It’s a goal Paul Henderson never tires talking about.
He scored 236 times over 707 career NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Atlanta Flames and added 140 more in the now-defunct World Hockey Association. But the 69-year-old native of Kincardine, Ont., will forever be remembered for scoring the decisive goal that earned Canada its historic victory over Russia in the ‘72 Summit Series.
“It sure doesn’t for me,” Henderson said with a chuckle Wednesday. “It’s the only thing I did in 18 years of hockey so how can it get old?”
There was plenty of reminiscing about the historic series as members of the former Team Canada gathered for their annual golf tournament at Woodington Lakes golf course. And while the likes of forward Phil Esposito and former goalie Ken Dryden attracted their share of media attention, it was Henderson who took centre stage upon completing his round.
And with good reason. The former Team Canada star is battling cancer, having been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2010.
Henderson is currently undergoing treatment in Maryland and said while he’s down 18 pounds — and thus sporting a 32-inch waist for the first time since his teens — he’s currently feeling fine. However, Henderson added a recent reaction to new medication that prevented him from attending 40th anniversary festivities in Russia.
And after playing 18 holes Wednesday, Henderson said he’ll have to skip playing in former teammate Ron Ellis’s golf tournament Thursday.
“I have to pick my spots,” he said. “But I’m still in it.
“It’s one day at a time. There’s no cure for what I have but hopefully we can keep it at bay for a while because I’m having a great life and if I can just stay alive, it would be perfect.”
Henderson repeatedly stated how much he enjoys reminiscing about his ‘72 heroics, adding he hears different stories annually from fans regarding where they were when he fired a rebound past a prone Vladislav Tretiak to give Canada a thrilling 6-5 win in the eighth and final game.
But it was Henderson who also made that contest meaningful by also scoring the winning goals in the sixth and seven games of the series in Russia.
“I’ve tried to handle it responsibly,” Henderson said of acting as the face of the ‘72 Team Canada. “I’ve tried to handle myself worthy of a Canadian, I’ve tried to be a role model for younger kids so I’m actually very pleased with it.
“It has been a really nice ride.”
But not initially. When he returned to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs he feuded with former owner Harold Ballard.
“It was brutal,” he said. “When I came back, Ballard and I weren’t getting along and I had no spiritual dimension in my life too and so I didn’t understand forgiveness and how to deal with anger and bitterness.
“When I learned to get rid of that nonsense and take every day, even with cancer, I refuse to let cancer define me. I get up every morning and it’s going to be a great day. You never know when it’s going to be over so I refuse to have a bad day.”
If Henderson has one regret, it’s he never took the time to really enjoy playing in the series, which originally was supposed to be a friendly exhibition but quickly turned into a grudge match following Russia’s opening 7-3 win over the Canadians in Montreal.
“After the first game there was so much pressure on us to win,” Henderson said. “I had the time of my life, the series of my life and I forgot to enjoy it and I said, ‘I have to learn how to enjoy today.’
“It was several years later, because of Ballard mainly, before I learned how to do that but my memory is I wish I would’ve sat back and sucked it all in. But every day it was, ‘We have to win and if we don’t win we’re going to be known as losers.’ Man, it just was not a good time.”
Expectations in ‘72 were high that the star-studded Canadian team made up of NHL players would easily dispatch the Russians. And it looked like Canada would indeed romp when it surged to an early 2-0 lead in the opening game before Russia rallied for the lopsided win.
Canada won the second game in Toronto 4-1 before the two sides skated to a 4-4 tie in Winnipeg. Russia took the fourth and final contest on Canadian soil 5-3 in Vancouver, prompting the 15,570 fans to boo Team Canada off the ice.
That led to Esposito’s infamous emotional outburst on national television where he criticized supporters for their actions.
“It was a turning point for you people, it wasn’t a turning point for us,” Esposito said of the speech. “It was because of four or five young guys were standing by the Zamboni entrance in Vancouver yelling that communism was better and I almost threw my stick at them like a spear. Communism is not better. Period.
“But it had nothing to do with the speech, half the guys never even heard it. I didn’t even see it until 10 years later . . . I had no idea what I said. Ten years later I looked at it and my first reaction was, ‘Oh, I’m embarrassed.’ I almost swore twice during it.”
But Esposito, never afraid to speak his mind, was upset that the members of the ‘72 Russian team couldn’t come to Canada as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations.
“We went over there because they (Russians) paid,” he said. “There were promises two years, a-year-and-a-half ago the government would get involved.
“All of a sudden two months ago they told us they’re not involved because they only get involved in 25- and 50-year anniversaries. Well, we can’t wait till 50, I can tell you that. Most of us won’t be around.”
Esposito, who is 70-years-old, continued.
“The Russians are going to honour the ‘72 Russian team at the (2014) Sochi Olympics and I’d like us to be there. I know one thing, once we get there the Russians will take care of us but we’ve got to get there and we’re going to need some help. If we can do that and get honoured there then after I think it’s just about over . . . because I don’t think a lot of us are going to make it to 50.”
The Canadians dropped the first game in Russia 5-4 before rallying to cement the series with three straight victories, capped by Henderson’s iconic final goal.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: That’s as close as I ever come to kissing another guy,” said Esposito, who set up Henderson’s winning goal by putting a shot on the Russian goal with Henderson all alone in front.
But Henderson has wondered many times what would’ve happened had he not scored and Canada had lost the series.
“If we didn’t win, we would’ve been known as losers for the rest of our lives,” he said. “We felt it but I think one of the reasons we did win was we never gave up hope and when you have hope there’s there.”
On Saturday, Team Canada ‘72 will be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. Players and team officials will gather for a gala dinner in Toronto on Sept. 28, the exact date 40 years earlier that Henderson scored his iconic, series-clinching goal.
Much to the relief of many of his teammates.
“There was very little kind of celebration at that moment,” Dryden, 65, said. “It was much more that feeling of deep, deep relief that we had gone from about as low a low as any of us had ever experienced in hockey to the highest high.
“I remember in the dressing room, I’m sure there was a lot of yelling for a few minutes but very quickly after that I think it was people sitting in their place and taking a deep breath and then having a little, nice smile coming on their faces.”
As a result of Canada’s win, the ‘72 Summit Series will forever be an integral part of this country’s hockey fabric. But it also remains very big in Russia, somewhat surprising considering the Russian squad’s loss.
Yet Dryden has a theory why.
“Both of us won what we had to win,” he said. “We had to win the series.
“We would’ve like to have won more games, eight in a row and by big scores but we didn’t but we won what we had to win. What they had to win was to show that hockey could be played a different way at the highest level and they did that.
“They would’ve loved to win the series but they won that part of it and I think that’s why both of us have such fond memories of it.”
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