By Budd Bailey
The grandfather of Canisius hockey player Alton McDermott stood at the bench at the LECOM Harborcenter on Saturday night, waiting for the chance to take part in a ceremonial opening faceoff between his grandson and a player for Niagara. But first he needed a proper introduction.
The public address announcer provided one, listing the many hockey accomplishments of Alton’s grandpa – who was celebrating his 80th birthday on this night. Along the way, the video tribute included a clip that he probably had watched hundreds of times over the years. It showed Paul Henderson – Grandpa’s alter-ego – scoring the most famous goal in hockey history. It was the one that allowed Team Canada to beat the Soviet Union in their epic eight-game series in 1972.
“It took three or four years for the hairs on my arm to stop going up (when he saw it,),” Henderson said later. “Now I’ve seen it so many times. I tell people (as a joke) my wife has to watch that goal every night before we go to bed.”
Among the spectators of that ceremony was Canisius coach Trevor Large. He had given his players – some of whom were born in a different century from when Henderson’s goal took place – a pop quiz before the game.
“I was asking our players today, ‘Does everyone know who Paul Henderson is?’ Large said. “Most of them did, and I was pleased. But I said if you don’t, you’d better Google it.”
It’s almost impossible to capture what that series – and what that goal – meant to Canada. The country essentially had invented the game of hockey in the 19th century, and always took great pride in being the world’s best at it. The Soviets were late-comers to the hockey party, developing a program of development after World War II. They didn’t have many ice rinks, so they had to come up with new ways of developing talent. The Soviets preached teamwork, conditioning, and puck control and played fewer games. They eventually dominated the sport at an amateur level of international play, usually winning world championships and Olympic gold medals. Canadians could scoff at that, saying “They haven’t played our best yet.”
When the two sides finally got together in the fall of 1972, no one knew for sure what might happen. Buffalo Sabres general manager Punch Imlach thought Team Canada would win in eight straight. But any thoughts of overconfidence that Henderson might have had quickly disappeared.
“Phil (Esposito) scored right off the bat, and I scored at the six-minute mark,” Henderson recalled. “Clarkey (Bob Clarke of the Flyers) and I go back to the bench, and I said, ‘Boys, this is going to be a very long series.’ We knew it. Those guys had such physical condition. And Harry (Sinden, the coach of Team Canada) made the biggest mistake that night. He only dressed five defensemen in the first game. After the second period, they were gassed.”
A slow start
The Soviets won that first game by the stunning score of 7-3. Canada went 1-2-1 in the first four games of the series, which also played in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. After the fourth game, the Canadians were booed off the ice by their own fans – prompting a memorably emotional speech by a sickened Esposito.
“We needed to get out of town,” Henderson said. “Even our families didn’t like us. But we started to get down to what was going to be the team. By the time we got to Russia there were only one or two guys (in the lineup) who might change from game to game. It takes a while to get the team and figure out who should play together.”
The Soviets won Game Five, but Canada rallied to take Games Six and Seven – the later coming after Henderson’s game-winning goal with about two minutes left. Game Eight was tied with less than a minute to go when Esposito threw a shot at USSR goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who made the initial save. Henderson was uncovered by the net, and his second poke at the net produced the series-winning goal.
In that instant, Henderson became a national hero.
“I knew it was a big goal. But it feels as big today as it did back then,” he said.
What Henderson didn’t know at the time was that September 28, 1972 was The Day Canada Stood Still. There were 22 million residents of the country at that point in history, and 16 million were watching the game on television. Businesses shut down, and children were sent home from schools. The celebration after the final buzzer was long and loud, and it really never has stopped.
Finding the American equivalent to Henderson is difficult. Bobby Thomson became forever famous for his walk-off homer off Ralph Branca in the 1951 National League playoff, but the entire country wasn’t rooting for him. Mike Eruzione achieved fame with his game-winning goal against the Soviet Union for Team USA in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Still, hockey wasn’t a national passion on this side of the border.
You might have to rank Henderson’s relative popularity with someone who was involved in an intense competition with the Soviets, and became the symbol of the fantastic finish: Neil Armstrong. The difference is that people find Henderson, um, a little more down to earth.
