SPECIAL REPORT

Henderson Scores!

The 1972 Summit Series changed hockey forever

JAMES DEACON September 29 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

Henderson Scores!

The 1972 Summit Series changed hockey forever

JAMES DEACON September 29 1997

Settling into a chair in a quiet corner of Maple Leaf Gardens’ famed private club, the Hot Stove Lounge, Paul Henderson takes a moment to look around. The decor in the upstairs room—as dated as the Leafs’ glory days—is dominated by an alarmingly bright mural, a rainbow of colors not found anywhere in nature. “This place is the same as it was when I first played here in the late ’60s,” Henderson says cheerfully. He hasn’t changed much, either. Dapper in a blue blazer, crisp blue shirt and grey flannels, the 54-year-old Henderson still plays recreational hockey regularly, works out three times a week and proudly reports he hasn’t gained a pound since his playing days. And the years seem to melt away entirely when he talks about scoring the most famous goal in the history of his sport—the one that, on Sept. 28, 1972, gave Canada its come-from-behind victory over the Soviet Union in the so-called Summit Series. “All I remember right after that is that I was hugging Yvon Cournoyer so hard,” he says, clutching his chest to illustrate the point. “It’s a good thing he was so strong because I might have hurt someone else.”

Henderson, Cournoyer and the first-ever Team Canada did not celebrate alone. Approximately three out of every four Canadians were glued to their TVs and radios for that final game from Moscow. Employers experienced an epidemic of midday absenteeism. Schools interrupted classes so that students and teachers could watch. And rare are people who cannot recall where they were when Henderson scored (page 62). Toronto communications consultant Katherine Van de Mark, now 40, remembers her Grade 10 physics teacher—“the only male teacher in an all-girls school”—bringing a TV into their classroom so they could watch the eighth game. When Henderson broke the 5-5 tie by snapping his own rebound past goaltender Vladislav Tretiak with 34 seconds remaining, Van de Mark and her classmates did what 15 million other Canadians did at exactly the same moment. "We all went completely nuts,” she says.

Talk about therapy for the national psyche. For a country perennially searching for an identity, Henderson’s goal did more than reaffirm that the birthplace of Joliette, Morenz, Howe and Beliveau was still the best hockey nation on earth. That one spine-tingling victory was somehow a symbol of what it meant to be Canadian. The fans who hugged and hollered and jumped up and down identified with the character of the players—their flexibility in adapting to the Soviets’ baffling, unfamiliar style of play. And they took pride in a team that did not give up when all seemed lost—that had one win, three losses and a tie going into the final three games in Moscow. It was to Canadians what Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was to Americans—one giant (if low-tech) step for the men in white (the Soviets wore their home reds). “I am more recognized today than I was in 1972,” Henderson says. “People are always stopping me for autographs and to talk about the goal.”

The event had an even greater impact on the sport itself. The National Hockey League, operated like an Old Boys club, had smugly assumed that it was God’s gift to the game—until the Soviets unleashed their swirling, five-man attack. They emphatically demonstrated to NHL general managers and coaches that they needed to rethink their strict positional style of play, and that Canada did not have a corner on the talent market.

And the overwhelming fan reaction sent hockey on an international breakaway. To satisfy the suddenly ravenous appetite for multi-nation competitions that allowed the use of professionals, officials organized the eight-country Canada Cup in 1976 that, four Cups later, begat the World Cup of Hockey in 1996. That, in turn, was a dry run for next February’s Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, where, for the first time, all of the world’s best professionals are eligible to compete for Olympic gold. “What’s happening is the globalization of hockey,” says Bob Goodenow, head of the NHL players association. “It’s the natural evolution of interest in a great game.”

It was a minor miracle that Canada versus the Soviet Union occurred at all. The first discussions between the various governing bodies took place in Stockholm in 1969, and there were innumerable diplomatic hurdles, not to mention the objections of NHL team owners. Adding to the potential fireworks was the confrontation between Soviet bureaucrats and Alan Eagleson, the then-players association boss who spearheaded the Canadian delegation. Tired of watching Canada’s amateur entries get humiliated by the amateur-in-name-only Soviets at international tournaments, Eagleson barged into the negotiations with all the subtlety of Wayne Cashman crashing the boards. “The Soviets had proved they had the best amateurs in the world and we were the best professionals,” he explains. “So I took the position that we should play our best against their best.”

It was three years before a deal was finally struck, and the result was more than just a hockey tournament. “It was during the Cold War, remember,” says Rod Selling, a Team Canada defenceman. “It was Us versus Them.” Even then, the Canadians were not prepared. Many of them arrived at training camp that August out of shape and overconfident. “I saw those guys at a banquet before the series, and some of them were 10, maybe 15 lb. overweight,” says CBC analyst Don Cherry, who was then coaching the minor-league Rochester Americans. “They didn’t take it very seriously at all.” The players soon learned their folly. After falling behind 2-0 early in Game 1, the supremely fit Soviets—led by their brilliant winger, Valeriy Kharlamov—skated rings around their hosts in Montreal and swept to a stunning 7-3 triumph.

