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NHL Centennial

Henderson's Summit Series goal frozen in time

Winner for Canada 45 years ago turned Maple Leafs forward into legend

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Paul Henderson indelibly put his fingerprint on Canadian sports 45 years ago Thursday, a moment frozen in time for those who held their breath for it and a revelation to a new generation of fans who have come to learn of it.

Henderson's short, desperate shot, banged home in Moscow's Luzhniki Ice Palace, instantly was stitched into his country's fabric. One swat at a rolling puck made the fleet, industrious forward a Canadian legend.

Scored with 34 seconds left in Game 8 of the historic eight-game Summit Series, Henderson's goal lifted a team of NHL stars, representing Canada, to a 6-5 victory to clinch the series - with four wins, three losses and a tie -- against players from the Soviet Union who were anything but the cannon fodder most everyone in hockey believed they would be.

Henderson's goal off a second rebound, beating sprawling goalie Vladislav Tretiak, was his third consecutive game-winning goal. Canada rallied on Soviet ice after trailing 3-1-1 through five games to win a series that was much more about political ideologies than hockey superiority.

This was an emotional roller coaster of epic proportions, a Canadian hockey drama not seen before, or since.

In the years that have followed, the significance of the Summit Series and Henderson's remarkable role in it have grown to mythical status. The goal and the series it climaxed have been the subject of documentaries, a feature film, many books, a postage stamp and commemorative coin, TV commercials, academic study and player speaking tours spanning the country.

The white No. 19 Canada jersey Henderson wore when he scored the series-winning goal was auctioned in 2010 for $1.275 million, a world record for a hockey jersey, then was taken on tour across Canada as part of a salute to the player and the series.

In June, leading up to Canada's 150th birthday on July 1, Henderson's goal was named by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as the greatest moment in the nation's sports history, earlier having been declared the goal of the century.

On Thursday morning, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Henderson, 74, will launch a young readers book titled "The Greatest Jersey Ever," a legacy project designed to bring the story of the Summit Series, and his part in it, to fans who might know of it only from their parents and grandparents or via grainy film.

His 1972 goal is the classic "Where were you when …?" moment for Canadians of a certain age. Not a day goes by that Henderson isn't met by someone who needs to relate their own link to the event, and how it might have changed their lives.

Henderson, of course, knows exactly where he was at that special moment -- chopping frantically at a bouncing puck in Tretiak's crease.

"I was on the bench with a minute to go and I did something that was totally spontaneous, never giving it more than five seconds of thought," Henderson said this week. "I thought, 'I've got to get out on the ice.' And I stood up and started yelling at [teammate] Peter Mahovlich. I never did that before in my life and I never did it again. I just felt I had to get out on the ice for some reason, maybe because I'd scored the winning goals in Games 6 and 7."

Mahovlich peeled over to the Canadian bench, and Henderson jumped into a rush with Phil Esposito, the center, and right wing Yvan Cournoyer.

"Cournoyer had it at the far side and I yelled at him," Henderson said. "I'm a right-hand shot coming off the left wing and I'm hoping I can one-time the sucker. Yvan threw it across, but too far out in front of me. I was going fairly quickly and a Soviet defenseman (Valery Vasiliev) upended me. I fell into the boards, but I remember thinking, 'I've still got time to get in front and get the puck.'

"All of a sudden, [Esposito] just whacked it at the net. Tretiak should have just covered it up, but thank goodness he didn't. The puck came to me and I tried to put it along the ice. He got it with his pad but when he did that, he went down and the puck came right back to me. I had about a foot of open net to put it in."

The Canada bench, 3,000 rowdy Canadian fans in the arena and millions back home -- the country having ground to a breathless halt for this ultimate game -- exploded in equal parts joy and relief.

Canadian broadcaster Foster Hewitt's call from the Moscow booth is committed to the memory of a nation:

"Here's a shot. Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell. Here's another shot. Right in front. They scored! Henderson has scored for Canada!"

Henderson did a pretty fair impression of Hewitt's call, then said with a laugh, "That's just what every hockey player wants to hear: 'Henderson makes a wild stab for it and fell.'"

Were Tretiak's two rebounds, the first off an Esposito shot, the next off one by Henderson, the most famous in hockey history?

He laughed again. "In my estimation," he said, "I guess they were."

Henderson and Tretiak, who became friends as their paths crossed during four-plus subsequent decades, met at a reception in Moscow after Game 8, with Tretiak telling the Canadian through an interpreter that his winning goal was the product of luck. Henderson's terse reply was best left without translation.

Celebrating back in Toronto, babysitting Paul and Eleanor Henderson's three young daughters, were future Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler and his wife, Wendy, who both had moved into the Henderson home.

Fast forward 41 years to Stockholm and Henderson's 2013 induction into the IIHF Hall of Fame.

"Who walks out to introduce me but Tretiak," Henderson said. "Unbelievable. It surprises everybody. Tretiak is priceless, classy. Of course, he had to say some nice things about me, so he did.

