Paul Henderson, 79, the hero of the celebrated 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series, has had a life filled with unexpected things. “Every day,” he says, “I get up and give thanks.”

(Thomas Froese Photo)

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 1, 2022)

PDF Version

I’m with Paul Henderson who’s telling me about unexpected things and the rest of the story.

First, for my boy and hundreds of thousands of other young Canadians starting a new hockey season, Henderson offers some advice. He talks about pushing yourself, and teamwork, and the power of encouraging others. Then he says, “Because you’re going to lose.

Interesting, since Henderson’s story is about winning. You know “The Goal, ” the game-winner in Moscow in the dying seconds of the historic 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit series, very much celebrated recently. Hollywood couldn’t have imagined it. The goal, immortalized with Frank Lennon’s photo, minted onto Canada’s soul, turned 50 this week.

Henderson, a Memorial Cup winner with the 1962 Hamilton Red Wings, was a fine player but not a superstar. Nobody expected he’d, in fact, score game winners in the last three games against the Soviets. Back-to-back-to-back game winners in a weighty international series is something unaccomplished even by Orr or Gretzky or go through the list.

But unexpected things fill Henderson’s story. I get the sense while we’re at a Hamilton-area golf club. He’s golfing 18 holes to raise funds for Joy and Hope for Haiti, a Hamilton-based charity helping Haitian school kids. It’s typical Henderson. He’s pushing 80.

We’re at a lunch table. A passerby gives him a fist-bump. “Happy 50th,” the man says. Henderson smiles. His book, “The Goal of My Life,” is nearby. But on this cool September day, for the photo I’ll take, there’s no hockey stick, or even hockey book, in his hands. For this photo, 50 years on, it’s just Paul and his candid 79-year-old face. The moment feels so bare, it’s discombobulating.

Remember, athletic heroics have a certain permanency in our culture’s conscious. A strange value. Henderson’s 1972 Canada jersey, for example, which he’d simply gifted to the team trainer, was auctioned in 2010 by another owner for $1.2 million.

Which is to say that there are goals, and there are goals. And the wind blows wherever it may. Henderson, born somewhat miraculously on a horse-drawn sleigh in a snowstorm somewhere short of Kincardine Hospital, will tell you. His biggest goal in life isn’t from a hockey game. It’s to live the daily realization that he’s holding nothing, not really, not even his life. Lose your life to find it. As a friend, that’s what he’d tell you.

“Every day,” he says, “I wake up and give thanks.”

Henderson’s discovery of life’s spiritual side also came unexpectedly. After Moscow he was a household name. Had a loving family. Money. A privileged life. Still, his heart yearned. “I wondered, what gives life meaning? Why am I here? What am I really supposed to do? I was among the most public people in the country, but I wasn’t content. I was frustrated, even angry at times.”

Mentors eventually befriended the hockey player, in Toronto, then Birmingham, where he’d later play. In time he gained new understanding. Now, for almost 40 years, he’s mentored others the same way.

In 1984 he started in Toronto, inviting a few friends. Then Hamilton. “No question is too dumb,” he’d say. With that friendship model, Henderson founded LeaderImpact, a volunteer-led organization with small groups that now meet in, remarkably, about 800 cities in dozens of countries. The goal? To nourish and grow your life personally, professionally and spiritually in a Christ-centred way.

Are there cynics and tongue-waggers? Sure. Even a life that’s light and free doesn’t become, as Henderson puts it, “wrinkle free.” Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2009, he knows. He’s doing well, but knows that one pain or another is a normal part of life.

Here’s something else that Paul easily shares. His relationship with his father wasn’t as close as some. But when scoring that goal in Moscow, what, to his own surprise, was his first thought? “Dad would’ve been proud of that one.”

I imagine he’s right. What father wouldn’t be proud? A father proud, also for that larger goal.