After four games at home, Team Canada had only one victory and a tie, and appeared in disarray. But desperation is the mother of improvement. Coach Harry Sinden whipped his troops into shape during a 10-day layover in Sweden prior to the four Moscow games and, despite losing Game 5, the Canadians battled back to take the final three contests. The victory, says Eagleson, ranks “number 1” in his career. “Nothing else comes close, at least professionally,” he says. Eagleson, who is ostracized from the game and faces criminal charges of fraud and embezzlement, has boxes full of souvenirs from 1972. “If I ever have a memorabilia sale,” he jokes, “I’ll be able to pay some bills.”

Ironically, some analysts now say the victory did North American hockey a disservice. Had they lost, the theory goes, NHL and Canadian officials would have been quicker to adopt Soviet-style development programs that included year-round practices and dry-land training. Ken Dryden, the starting goaltender in the final game, agrees to an extent, but says he certainly did not mind at the time. “Personally, I’m glad Paul scored,” the now-president of the Leafs says with a chuckle. “It’s one thing to learn a lesson, and it’s another to be hammered over the head with it. And that’s what our experience would have been had we lost.”

Slowly at first, NHL teams opened their doors to European players and even to their training methods. The melding of styles, however, was not complete until the fall of communism released dozens of top players from Eastern Bloc nations. Detroit owed its Stanley Cup victory last June in part to the stellar play of its five Russians. And as a further symbol of how things change, three of those Russian Red Wings took the Stanley Cup to Moscow last summer.

Currently, more than 20 per cent of NHL players come from Europe, and to some, that is too many, too soon. CBC’s Cherry, of course, regards all imports with suspicion. “I don’t like a lot of things they brought over,” he says of the European players, rhyming off helmets, visors and even rink-board advertising as examples of the scourge. “And they take dives,” he adds. “I mean, [former Philadelphia Flyer] Billy Barber was good, but these guys are like Tom Mix.” Yet, even Cherry admits there are benefits for the NHL. The influx of new players helped the league avoid a dilution in talent when it added five expansion teams in the early 1990s. As well, he says, younger Europeans who are just joining the NHL seem prepared for a tougher style. “I see a lot more of them coming over now,” he says, “and you can’t tell the difference between them and the Canadians.”

Some Russian officials have complained that the loss of stars to North America diminishes interest in domestic leagues. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggests the opposite is true. “In the last five years,” he says, “the ‘A’ leagues in Europe have grown by 20 per cent in terms of the number of teams, and major-junior hockey in Canada has grown 23 per cent.” And it would be difficult now to stem the flow of talent to North America. There is both the lure—the average annual NHL salary is more than $1 million—and the opportunity—four expansion teams are scheduled to join the league by 2000. They will have to find players somewhere.

From his 47th-floor office in New York City, Bettman can see a world of possibilities springing from the NHL presence at the Olympics. The tournament is expected to build interest in NHL products and TV programming, not just domestically but also in Europe and the Pacific Rim. More importantly, Bettman says, the Olympics offer a chance to create new fans and encourage more kids to take up the game, thus adding to the talent base. “It’s an opportunity because more people worldwide will be exposed to this game and our players than ever before,” he says.

That exposure is why NHL owners are willing to suspend the coming season for 17 days in February. Along with national pride, it is why millionaire players are willing to compete for expenses only. And it is why Bettman and Goodenow set aside their labor differences to work with the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Olympic Committee and a dozen other organizations for the common good. If nothing else, Bettman says, the event is certain to be an artistic success. “You are taking the best hockey players in the world and asking them to play for their countries,” he says. “So the competition will take care of itself.”

The veterans of 1972 say they had no idea at the time how profound an effect the series would someday have on hockey. “I never imagined that, 25 years later, all the best players in the world would play in one league,” Dryden says. Few could fathom the impact on themselves, either. Henderson’s 18-year pro career was solid but unspectacular—he is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But supporters argue that he should be, pointing out that he scored the winning goals in the three final games of the groundbreaking ’72 series. “I never, ever dreamed of being the hero,” he says. “I would have been happy just to sit on the bench and open and close the door for the guys.” Since retiring from hockey in 1984, though, Henderson has drawn on the experience of 1972 and his resulting high profile in his work as a Christian missionary. “I think the opportunities it has given me, in terms of giving back, are the best part of it,” he says. “I am probably more satisfied with what I have achieved since 1972 than what I did before, but it will never go away. The day I die, the stories will say I was the guy who scored the goal in 1972.”

Along with the joy, he remembers sheer exhaustion. “My tank was empty, physically, emotionally, every way there was,” he says. “I sat in the dressing room for about 45 minutes and I couldn’t even get my skates off.” Early the next morning, he and the others had to board a plane for Prague for an exhibition game, and as soon as they returned home, they had to report to their regular teams’ training camps. For Henderson, that meant rejoining the then-miserable Leafs under their meddling owner, Harold Ballard. “What irritates me to this day is I never really got a chance to celebrate,” he says.

As if to compensate, Henderson, Seiling and another ’72 alumnus, Ron Ellis, formed a nonprofit group to organize events honoring this week’s 25th anniversary. They include a private dinner in Toronto for the players, a golf tournament and a fund-raising inter-squad game at Maple Leaf Gardens on the anniversary itself. For the players, it will be a chance to renew an old but strong bond. And across the country, the occasion will likely spark a flood of reminiscences—people recalling where they were, who they were with and, perhaps, what it feels like to be Canadian.