"But then he looked at me and said, 'Paul, I know how you were able to score that last goal. I've looked at the replays over and over and I know the reason you scored.' There was a long pause, he probably waited 20 seconds even, looking at me, and said finally, 'Paul, the reason you scored that goal was … very bad goaltending.' Honest to God, he brought the house down. They gave him a standing ovation. And then Tretiak told me that my goal was divine-intervention, that God was on my side, not his, that night."

That claim gave Henderson pause; he had become a Christian in 1975. During the 1980s, with the Soviet Union still behind the Iron Curtain, he brought Russian-language Bibles there on a tour, a half-dozen grateful players asking for copies for their mothers.

"Because I'm a Christian, people ask me whether God had anything to do with that goal," Henderson said. "I say that when I get to heaven, that's going to be my first question to God: 'OK, did you have anything to do with this? And if you did, why didn't you let me one-time it into the top corner?' They'd have been saying, 'Henderson, what an incredible goal.' I scored seven goals in that series and six of them were really nice. The only garbage goal I scored was the last one."

It was the most beautiful garbage Canadian hockey had ever seen.

"The thing that is amazing to me is this: My dad had died in 1968 and I hadn't thought of him the whole series," Henderson said. "When that puck went over the line -- maybe it was the father-son connection, I can't explain it to this day -- I said out loud, 'Dad would have loved this one.' There was a touch of melancholy. Then I jumped into Cournoyer's arms, and 45 years later I'm still talking about it.

"It doesn't matter where we go. I was at a golf course last Friday and two guys came over to my table and went on for 10 minutes to tell me where they'd been when I scored."

In his 2012 autobiography, "The Goal of My Life: A Memoir," Henderson wrote about a few of the endless people he's met and messages he's received from those whose lives were marked by his Game 8 goal, telling of property destroyed in celebration; "O Canada" being sung spontaneously by total strangers; and free drinks dispensed on a plane whose captain relayed Canada's rally to win the final game with unanswered third-period goals by Esposito, Cournoyer and Henderson.

There was even a marriage saved. A husband arrived at his wife's home with divorce papers and stayed for the end of Game 8. The couple embraced when Henderson scored, then reconciled.

Henderson cherishes many memories of the series that showcased his speed and precise shot, and of the goal that would define his life.

Canada lost Game 5, the first in Moscow, 5-4, blowing 3-0 and 4-1 leads, with the Soviets scoring five third-period goals. Henderson, then a member of the Maple Leafs, scored twice for Canada, his second goal coming on his first shift after having been knocked out when he crashed into the boards.

"We lined up at the end of that game and they played the Russian national anthem," he said. "It's a wonderful piece of music but it's too long when you lose. We're skating off the ice and -- I remember this like it was yesterday -- those 3,000 Canadian fans stood up and gave us a standing ovation. An hour and a half later, we get back to the hotel and it was a miserable night in Moscow, rainy, around freezing, and there were at least a thousand of them lined up. They gave us another incredible ovation, cheering like crazy when we got off the bus. The fact that most of them were hammered had nothing to do with it. I remember it so vividly."

All these years later, Henderson takes stock every day of the greatest series in hockey history and his vital role in it.

"The great thing is, there's no downside," he says. "It was great for Canadian hockey, for the players, the NHL. This is one thing in life that is just totally celebratory. Maybe as Canadians we're not that great sometimes celebrating things, but this series has had a life of its own."

Henderson hears the rumble of Canadian fans who demand that he be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and he thanks them for their support. But he's more than happy to walk into the shrine as a visitor.

"I had the series of my life, it gave me a profile that I never would have had in a hundred years," he said. "To get to play with the Cournoyers, Mahovliches, Espositos … Canadians get upset like crazy that I'm not in the Hall of Fame, but I don't have any problem with that. I was a really good hockey player, but I wasn't a great hockey player.

"We had a dozen great hockey players on that team, Hall of Famers. The series is my showcase. The one thing I take great satisfaction from is that I was able to prove to myself, and the world, that I could play at the top level and play very well and do very well. That's very satisfying, from my perspective. The icing on the cake is scoring the winning goal in the last three games."

The book launching Thursday, written by Lillian Quon, will bring the Summit Series to those who will learn of, if not live, its magic.

Every day is a challenge for the inspiration of the story; Henderson was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in November 2009. "I still have cancer but I'm holding it at bay," said Henderson, who is taking part in a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

He is much more robust than when he entered the trial five years ago, when he was down 30 pounds "and with that cancer look to me."

What keeps his spirits buoyed is the love of Eleanor, their three daughters and seven grandchildren; the adoration of every Canadian he meets; and his deep faith.

"I'm not fearful of anything," Henderson said. "I get up and say, 'I'm going to try to live today the best way I can as a husband and father and grandfather.' The Bible tells you, 'Don't worry.' I have no fear of death. I have no desire to die, I've got a great family and certainly I love watching my grandsons play hockey. But nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"It doesn't matter the traffic, the weather or anything else, I just refuse to have a bad day. And that's a great way to live."

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