April 27, 2006

Paul Henderson

Paul Henderson needs no introduction. He may never be a Hall of Famer, but he has achieved a state of hockey status reserved for the rare likes of Gretzky and Richard.

While representing the Toronto Maple Leafs as a member of Team Canada 1972, the left winger had the tournament of his life. He scored the most famous goal in hockey history when he put the puck behind Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak with just 34 seconds left in the final game to give Canada a victory in the unforgettable 1972 Summit Series. Henderson was a dominant force in the series, scoring the game winning goals in each of the final 3 games as Canada came from behind to claim victory 4-3-1. He will be forever immortalized in hockey history as he scored on what is arguably the greatest hockey moment ever.

Henderson was actually one of the last players to make the team. He had a terrific training camp along with Bobby Clarke and Ron Ellis. All three were on the bubble as to whether or not they'd make the team or not, but they played extremely well together. They were Canada's best threesome, and the only line that was kept together throughout the series.

All three were incredible. Clarke was instrumental with his defensive play and his crisp playmaking, which in particular helped Henderson. Ellis did a masterful job of shutting down the flashy Valeri Kharlamov and was also used against the big Alexander Yakushev.

And then there was Henderson. Henderson was on fire throughout the entire series. He tied with Phil Esposito and Alexander Yakushev for the goal scoring lead with 7. He was especially hot in Moscow - he scored twice in game 5 and scored the game winners in game 6 and game 7.

The game 7 goal was spectacular. With less than three minutes left to play, Henderson was sprung lose thanks to a nice pass from Serge Savard. Henderson was in alone on two Soviet defenseman - normally an impossible scoring chance. Going in alone on two Russian defenders, he crossed so that the two defensemen were forced to cross positions. Henderson slid the puck through the defenseman's legs and went around. Instead of playing the man, defenseman Evgeny Tsygankov tried to play the puck. He failed to stop the puck and Henderson was in alone. He scored just under the cross bar while falling down, as the defenders tackled him.

And of course there is the most famous goal in hockey history: Henderson's game winner in game eight.

"In the final seconds of that game, I stood up at the bench and called Pete Mahovlich off the ice. I'd never done such a thing before," wrote Henderson in Brian McFarlane's book Team Canada 1972: Where Are They Now?, and undoubtedly told over a million times elsewhere.

"I jumped on the and rushed straight for their net. I had this strange feeling that I could score the winning goal. I had a great chance just before I scored, but Cournoyer's pass went behind me. Then I was tripped up and crashed into the boards behind the net. I leaped up and moved in front, just in time to see Esposito take a shot at Tretiak from inside the face-off circle. The rebound came right to my stick and I tried to slide the puck past Tretiak. Damn! He got a piece of it. But a second rebound came right to me. This time I flipped the puck over him and into the net."

Although he couldn't have comprehended it at that moment in time, he had just become an immortal in the hockey world.

Born in Kincardine, Ontario in 1943, Henderson developed in the Detroit Red Wings junior system with the Hamilton Red Wings. He emerged as a top prospect when in 1962-63 he led the entire Ontario Hockey Association with 49 goals in just 48 games.

Henderson would turn professional in 1963-64, but would initially struggle. He was sent down for half a season of minor league training in his rookie year, and had a quiet sophomore campaign. He would carve out a role as an unspectacular role player who would push the 20 goal level with the Wings until his trade to Toronto in March 1968.

Henderson was included in one of the biggest trades of all time in that transaction. Henderson, who Detroit was disappointed in when he didn’t achieve scoring greatness like was hoped when he came out of junior, was packaged with Norm Ullman, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie in exchange for a package of Leafs including Frank Mahovlich, Garry Unger, Pete Stemkowski and Carl Brewer.

Henderson continued to be a solid player in Toronto, but it wasn’t until 1970-71 that he emerged as scoring threat. That year he achieved 30 goals for the first time, and then had a strong playoff with 5 goals in 6 contests. Finally the steady Henderson was fulfilling his hoped-for destiny as a scoring star.

Henderson was able to take that to the next level in 1971-72. He scored a career high 38 goals, including 12 on the powerplay. When it came time to pick members of Team Canada 1972, it was hard for the coaching staff to not invite Henderson after such a strong season, even though the coaches never figured Henderson would be a significant member of the team.

Henderson showed up in camp knowing that unlike other players invited to camp he would have to earn a spot on this team. He showed up in great shape and had the training camp of his life. He was a key member of Team Canada’s top line with fellow Leaf Ron Ellis and Philadelphia Flyer youngster Bobby Clarke. Aside from Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins, Henderson was Canada’s best player. His heroics are a thing of Canadian legend.

Coming off of the great emotion of the 1972 Summit Series was not an easy task for several of Canada's top stars. The rigors of training camp and early season NHL hockey could never measure up to what they had just gone through. Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito and Bobby Clarke were noticeably struggling upon their return to life in the National Hockey League, but not nearly as much as Paul Henderson.

Prior to the tournament he was known simply as a good two-way hockey player - he patrolled his wing with diligence and little fanfare. Suddenly he was a hero of a superstar's stature. It wasn't easy for him to live up to the new expectations and the demands for his time and attention.

Combining his breakout NHL season of 1971-72 with the heroics against the Russians and you certainly couldn't blame Leaf fans for expecting Henderson to take his game to a new level at the NHL level.

However Henderson would struggle through one of his worst seasons in hockey.

Henderson ended up playing in only 40 games in that 1972-73 season, scoring 18 goals and 34 points. His numbers could have been fairly solid had he played the whole season, but he would have had to close in on the 50 goal plateau to satisfy the lofty expectations that were placed upon him.

Henderson struggled through injuries - a pulled leg muscle and a chipped bone in his leg - and when he did play he often had to play without his regular center in Norm Ullman, who also struggled with injuries. The Leafs as a team struggled immensely as well. The Leafs fans, tired of a less-than-ordinary team in the years following the 1967 Stanley Cup championships, booed the Leafs. The loudest of the boos went to Henderson.

"Wearing a helmet in games, I seldom was recognized until after the Russian series. Suddenly, I was singled out wherever I went. My life became very hectic. I struggled, started to straighten out, then got sidelined, came back and had to start all over again," said Henderson.

"I've been at my highest and at my lowest this season. It's been like a roller coaster ride. I'll never forget the Russian series, but I wish now it could be put aside until my career is over. I can't top it. I can't even come close. I can only do my best and hope to help my team become one of the best again."

"Life is a lot more fun with a winner than a with a loser," he observed.

Unhappy with his season and with owner Harold Ballard, Henderson jumped to the World Hockey Association in 1974-75. He remained in Toronto as a member of the WHA Toros, but the move to the rebel league was unpopular with die hard Leafs and NHL fans. He would remain in the WHA throughout its existence, moving to Birmingham by 1976. Upon the WHA’s folding in 1979, Henderson returned to the NHL for one more season – spending 30 games with the Atlanta Flames.

If you eliminate the month of September 1972 from his career biography, Henderson’s status as one of the top Leafs of all time is questionable. But when you include it, and you must, Henderson is immortalized in hockey history forever – something all but a few of the games’ all time greats – Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, Orr, Richard, maybe a precious few others – can never achieve.

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