Skip to main content

Former hockey player Paul Henderson clutches a bible at his home in Mississauga, Ont., on Wednesday, on December 3, 2014. Henderson, who is famous for leading Team Canada to victory over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series, is a born-again Christian and is currently battling cancer. Following his playing career he became a minister, motivational speaker and author.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Paul Henderson has a basement full of hockey memorabilia, but his prized possession is a framed photograph of his grandsons Alton and Logan.Henderson estimates Alton was 10 at the time. Logan was six. The two boys are on the ice in their hockey equipment, and matching blue jerseys, standing side by side with their backs to the camera. Alton is wearing No. 19. Logan, No. 72.

"Alton wears 19 because that was my number, and I thought Logan would want 19 as well. But he chose 72, all on his own. . . 1972," Henderson said, smiling at his grandsons' cleverness.

The 71-year-old cherishes the days spent with his grandchildren. For a while, it seemed there wouldn't be many more.

Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in November of 2009, the Canadian hockey hero's health was in a free fall two years ago when he entered a clinical drug trial in the U.S. He calls it a "game-changer."

"When you go into a clinical trial, you're flipping the coin: is this going to work? Or is it going to kill us?" said Henderson, himself a legendary game-changer.

Henderson will forever be known for scoring the winning goal in the final three games of the 1972 Summit Series against the mighty Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War. The last of his goals clinched Canada's 6-5 victory in the final, making him a national hero back home. It was later voted the "sports moment of the century."

But as Henderson pointed out, "nobody gets a wrinkle-free life."

Henderson's came in the form of CLL, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He said no to chemotherapy after his diagnosis, instead trying to battle it through diet and exercise.

"I knew my body. My body has never done well with drugs. The only option I had was chemotherapy, and I thought that would probably kill me anyway. And your quality of life goes, it attacks everything else," he said. "So I spent all kinds of money on supplements, and vitamins and doing this, doing that, working out with trainers. We were hoping to beat it from the inside out. We spent two years desperately trying to find an alternative. But it just kept going."

By the time Henderson travelled, with fingers crossed, to Bethesda, Md., to begin the clinical drug trial, he was in rough shape. He was down 25 pounds from the 180 he's rigorously maintained since his 20s.

"And my cheeks were out to here," he said, pulling the skin on his cheeks out wide. "I had a growth the size of a grapefruit in my stomach, and 83 per cent of my bone marrow was malignant."

Henderson is one of four Canadians in the U.S. clinical trial of Ibrutinib, which was approved this week for use in Canada.

Sitting in his Mississauga, Ont., home Wednesday morning, Henderson talked about what's been like a new lease on life. He has regained the weight, and during an almost-hour long interview, helped moved furniture for a photo shoot.

"The best was about six months in, Eleanor says 'That damn stuff you're on, there's got to be Botox in it.' She says 'You look better now than you have in years.' She says 'I'm going on it,"' he said, with a laugh.

Henderson proudly showed off the photos of his seven grandchildren that line the shelves of his warm country-style living room. He hasn't been to a Toronto Maple Leafs game in years, he said, but he's been to hundreds of his grandsons' games.

"I'm an encourager, I don't say very much," he said, on his hockey grandparenting style. "I just say 'You go out there and you just give it your best shot every shift you're out there and you'll feel good about yourself when the game is over. You don't have to win every game. You've got to go have fun, and the best way to have fun is to go give it your best shot every time.'

"They're both competitors and I'm very, very proud of them. They're just super little guys."

Most mornings Henderson, who became a Christian in 1975, wakes up 90 minutes earlier than his wife Eleanor. He spends that time reading the Bible. He's memorized thousands of passages. Nights are spent with his wife of 52 years watching TV. "The Voice" and "Dancing With the Stars" are two of their favourites.

They work out together up to five days a week in their basement gym, that has a stationary bike, a treadmill, a Power Plate machine — a high-tech piece of equipment that uses vibration technology — and weights.

"I do a lot of stretching now. Do a lot of core work, a lot of crunching and that kind of stuff. It's good for my golf game," Henderson said. "I've always enjoyed working out. I just love getting a sweat on. Always have and always will. Never been out of shape.

"I've never been over 185 pounds in my life, I get to 185, I fast," he continued. "So very, very conscious about that. But it's good. My dad died very young, he was a big huge man and he didn't take care of himself, and so my genes are not that good. I know if I don't take care of myself, that I probably wouldn't be around here. Both (Eleanor and I) are within a couple of pounds of when we got married 52 years ago."

The clinical drug trial hasn't been easy. The beginning had him travel to the U.S. every two weeks. Then it was once a month, and now he goes every three months. Doctors draw 17 vials of blood each time, for 63 different tests.

"When I first went down there, there were only 10 (tests) that were normal. Now, there's only eight that are not normal," he said. "My red and white cells are normal, my platelets are back. We were hoping it would get rid of it entirely, but it hasn't done that. I still have cancer. There is still cancer in my system. But it's holding it at bay.

"So hopefully we can hold it at bay until we can find a cure. But my quality of life is. . . , well, just look at me. . . 27 months ago, I was going one way or another. And we all knew it."

Henderson has been a motivational speaker for the past 30 years. These days, his speaking engagements are geared toward fundraising for cancer research.

He will also happily pick up the phone when other cancer sufferers call. And they do.

"I tell them, 'Don't give up. Take the initiative and be pro-active. Get yourself in shape.' And everybody's body is different and so what works for one person may not work for another, so you've got to be responsible and pro-active," he said.

"And don't waste a day worrying. We only have today anyways, and you might as well live it to the best of your ability. I've always been an encourager. I enjoy encouraging people to just go for the roses. Learned a lot of life lessons, especially in '72. Life is tough, and never give up. And I find even in the worst times, if you look around you can always find people 10 times worse off than you are. And so it puts it in perspective."

Henderson has watched recently as time has taken some of hockey's biggest heroes. Pat Quinn died on Nov. 23 at the age of 71. Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau died Tuesday at 83.

"He was such a classy individual," Henderson said of Beliveau. "I remember thinking to myself 'That's the kind of man I want to be,' in terms of a husband, a father. Man, he lived his life well, a celebration. . . And Pat Quinn, there's another guy that absolutely lived his life well, and everybody respected him as a person.

"Can you imagine what kind of country we'd have if everyone lived that way? You could close up your jails. . . You need role models, and they were two good ones.

"I played with them, we were just kids back then. But time flies when you're having fun," he added with a wide smile. "Every day I get up is a good day. As long as I'm here, it's a good one."