The changing game
Paul returned to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1972, and continued a 19-year career that would include time in the World Hockey Association before ending in 1981. He’s watched hockey change on both sides of the ocean since 1972. The two countries borrowed techniques from each other in order to improve. There’s no doubt that Wayne Gretzky would have been a great fit on the Soviet team of 1972, and that Alexander Ovechkin would have been a standout for Team Canada. Ken Dryden, the goalie for Team Canada in Game Eight, once wrote that while the Soviets wanted to show they were equal to their Canadian counterparts, the Canadians needed to win to show the world they were the best. Both teams got what they wanted out of the series.
After retiring from hockey and working a stockbroker, Henderson shared stories of hockey and faith across Canada for several years. He’s also written three books. But he still is Paul Henderson, National Hero. He’s signed countless autographs and posed for endless selfies over the years.
“I don’t go to Leafs’ games anymore because I can’t,” he said. “If one guy sees me, then everyone else comes along. If I miss one person , I’m (a jerk). I thought if I put a hat on and a mask on, maybe I could get in. But word gets out. So I haven’t been to a game in five years. But I still watch them (on television).”
There have been all sorts of reunions of players from both sides of that competition during the past 50 years. That includes the players from what is now Russia. What separated the members of those two teams in 1972 – a hockey match – brings them together now.
“We should have hated the system and not the players,” Henderson said. “They were great guys once we got to know them. You can challenge them in hockey, but don’t ever challenge them to drinking vodka. They will put you under the table. Oh, man, they drink that stuff like water.”
The Canadian loves to tell the story about an encounter with Tretiak, the equivalent of Branca to Henderson’s Thomson.
“I was inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame back in ’12,” Henderson said. “It was over in Stockholm. … When it was time to be introduced, Tretiak comes out to introduce me. He said some nice things. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Paul, I know why you scored that last goal. I’ve looked at those replays over and over again. Paul, the reason you scored that goal …” – and he must have looked at me for five seconds – “was very bad goaltending.” Then he came over and gave me a big hug.”
Golden times remembered
The focus on the series returned in full last year, as the 50th anniversary was celebrated in Canada. And celebrated.
“We got a standing ovation at Parliament for five minutes,” Henderson said. “Five (of the representatives) talked about what that meant to the country. One said it united our country more than anything else. This is 50 years later, and I still hear different stories. They don’t ask many questions now. They want to tell me where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, and what they felt. I sit back and just listen to them.”
Still, life hasn’t been one long victory skate for Henderson, who hit a major bump in the road in 2009.
“They told me I had leukemia and lymphoma,” he said. “They said they had to give me chemo, and that I’d have a tough year. Then in three or four years it would come back, because there’s no cure for it. They would hit me a little harder, and then I’d have another year. I was 66, so I might make 71.
“But I got into a clinical trial in the United States at the National Institute of Health. There were 57 in that trial, and I’ve lasted longer than anybody. … They have a new drug for it that was a lot better than the last one. There aren’t as many side-effects. I had bloodwork on Monday and got the results on Thursday, and the doctors said it was as good as it’s been since I got cancer.”
At 80 and counting, every day that Henderson wakes up is a good day, and every day that he gets to watch his grandson play hockey is a great day. Saturday was one of those great days. The family gathers together outside of Toronto for the drive down the QEW for Golden Griffins’ games on a regular basis.
“Eleanor and I decided that we aren’t going to let cancer define us,” Henderson said. “We’re going to take every day, get up, and give the best shot we can. If tomorrow shows up, we’ll do the same thing. Now, all these years later, I’m having a ball. It’s a great thrill to watch your grandson play at a high level.”
“He’s such a good person,” Large said. “He’s a normal guy. The McDermotts are all great people. He surprised me on my birthday. He gave me a gift – a signed Canada jersey replica. Those are special moments. I was born in 1980, but I remember watching those games on VHS tapes. It is pretty neat when you have the guy who scored absolutely the most famous goal in the history of hockey here.”
But best of all, he’s not Paul Henderson, National Hero, once he crosses the Peace Bridge. He’s Alton’s grandfather.
“That’s what Eleanor said the other night. She said, ‘You know what amazes me is that you’re not recognized much over here.’ And I said, ‘It’s perfect.’”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)