It was a moment that defined a generation. Any Canadian my age, and many much younger, can tell you exactly where they were 50 years ago today, the afternoon Paul Henderson scored the goal.
Americans my age know where they were when they heard about the assasination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. For a previous generation it was hearing about the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. In the 21st century maybe September 11, 2001 and the destruction of the World Trade Center would be a comparable shared experience. But for a Canadian, none of those comes close.
In a sport that has dominated the Canadian psyche for more than a century, there is only one GOAL. Thirty-four seconds left. Game eight. The deciding game of the 1972 Summit series between Canada and the USSR. Henderson from Copurnoyer and Esposito. It is the stuff of legends.
Communism versus capitalism. East versus West. Free spirits against the machine. And the machine almost won. Except for Henderson, not the biggest star of that star-studded squad, who scored the winning goals in games six, seven and eight, all must wins if the Canadian team was to win the series.
Hockey is our game. We invented it. Our players are the best. But for many years that was a matter of faith – Canada’s best were professionals, and international hockey was for amateurs only. Their best never got to play our best. Until September 1972.
Which was a wakeup call. The professionals were out of shape and it showed. They hadn’t really understood that their opponents were also professionals, though not classed that way by the International Ice Hockey Federation. The USSR team were also playing for more than pride – in their system losing could bring severe punishment.
I was at home. My family had recently moved back to Ottawa after 15 years in Montreal. I skipped school to watch the game that afternoon. My mother suggested I watch with George from around the corner. She had met his mother, but George and I haven’t met yet. Being a natural introvert, a word I had never heard back then, I chose to watch the game alone. If I had stayed at school I could have watched in class – but i didn’t know those people. (For the record, George and I met shortly after that. We became good friends.)
There is no way to adequately describe the national euphoria when that puck crossed the goal line. Fifty years later my eyes well up with tears as I watch the footage.
Confronted with seemingly insurmountable odds, Canada’s best went to Moscow and won the series. Many books have been written, so I won’t repeat the details of the adversity they faced. Let’s just say there was a reason they brought their own food from Canada.
Those eight games in September 1972 changed the way hockey was played in North America. Professionals began training year-round rather than showing up at the start of a season out of shape. Coaches began adopting styles of play based on what had worked so well for the USSR.
As for Paul Henderson, he discovered that all the adulation and success still left a void in his life. He found peace in a relationship with Jesus Christ – something big touch hockey players didn’t admit to doing back then.
Weirdly enough, Henderson still isn’t in Canada’s Hockey Hall of Fame, though he is in the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. The goalie who failed to stop that puck 50 years ago today is there. The hall’s argument is that it honours careers, not individual moments. Henderson himself admits his career wasn’t as spectacular as that one month.
Still, you would think that there would be a place to recognize such a spectacular acihevment. Maybe someone at the Hall will eventually realize that not honoring Paul Henderson lessens the institution itself.