BUFFALO — There are some athletes who will never reside in the dim and distant past. One of those is hockey’s Paul Henderson, hero of Canada’s victory over Russia in the September 1972 Summit Series.
Henderson, now 70, has been waging an uphill battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia for almost four years. And he’s winning.
“I felt well,” he recalled, of the time before a routine medical checkup in 2009. “I always worked out and my weight hadn’t changed since retirement.”
He had no idea that, when he became a Christian in 1975, his fresh outlook would help him face the biggest challenge of his life.
Henderson was born in Kincardine, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron. He was 12 years old when he saw his first National Hockey League game in person.
“There were six of us with my dad and I was so excited,” he said of the three-hour drive to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. “The thing I remember most vividly was the warm-up. The players were flying and wow, could those guys shoot.
“I thought to myself, ‘Boy, if I ever could have a chance to do this.’”
After two years in the juniors, Henderson played two games at the end of the 1962-63 season with the Detroit Red Wings. In his first NHL game, he was assessed nine minutes in penalties in less than 10 seconds of ice time.
He kept going. He was traded to Toronto in 1967. Five years later, he scored a career-high 38 goals and was a sure pick for Team Canada.
Henderson scored 7 goals and had three assists in the series, but none bigger than the one he recorded with 34 seconds left to play, to break a 5-5 deadlock in the eighth and deciding game.
“It was almost an out-of-body experience,” he said, of his sudden demand to have another winger change with him.
“I had to get on the ice. I didn’t want us to be thought of as losers for the rest of our lives. I don’t have many answers for why I did that, because I never had done it before and never did it since,” he said.
Henderson tried to swipe the puck into the net, past Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak, but tumbled into the boards behind the cage. He kept going.
The timing was perfect as he got to his feet and the puck slid toward the crease. One whack, then a second, and then “The Goal.”
“I said, ‘Dad would have loved this one,’ as it went over the line,” he remembered.
That humility has never left him, not even when he left the NHL for the upstart World Hockey Association in Toronto and later in Birmingham, Ala. He retired at age 38.
“Today, I realize that God has always had his hand over me,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in a religious environment and even when I was studying the Bible, I was so skeptical. But in 1975, I became a follower of Jesus.”
He and his family returned to Canada and began a ministry that swelled from three active members in 1985 to more than 1,000 today.
Cancer discourages many people, but Henderson said he had “absolute peace and faith in God” when he was diagnosed in 2009. He opted to participate in a clinical study in 2012 in Bethesda, Md.
The tumor in his abdomen, which was once the size of a grapefruit, is now no bigger than the tip of his finger.
“I get up each morning and say, ‘OK, Lord, we’ve got another day here; let’s take a run at it,” he said.
Team Canada had 35 members. His team at the National Institute of Health has 56. “I can’t think of anyone who’s lived a better life or been more fortunate than me,” he said.
This Saturday, on the 41st anniversary of the greatest goal in hockey history, Henderson will be speaking to a large youth gathering that will congregate at Ontario Place. He’ll probably tell the assembled young hopefuls, “Keep going.”
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com