning goal against Russia. This September marks the 40th anniversary of the Summit series. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

PATRICK WHITE

Stricken by cancer, Paul Henderson flexes in the face of mortality Add to ...

Time is a slippery character in the seven-decade pageant of Paul Henderson. It pauses and surges and even spools backward at times.

Every other day, somebody is commemorating the 40-year-old feats of his younger self with a coin or a stamp or a monument. In recent months he’s approved a beverage, a documentary and a few other memorial souvenirs bearing his triumphant image, frozen in 1972.

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Today, much of his body – brick stomach, lumberjack forearms, beach-ready biceps – appears stalled in that same era.

But time has definitely passed. Mr. Henderson marked his 37th anniversary as a Christian this week with a call to his spiritual mentor. Later this year, it’s his 50th wedding anniversary. Six months from now, he’ll mark the 40th birthday of his Sept. 28th goal and the Summit Series it capped off in a reunion with former teammates, the youngest of whom is a 60-year-old grandfather.

“We’ve lost four guys now from the original team,” he said last week, thrumming his fingers impatiently on a boardroom table. “In reality, a lot of us are in our late 60s and 70s. Our 40th anniversary, this year, will probably be the last big celebration, because Father Time marches on.”

That may not be true for the other Henderson, the one frozen in time. But for this 69-year-old man – head jostled by six concussions, nose bent by eight breaks, body full of cancer – mortality can no longer be avoided.

“The last checkup wasn’t that good,” he said of his condition, lymphocytic lymphoma chronic leukemia, a slow-moving cancer first diagnosed in November, 2009, that hasn’t needed extensive treatment until now. “They tell me chemo is coming sooner than later, probably in the next month or two. It’ll be six months of chemo and then we’ll see what happens. Cancer is cancer. I’ve got a great life if I can just stay alive.”

The timing is tough. In September, Mr. Henderson hopes to be at the centre of the most elaborate Summit Series celebration yet. Until then, he’s deepening his relationship with cancer charities and, more importantly, his seven grandchildren.

“His attitude is terrific,” said close friend and former linemate Ron Ellis. “He’s got a battle ahead of him, and he knows it. At the same time he’s grateful for life, for his wonderful family and for being able to do something very special in the hockey world.”

This week, Mr. Henderson spoke at the informal launch of a 40th-anniversary T-shirt emblazoned with his face and autograph. Priced at $14.95, the proceeds will go toward Cops for Cancer.

“It was Paul’s idea,” said Peel Regional Police Sergeant Trevor Arnold, who’s leading the Toronto-area force’s fundraising efforts. “With his situation, he wanted to give more back and this was an ideal opportunity. He’s clearly a selfless guy.”

In the coming months, the hockey icon will be launching another cancer campaign and his third book, The Goal of My Life, which promises details of his life beyond the well-documented moment, including the several troubled years before he became a Christian in 1975.

“I didn’t handle fame very well at first,” Mr. Henderson said. “I got a little resentful. The thing that irritated me most is we’d be out for dinner and women who’d had too much to drink would come over, sit down and keep their back to my wife, Eleanor. They’d ignore her. I’d get so ticked off with them. You can say what you want about me, but don’t mess with my wife.”

Friends recalled that period as difficult for him and everyone around him. “With Paul scoring the goal of the century for the team of the century, he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized,” remembered Mr. Ellis, who played Mr. Henderson’s opposite wing on both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Team Canada. “People expected a repeat performance every night. That was a heavy burden to carry.”

But Mr. Henderson seems bred to bear such a uniquely Canadian trouble. In January, 1943, his mother went into labour during a minus-30 whiteout that blocked all roads to the nearest hospital in Kincardine, Ont. So the family took to Lake Huron by sleigh. She gave birth to the future hockey star part way across the ice. He barely survived the journey.

“I was blue by the time they got me there to the hospital,” he said. “They tell me if it were another three or four minutes, I would have died.”

Such last-minute dramatics have been Mr. Henderson’s forte ever since. He can’t contain it. Today, that reservoir of adrenalin surges at the sight of traffic lights rather than goal lights. Just last week, driving in Mississauga with his eight-year-old granddaughter, he got stuck behind an elderly driver who was dawdling to make a left turn. He waited and waited and then bellowed: “You old fart, would you get moving?”

His granddaughter frowned. “Your daughter needs to have a talk with you because you can’t go around calling people old farts,” she lectured.

“What can I say, that’s the old Paul Henderson,” he explained, recalling the episode. “I’ve still got a thing or two to learn.”

As much as he can control his intensity, he’s channelling it toward cancer. He exercises as if preparing for a Leafs comeback, rattling off 55 pushups at a time, sweating out lengthy bike rides, shredding his core muscles. He’s given up sugar and, to spare his immune system, handshakes. Everyone gets an Obama-esque fist bump now. He’s even pared down a gruelling speaking schedule to the bare essentials.

“I wrote in my journal in January of 2010, ‘Lord, thank you for the cancer,’ because when you get cancer you can differentiate the trivial from the important so much [quicker] your mortality is right there in front of you. I still don’t know if I have three months, six months, 10 years, whatever it is. I’m probably such an idiot I would never experience this clarity without getting cancer.”

Former teammates have noticed the same. “I really admire him,” said ‘72 Team Canada member Marcel Dionne. “You see how much stronger he is right now than so many people, it’s incredible. He’s so strong and so completely at peace.”

The ‘72 team is preparing a series of events this September. Others are waging a campaign to get Mr. Henderson in the Hockey Hall of Fame. His health will likely play a big role in both.

“Because of my closeness to Paul, one goal of mine is to organize anniversary events in a way that makes it easy for him to take part,” said Mr. Ellis, who sits on the ‘72 Team Canada players’ committee. “Once we have a schedule in place, he’ll let us know what he can attend and what he can’t.”

Mr. Henderson isn’t worried. This life on earth is just the warm-up, he said. Plus, there’s that whole alternate time zone of his. Days ago he was playing basement hockey with his six-year-old grandson when the boy pronounced, “I’m Paul Henderson and I’m playing for Team Canada. Who are you going to be, grandpa?”

He couldn’t decide. “Suddenly, Paul Henderson is a six-year-old,” he said later, still a little dumbfounded. “But, when I think of it, I’m 69 and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be in the world. I’m so fortunate, even full of cancer. The Lord expects us to enjoy our lives. He says there will be some brutal times, but we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape about it.”

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