‘Henderson scores for Canada’
For the first time Canada’s Walk of Fame has inducted an entire team. The honour comes on the 40th anniversary of the iconic 1972 Summit Series in which Team Canada triumphed over the Soviet Union in dramatic come-from-behind fashion.
You remember Team Canada 1972.
For millions of Canadians who dropped everything to watch the historic eighth game of the Canada-Soviet hockey series 40 years ago this September, the wild final minute is encrypted on our collective consciousness as a defining moment in our nation’s history.
The all-stars of Canadian hockey: Mahovlich, Dryden, Esposito. They came together full of bravado and heavily favoured to dominate their Soviet opponents.
The fact that the best player in the National Hockey League, Bobby Orr, was unavailable due to injury, and that electric superstar Bobby Hull was shunned because he had jumped to the rival World Hockey Association, seemed to matter little. We didn’t need them to beat these amateurs who had dominated the world championships over the previous decade.
These men from disparate backgrounds and rival NHL clubs seemed to have little in common other than their passion for hockey and their patriotism.
That, and the fact that few took the members of the Soviet national team seriously. Within a few weeks that would change dramatically. Down two games to one with one tie when the series left Canada, Phil Esposito made a televised plea on behalf of his teammates that riveted his fellow Canadians. After game five in Moscow, the Soviets were up three wins to one with a tie. Team Canada would have to win three straight to salvage a series win.
And so they did. The NHLers would come together as no other band of hockey men has before or since, forging a bond none of them would ever forget.
“We are like siblings,” quipped Peter Mahovlich, now director of pro scouting for the Florida Panthers, who actually played with his brother Frank on the ‘72 squad.
“But seriously, we started out as a bunch of all-stars who barely knew each other, and ended up bonding like a band of brothers. The connection between the players is difficult to describe. It’s almost like family after what we went through together,” adds Mahovlich from his home in Queensbury, New York.
The Summit Series is remembered for many reasons. First, there was an improbable comeback, even by Hollywood North standards, where the Canadians were forced to win those last three games, the last two in last-second fashion.
In addition, it took place during the height of Cold War hostilities. More than just a hockey brawl, it turned into an ideological battle to determine what system created a better breed of athletes.
And hyperbolically, it became a test of character – whether athletes in the free world, particularly from Canada, had more “heart” than the supposed automatons from the soulless communist world.
Phil Esposito, the team’s inspirational leader, summed it up this way in a previous conversation with FYI about the series: “There is no doubt in my mind that I’d have killed to win that series.” The current radio voice for the Tampa Bay Lightning added, “It scares me, but it’s true.”
“For people of a certain age,” recalls Mahovlich, “this was a defining moment for our country. At that time, Canada had just been through the FLQ crisis. The country was going through a troubled time socially. This series helped to define us and helped to bring us closer together as Canadians.”
The format was four games in Canada, on Sept. 2, 4, 6 and 8, followed by games in Moscow Sept. 22, 24, 26, 28. Canada scored in the first minute of game one in Montreal but the advantage soon disappeared. Following the humiliating 7-3 rout in front of a stunned audience at the Forum, the team – and the nation – realized they were in for a battle. They had badly underestimated the speed and skill of the Soviet side, particularly the talents of their goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who had been branded an “amateur” by advance scouts.
“We had to work together,” says game-eight hero Paul Henderson, “Playing as individuals was not working and we had to find a way to get some pucks past Tretiak. By necessity we became a team.”
Henderson, of course, scored “the goal heard ‘round the world” with just 34 seconds left on the clock to lift Canada to victory at Moscow’s Luzhniki Ice Palace, where the atmosphere was described at the time by Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes as “highly charged ... Even by Cold War sensibilities, it was extremely tense. The arena at the time was heavily guarded by fully armed Russian Cossacks who got into several altercations with Canadian fans.”
At one point, an overzealous Mahovlich waved his stick at stunned Soviet officials, demanding that they take their hands off team Canada manager Allan Eagleson, who had vigorously protested what he thought was a disallowed goal.
“They said the goal light had just burned out,” says Mahovlich, to this day in disbelief, “The soldiers handed over Al and instead of a goal light decided to wave a white towel to signal a goal.” The symbolism not lost on the players.
“We had heard the Russians were chokers,” defenceman Pat “Whitey” Stapleton told FYI years ago. “When we saw the white towel we all laughed. We knew it was the Canadian way to never give up. The guys were determined not to quit. We had a lot of heart. After all, we didn’t go all that way to lose.”
“We never thought for a second that we wouldn’t win,” remembers Henderson. “Everyone in the room was like, Okay lets do this,” says the one-time elegant forward who scored the winning goals in the final three games in Moscow to lead the plucky Canucks.“
Right in front to Henderson, who made a wild stab at it and fell. Here’s another shot right in front … They score! Henderson scores for Canada,” bleated announcer Foster Hewitt.
Euphroria for some, a relief for others, a celebration for all. The struggle was finally over after eight grueling games filled with tremendous pressure.
“It’s hard to describe the sense of relief we felt,” Esposito has said. “I was so proud of those guys and I don’t mind telling you, when Henny scored that goal, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to kissing a man.”
The bond between the men lasts to this day. Mahovlich ask me for an update on his old buddy: “How’s Paul? Where is he going for treatments?”
Canada’s hero, Paul Henderson, at 69 is fighting a new enemy. He is battling lymphocytic leukemia, a form of cancer, and he is doing it with the kind of grace, strength and serenity Canada’s sports fans have come to expect.
He gives me news over the phone that I will later pass on to Mahovlich: “We tried the natural route with supplements, a strict diet and a healthy lifestyle to boost the immune system,” he says, “But the lymph nodes have gotten worse since I started in ‘09. Now we are undergoing a six-week experimental trial in the States.”
Henderson, a devout Christian, continues to inspire with his hopeful tone and busy speaking schedule and has recently finished an inspirational book, titled The Goal of My Life, in which he credits his wife of close to 50 years Eleanor as his main source of support.
Despite his treatments, Henderson hopes to attend the various 40th-anniversary events this September including being inducted onto the Walk of Fame in Toronto.
Team Canada linemate Ron Ellis, who spoke to FYI from the Hockey Hall of Fame where he works as a special advisor, is not surprised.” There is no question the celebrations would not be the same without Paul, especially for me,” says Ellis. “We were linemates and roommates. We experienced the journey together. Paul and Phil were selected as MVPs of the team in ‘72 for the obvious reasons and there would be a major hole in any celebration if one or both could not be in attendance.”
Asked about his buddy’s fight with cancer, Ellis says, “Paul is not a quitter. It would be a big mistake to bet against him, as the Russians found out.”
As the legacy of Team Canada 72 is about to be immortalized on Canada’s Walk of Fame, once again Henderson, though speaking in a halting voice, comes through in the clutch. This time he does it with words.
When asked to sum up what this honour means, to meet with his former teammates for what could be the last time, he pauses to compose himself, emotions not far from the surface. “Teammates,” he says quietly. “Once and forever.”