Hard to believe, but he was likely the last Canadian to cheer when that puck went over the goal line in Moscow’s Luzhniki arena 40 years ago Friday.
His name is Paul Henderson.
We have all seen the photograph, the painting, even the stamp – a gleeful, joyful Mr. Henderson, both arms raised, leaping into the arms of an ecstatic Yvan Cournoyer – but little is known of the thoughts that first raced through the heroic goal scorer’s mind as that puck squirted back to him and he had two heart-stopping chances to get it by Vladislav Tretiak to give Canada the win in the ’72 Summit Series.
They called it “The Goal Heard Round the World” and “The Goal of the Century,” so it’s difficult to imagine how the first emotion Paul Henderson felt was one of fleeting sadness.
But that’s what he says happened.
It was the spring of 1994. I had been asked by an editor if there was a book to be had in a topic that struck me as so painfully obvious you might as well be writing on the importance of weather in this sprawling northern country.
But the Penguin editor, Barbara Berson, looked at Canada with the eyes of someone raised in New York.
Having moved to Canada with a hockey-loving husband, she said she couldn’t help but notice how often hockey players spoke of their fathers during intermission interviews – often waving hello to them.
They didn’t exclude their mothers in the least, but still, she thought there was something in this intense father-son relationship in hockey – the fathers so often the first coach, as well – that made it different from sports she had known in the U.S.
I wasn’t convinced, but did promise to talk about it with a few players. At a practice in Maple Leaf Gardens, I noticed the now-retired Mr. Henderson sitting alone, high in the stands, watching. What would be the harm in asking? I had no idea the question would uncork something quite unexpected and would, in fact, be the catalyst for the book.
Mr. Henderson took a long time to answer, almost as if he were considering the pluses and minuses of sharing something so private.
“When I scored that goal in Moscow,” he said after a deep breath. “When the puck went over, before there was elation there was a touch of melancholy. I actually thought of my Dad. He had died in ’68. I remember thinking, ‘Geez, if anybody would’ve loved to see that goal it would have been him.’ ”
He talked for the longest time about Garnet Henderson of Lucknow, the Ontario village where Paul learned to play the game that would make him so famous.
Garnet was a big man, tall and large and profoundly competitive. He was one who believed that, in fact, it wasn’t how you played the game, but whether you won or lost – hardly uncommon among hockey parents, despite the decades of campaigns to turn the game into a group hug for self-esteem.
“Take your first shot at the goalie’s head,” Garnet used to tell his son, Paul Garnet Henderson.
He was a tough, demanding coach of his son’s early teams. There was one game, the son recalled in the introduction to that book on fathers and sons and hockey, where his father – so large, so commanding – shouted so loud at a teammate for going offside on a play that the kid refused to come off the ice at the end of his shift, choosing instead to climb into the penalty box and sit there cringing in fear, even though the shout was all that was coming his direction.
Garnet Henderson’s problem was typical of so many hockey parents. He wanted even more from the game than his child did.
“I would never have become a hockey player but for my father,” Mr. Henderson said that day back in 1994. “He coached the teams I was on. He encouraged me to look at it. He never got a chance to play, and I guess sort of vicariously … I mean, a lot of people told me that he was sort of living through me.”
Paul went on to junior and other coaches, winning the Memorial Cup with the Hamilton Red Wings in 1962. He thought that was probably it for hockey.
“Back then they didn’t push school that much,” he recalled. “I had decided I was going to quit hockey and go to university and concentrate on getting my education.
“Of course, my father almost went ballistic. The thing my father said to me was: ‘It will drive you crazy until the day you die wondering if you could have made it.’ What prophetic words those turned out to be.”
It was that same year, 1962, that Garnet Henderson, then only 43 years old, suffered a stroke. Doctors said he’d had earlier heart attacks but covered up the pain. This time there would be no pretending. “After that,” said the son, “he was never the same.”
(Paul Henderson, who always prided himself on his excellent physical condition, has battled his own health issue since 2009, when he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a condition for which he continues to be treated.)
Garnet Henderson lived until 1968, long enough to see his son make it in the NHL, play for Detroit and become a Toronto Maple Leaf. But he would miss the Summit Series and that incredible, come-from-behind victory for Canada.
“My dad would have loved that,” said the son.
Which is why, for the briefest of moments – unnoticeable to the fans in the rink and those watching on television – The Goal of the Century stung both stopper and shooter.
Adapted from The Home Team: Fathers, Sons & Hockey, Penguin Books Canada, 1995.