As the person who scored the biggest goal in Canadian hockey history, Paul Henderson learned long ago no one has any questions about it.
Almost every Canadian of a certain age knows where he or she was 40 years ago, on Sept. 28, 1972 when Henderson ended the best month of his hockey career by scoring in the dying seconds to win the Summit Series for Canada over the former Soviet Union. When they meet the man who saved Canada’s reputation as the best hockey nation in the world all they want to do is tell him about it.
“They don’t ask me questions, they go immediately into where they were and how they felt,” Mr. Henderson, 69, said shortly before the 40th anniversary of the goal that made him a household name. “Everybody has a story.”
Mr. Henderson’s life story since then is also oft-told, how his fame was a burden for a time until he developed a strong faith in God, a faith that sustains him now in a fight against chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The cancer was diagnosed in 2009 and Henderson’s excellent physical condition helped keep it at bay until recently when he dropped 15 pounds from his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame. He is now taking part in a trial of experimental drugs in Bethesda, Md.
“I haven’t worn a 32 pant since I was 15,” Mr. Henderson says with a laugh. “Like I tell people, I’ve got a great life. I just hope I’m going to be around for more of it.”
Less told is the story of just how Mr. Henderson and Ron Ellis, middling NHL veterans, and Bobby Clarke, a future star but a relative unknown then at 22, became Team Canada’s best line against the Big Red Machine of the former Soviet Union with Mr. Henderson scoring the winning goals in the last three games of the series. The story is equal parts dumb luck, hard work and opportunity.
When Harry Sinden, the head coach and general manager, and his assistant coach John Ferguson put together the first version of a Canadian dream team, they chose 35 players. It was an unwieldy number, but Sinden and Ferguson knew they needed a large group of good players, simply to raise the level of competition at training camp in order to get them into playing shape as fast as possible. Mr. Henderson, Mr. Ellis and Mr. Clarke were probably considered training-camp fodder, there to get the stars in shape.
In those days, long before million-dollar contracts turned NHL players into year-round specimens of physical conditioning, summers were for an off-season job and catching up on your beer-drinking. Throw in the fact no one on the NHL side took the Soviets too seriously and practically none of the big names who showed up for Team Canada’s first practice were in mid-season form, a fact that became painfully evident in the shocking 7-3 loss against the speedy, superbly conditioned Russians in the first game.
But Mr. Henderson, Mr. Ellis and Mr. Clarke were the closest among the Canadians as a match for the Soviets’ fitness. As players who had to fight for their jobs every year in the NHL, Mr. Ellis and Mr. Henderson stayed in good condition year-round.
Mr. Clarke kept himself in shape because even though he was a star on the rise, he was a diabetic, which raised questions in the eyes of hockey authorities of the day. He was only invited to training camp because Walt Tkaczuk of the New York Rangers begged off to run his summer hockey school.
“I think that was definitely a part of it,” Mr. Henderson said. “We were three guys who worked out almost of our lives.”
All three were promised they would play in at least two games of the historic series but none were under any illusions why they were there. If he was going to get into just one game, Mr. Henderson wanted it to be the series opener in Montreal, where he and Mr. Ellis played for the Maple Leafs.
“We went out for a beer after that first practice and I remember saying to these guys, ‘Let’s show them we can play hockey. I really want to play this game in Toronto so let’s work our tails off,” Mr. Henderson said. “But nobody needed to be told that.
“We really got dead serious. We were there to prove we belonged. If they picked 18 guys, we wouldn’t have been there.”
Mr. Henderson and Mr. Ellis were put together on a line because they were linemates with the Maple Leafs. Mr. Clarke was tossed in and serendipity struck.
Mr. Clarke was a younger, quicker version of Norm Ullman, who played between Mr. Ellis and Mr. Henderson for years, but was then in the waning years of his NHL career.
“Ronnie and I didn’t have to adjust much to Bobby,” Mr. Henderson said. “He was a good fore-checker, a good playmaker, so we started clicking right off the bat.
“With my game, my two assets are my speed and my shot. The better the hockey players I play with, the better I’m going to do because they’re going to get me the puck. I was really confident I could play well.”
After the first game it was clear Canada’s big names would have to learn how to check for the first time in their lives, which also played to the strengths of the three men.
“To have successful careers, Paul and I had to learn to play at both ends of the rink,” Mr. Ellis said. “Against the Russians, you had to play in both ends of the rink so we didn’t have to adjust our style. Some of the guys, who only had to play offensively [in the NHL], had to make big adjustments. That’s why it worked for us.”
By the time the series moved to Moscow for the final four games, Team Canada desperately needed a line to check the Soviet stars like Alexander Yakushev and Valeri Kharlamov (Mr. Clarke, of course, famously went the extra mile when he broke Mr. Kharlamov’s ankle with a well-aimed slash in Game 6). But their speed and conditioning was also needed offensively on the bigger international ice surface.
“I was a good puck-chaser, a good passer,” Mr. Clarke said. “If you play that style of game, you’ve got to have somebody with you to finish and Henderson could do that.
“Henderson could do that real good with his speed. It opened up the ice a lot more. The defencemen couldn’t be standing [still] when he came down.”
The trio’s defensive abilities also meant Mr. Sinden was willing to put them on the ice late in the games, especially in the final three games when the entire country agonized over the outcome. Each time, Mr. Henderson was there to win the game and leave himself a lifetime of listening to Canadians tell him where they were and what they did when he put that second rebound behind Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak to win the series with 34 seconds left in the final game.
Once those stories are told, the next remark usually concerns the fact Mr. Henderson is continually snubbed by the Hockey Hall of Fame, whose selection committee insists induction is for greatness over the course of a career, not a single series. Mr. Henderson says he does not obsess about it but Mr. Clarke knows what should be done.
“The Hall of Fame is a special place for hockey players who do special things,” Mr. Clarke said. “If you do something special for the game you should be in.
“The goal Paul scored in the last game was the biggest goal in Canadian hockey history so he should be in the Hall of Fame.”