For the past 37 years, Paul Henderson has been a Canadian hero and a source of national pride after slipping a puck past Vladislav Tretiak to defeat Russia in the legendary Summit Series of 1972.
The ex-Red Wings’ image has been memorialized on a postage stamp and a silver coin for a goal that changed his life in ways he never could have imagined as a boy learning to skate on a pond near Kincardine Ontario. Nearly everyday someone he meets mentions “the goal” or asks for an autograph.
“I had to make choice years ago to either embrace the fame that came with that goal or run from it,” said Henderson from his office near Toronto. “I chose to use the high profile in a positive way.”
Traveling throughout Canada as President of the Leadership Group, a Christian based ministry that tries to help people “get into shape spiritually” Henderson tells a story of ups and downs and a hockey career that began with the Red Wings.
Signed as a teenager by Wings, the speedy right winger along with center Norm Ullman and Bruce MacGregor formed the Wings’ potent “HUM Line” that helped lead the club to the 1966 Stanley Cup Finals.
“I loved playing for the Wings and the fans at Olympia. I never imagined not playing my whole career in Detroit,” Henderson said.
Late in the 1967-1968 campaign, Henderson’s five year Red Wing career abruptly ended when he was traded to Toronto with Ullman in a blockbuster eight player trade. “I learned about it from Bruce McGregor’s wife who heard it on the radio,” Henderson says. “They could have at least told me in person. It was total betrayal. I was absolutely devastated. But I kissed them off in a hurry and couldn’t wait to play them.”
With a line consisting of Henderson, Ullman, and Ron Ellis, the Maple Leaf trio established Toronto single season scoring records for a forward line. “As it turned out, the trade was the best thing that could have happened,” he said.
In 1971-1972, Henderson was at his peak when he netted 38 goals, a career high. He was then selected to the Team Canada squad consisting of NHL stars chomping at the bit and ready to annihilate the renowned Russian team that had previously trounced Canadian amateur teams. Canada’s hockey pride was at stake.
“We really wanted to show the Soviets what hockey players were,” Henderson said. “But after I scored to make it 2-0 at the 6 minute mark of the first game, I sat next to Ellis and Bobby Clarke on the bench and said, ‘Gentleman, this is going to be a very long series.”
Not only did Team Canada lose the first match of the eight game series, they left for Russia with a 1-2-1 record and a lump in their throat. The stage was set for Henderson’s heroics.
After losing game five in Moscow, Team Canada stormed back to tie the series. Henderson scored the winning goal in game 6 and then skated through the Russian team to win game 7 with just two minutes left. “I had thought that goal would have been the biggest of my life,” Henderson said.
He wasn’t done yet.
In the final game with the score tied 5-5 and a minute to play, Henderson did the unthinkable. “I can’t explain what came over me, but I stood up and yelled for Peter Mahovolich to come off the ice and I jumped out there.” With 34 seconds remaining, Henderson became a Canadian folk hero after chipping a rebound past Tretiak to win the series.
But the euphoria quickly died when he returned to Toronto to start the NHL season with a disgruntled team upset with their intermeddling owner Harold Ballard. “I was an angry young man with no spiritual dimension and I was doing a lot of drinking” Henderson readily acknowledges.
After accepting a bible from a stranger, within three years Henderson embraced Christianity and found further happiness in the World Hockey Association with the Toronto Toros/ Birmingham Bulls franchise. Upon completing his professional hockey career in 1981, which included an NHL return with the Atlanta Flames, Henderson tried the business sector and then attended seminary. Since 1984 he has been involved in “full time Christian work” while also giving motivational talks to corporations and actively participating in charity work.
Despite a jam packed speaking schedule, Henderson and his wife Eleanor, married 39 years, enjoy traveling and visiting with their three daughters and five grandchildren. And although every anniversary of THE GOAL has brought more attention and demands on his time, Henderson doesn’t mind at all.
“At the end of the day, I go home feeling very satisfied that I helped someone. I wouldn’t change places with anybody.”