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Backchecking: Paul Henderson

Paul Henderson's famous series-clinching goal in the 1972 Summit Series is as famous as it gets in Canada. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

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Paul Henderson's famous series-clinching goal in the 1972 Summit Series is as famous as it gets in Canada. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

By Evan Boudreau

In November 2009, Paul Henderson got the shock of his life. During a routine checkup, his doctor recommended an abdominal ultrasound – a seemingly harmless precaution. “I’ve always kept myself in good shape,” Henderson said. “They did an ultrasound on my abdomen to make sure everything was OK and I was full of gross tumors.”

At 66, Henderson was diagnosed with chronic lymphoid leukemia. It’s the most common form of leukemia, primarily found during similar routine checkups. The man whose three consecutive game-winners in the 1972 Summit Series fortified Canada’s comeback over the Soviet Union had entered the third period of life. “I was really shocked,” Henderson said. “They told me I might have a year, a year and a half when I was first diagnosed and I’m up to two years now.”

The secret to Henderson’s longevity isn’t cutting-edge treatment; in fact, he’s yet to endure chemotherapy. It’s all about staying positive, healthy and religious. “Two years into it and I lived a pretty good life because I don’t let fear and worry get to me,” Henderson said. “I just refuse to go there. My cancer came uninvited, but no one gets a wrinkle-free life and the Bible tells you that.”

Henderson wasn’t always the care-free Christian. Rewind to 1972-73, when Henderson donned a blue and white Maple Leaf for 40 NHL games after the Summit Series and you’ll see a completely different man: angry, bitter and full of anxious fears. “I was petrified of dying for years,” Henderson said. “We’d get onto a plane and there would be bad weather and I’d be petrified.”

During the ’73 off-season, Mel Stevens came knocking on Henderson’s door. Founder of Teen Ranch, a Christian sports camp in Caledon, Ont., Stevens wanted Henderson as an instructor for free. “I thought, ‘Do you not know who you’re talking to?’ ” Henderson said.

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Henderson reluctantly agreed to take part, not realizing what he’d begun. “I spent two years meeting with him almost weekly trying to figure out if I believed,” Henderson said. 

Two years, 20 books and one bible later, Henderson became more than just a volunteering professional. He became an Anglican. Now 68, his back pressed against a massage chair, feet resting on an exercise ball and a deadly disease accelerating his internal clock, Henderson can say he has “no annex or fear in my body whatsoever even though I’m full of cancer.”

While many view cancer as a progressive closing of all doors, Henderson sees only opportunity in life. On the 38th anniversary of his biggest goal, Henderson kicked off the 2010 Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer. “Anything cancer research is obviously near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I’m a hockey player and I have cancer. The two kind of go together. I’m not looking to be the poster boy for cancer, but anything that I can do.”

On Oct. 1, 2011, Henderson’s hat trick novel, How Hockey Explains Canada, hit shelves. A fourth, The Paul Henderson Story, releases on the 40th anniversary of the goal. Last year, he teamed with Mitchell Goldhar, owner of Smart Centers and Henderson’s 1972 Game 8 jersey – which cost $1.27 million – to tour Western Canada with a 40-foot double-wide semi packed with hockey memorabilia. Of the 65 tour stops, Henderson dressed for 15. This year, he plans to make 10 East Coast appearances.

Henderson also works regularly at the men’s mission he started in 1984, is a motivational speaker and always finds time to sign an autograph – even during a rare night out with Eleanor, his wife of 49 years.

“I sign more autographs today than I ever did.”

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