Paul Henderson scored the game-winning goal with less than a minute to go in the eighth and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series, when Canada and the U.S.S.R. faced off in an intense battle for hockey supremacy. As a result, he became the toast of the country.
Henderson has just released a new memoir called The Goal of My Life, and he recently dropped by Q and George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight to talk about that iconic hockey moment, how his career began and the challenges he has faced after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2009.
The interview on Q opened with an audio clip of the play-by-play of his famous goal, and Henderson laughed about it. "'Henderson makes a wild stab for it and falls,'" he quoted jokingly. But he went on to add, "The results were good, anyway."
Henderson was a hockey prodigy growing up near Lucknow, Ont. But he almost didn't pursue a career in the pros. "We grew up very poor, and I hated being poor. I was the oldest of five kids, and I never got a pair of skates until I was nine. It was very difficult to get an education back then and play junior hockey," he told host Jian Ghomeshi.
Henderson decided to concentrate instead on getting a university degree. But when he told his father, he said, "Paul, I'm not sure you're making a bad decision, but this is what I think will drive you crazy, every time you see the Toronto Maple Leafs skate out there on a Saturday night, you're going say, I wonder if I could have made it." His father urged him to finish his junior year and then give himself two years to see if he could make it in the National Hockey League.
His father died before the Summit Series, but he was in Henderson's mind when he scored that milestone goal. "When the puck went over the line, I immediately said, 'Oh, Dad would have loved this.' And I said it out loud. And there was that nanosecond of melancholy."
Looking back at the series, Henderson acknowledged that Team Canada was surprised by the Soviets. "We knew they were good hockey players, but I felt with the firepower we had, I thought that we'd overwhelm them." He also didn't think the goaltending would be up to NHL standards.
The Canadians lost the first game, at the Forum in Montreal, and Henderson recalled telling the team, "Boys, this is going to be a long series." He marvelled at the Russian team's talent and physical conditioning, which was "just unnerving."
Henderson recalled being on the bench with a minute and a half remaining in the final game, not sure he'd get another shift. But somehow he felt "impelled" to get up and call Peter Mahovlich off so he could take his place. "I felt I needed to get on the ice. I felt I could score a goal," he said.
The series came to be seen as a showdown between the democratic West versus the Communist East, but according to Henderson it didn't begin that way. "But when we got down, and they started to beat us, then it became that," he said. "Then it got to be ideologies. We really felt that to a man. We were representing our country. And hockey, I really believe it's in our DNA, and to represent your country, I think every athlete wants to do that."
Scoring that decisive goal brought immediate fame, but it also became a burden. Fans began to expect him to score big goals, and Henderson said he didn't handle it well. "I probably put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to perform for them, but you got to do what you do well."
Henderson also talked about turning to religion in the years after the series. He writes in his book, "Contentment does not come from achievement." As he puts it, "It comes from a relationship with the Lord."
In his interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, which you can watch in its entirety below, Henderson described himself as "the most fortunate guy alive," and talked about the importance of his religious faith in sustaining him. He still has cancer, he said, and "at this point they're no cure, but the whole idea is to stay alive long enough till they find a cure."
And he added: "When you have hope, and you have peace, you can handle anything."