Monday, September 28, 2009

Henderson's goal still echoes

Twenty-seven years ago, on September 28, 1972, Paul Henderson was centre stage in perhaps the most momentous moment in Canadian sports history. Henderson had led the Canadian comeback in the Summit Series against the Soviet Union, scoring the game-winner in both Game Six and Game Seven of the eight-game series. That was nothing compared to what came next, though.

The eighth game was for all the marbles. Both teams entered with 3-3-1 records, and the atmosphere in Moscow was downright hostile. The Soviet Union led 5-3 after the second period, and it looked as if all was lost. Yet, Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer tallied for Canada to tie it up. At that point, a Soviet official informed the Canadians that the Soviets would claim victory on goal differential if the series ended in a tie. This seemed the latest in a string of dubious Soviet moves to win, and at the very least, would have resulted in one of the greatest hockey matchups ever played ending in disputes and feuding.

Fortunately for the Canadians, Henderson singlehandedly prevented that from happening. With less than a minute left, he was on the bench, but he acted on his own initiative and called Pete Mahovlich off. He jumped over the boards and rushed the net, narrowly missing on his first shot and getting knocked down. He got back up, grabbed Esposito's rebound and drilled it past one of the greatest goaltenders ever, Vladislav Tretiak. The puck was in with just 34 seconds left, and the Canadians hung on for a win.

There's a reason this moment still resonates with Canadians, and it's not just those of a certain age. It happened before my birth, but from the books I've read and the DVD footage of the series I've watched, I'll still take this series over any hockey played before or since then. It featured tremendous storylines, many of the best players in the world and athletes dueling for national pride, as well as some purely fantastic hockey.

A lot of the time, we magnify rivalries well beyond their actual significance. Sure, there's a great history between the Yankees and Red Sox, but players move back and forth between the two teams (and to the rest of the teams in the league as well). Moreover, thanks to their free-spending ways, they have more in common than they do apart. The same could be applied to say, Manchester United and Liverpool, or almost any other rivalry. That's not to dismiss those rivalries; they're still great for fans, and there's still something there. It's just that I think we often overexaggerate the magnitude of the effect on the players.

Even international competition doesn't always bring out the real passion. Sure, it's cool to watch the Canadian and American NHLers take each other on in the Olympics or Spain play the U.S. in the basketball final, but it diminishes the effect a bit when you consider that Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh normally play side by side. There's rivalry, sure, and competition, but there's no real hatred.

Probably the closest thing to the Summit Series is the World Cup, and it does approach this level of magnitude. Players take it to the next level and national pride is on the line for both individuals and teams. However, players still often find themselves matched up against friends and teammates, and the recurring nature of the competition diminshes the impact of a single win.

By contrast, the Summit Series was a one-time-only thing. Yes, there were plenty of other clashes between the Canadians and the Soviets, but this was the key one. This was where the Canadian pros came in and found out just how good the Soviet "amateurs" were. This was where both countries' ways of hockey were tested, and where both sides realized the merits of some of the opposition tactics. Every subsequent competition mattered, but this was an all-in call by both sides. The players knew it, the coaches knew it and the fans knew it.

Many times, applying nationalism to sports doesn't really work. I'm not sure if it really means anything for Canada as a whole if we beat Puerto Rico in baseball, or if our U-20 soccer team loses to Rwanda in the Francophone Games. It's interesting for the players involved and the fans of that sport, but it doesn't mean a lot on the larger scale. The Olympics see much more nationalism writ large, but this doesn't even always work; is it supposed to mean something to me if a Canadian can throw a shot-put further than others? It can be a cool story, and it's nice to see my fellow countrymen and women succeed, but how they do doesn't affect my identity as a Canadian. I'm all in favour of funding Olympic sports, and I'll even watch the Games from time to time, but to me, it's not really nationalism; I like seeing Canadians succeed because of our shared background, but it doesn't really matter to me how the country does in the Games.

I don't even really buy the application of nationalism to hockey most of the time the way many Canadians seem to. Sure, it was nice to see the Canadian team win gold at the 2002 Olympics, and it was disappointing to see them lose in Turin. The first wasn't really miraculous for our national identity in my mind, though (although some would argue it was), and the second wasn't a national crisis to me (although many argued it was). There's still plenty of love for hockey up here, but not even every Canadian is a hockey fan, and that's just fine. To me, it's great if a group of players wearing the Maple Leaf picks up a gold medal. It's an elite hockey tournament, it's fun to watch and I'd rather see Canadian guys win it than anyone else. I'm not going to go into mourning, put on sackcloth and ashes and start demanding heads on a platter if they lose in Vancouver this February though. Identity is what you make it, and if you choose to bottle yours up with a team, that's fine. For me, there's much more to being Canadian than just living and dying with a national hockey team though.

However, the '72 Series is where I'll make an exception. I talked a lot about the importance of narrativium in my Phoenix Pub column today with respect to football, but narrativium is what took the Summit Series above and beyond a mere sporting competition. The historical background here is huge; this came just four years after the Prague Spring, during a period of Soviet expansionism when all seemed to fall before them. The U.S. was led by Richard Nixon, the first details of Watergate were starting to figure out, the Vietnam War was drawing to a bloody and humiliating close and the North American economy was headed for the tank. There wasn't a lot of hope anywhere to be found.

In hockey, the Soviets' supposed "amateur" teams (made up of players who were paid by the government, usually as army officers whose sole duties involved year-round training for hockey) had cleaned up at the Winter Olympics for several years; they first competed in 1956, and won five gold medals and a bronze in six apparances. The Canadians weren't allowed to play professionals in the Olympics, but everyone thought their best would clean up against the Soviets. Boy, were they wrong.

The Canadians lost the first game 7-3 in Montreal and the hockey world was shocked. They rebounded to win 4-1 in the second game in Toronto and tied the third match 4-4 in Winnipeg, but it was a 5-3 loss to Vancouver that was the real crisis point and turned this into something much, much more than just a hockey series. The turning point? Phil Esposito's post-game speech, as he was showered with boos from the crowd.

"To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, geez, I'm really, all of us guys are really disheartened and we're disillusioned, and we're disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we've got, the booing we've gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players, the fans... Russians boo their players... Some of the Canadian fans—I'm not saying all of them, some of them booed us, then I'll come back and I'll apologize to each one of the Canadians, but I don't think they will. I'm really, really... I'm really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps, we know, we're trying like hell. I mean, we're doing the best we can, and they got a good team, and let's face facts. But it doesn't mean that we're not giving it our 150%, because we certainly are.

I mean, the more - everyone of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada. We did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason, no other reason. They can throw the money, uh, for the pension fund out the window. They can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States, and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home, and that's the only reason we come. And I don't think it's fair that we should be booed."

That speech turned this into more than just a hockey series. It became a surprisingly hot cold war, played out on the ice instead of in government headquarters. It became a clash of not just Canadian and Soviet hockey players, but Canadian and Soviet nations. Canadians from coast to coast got behind the team, with many making the pilgrimage behind the Iron Curtain to cheer them on in person. It wasn't just the fans, either; if you read accounts from the players and coaches involved, many felt they were fighting for their country and their way of life. See Esposito's comments years later about the interview, the booing and the speech: "That's when I realized we were in a war, man. This isn't a game. This is a war and we'd better get ourselves together." Bobby Clarke took that perhaps a bit too literally with his slash on Valeri Kharlamov, but even that dirty play couldn't mar a fantastic series.

Even that motivation wasn't quite enough at first, though. The Canadians were fully invested in this by now, but the Soviets' skill and superior conditioning would be tough to overcome. After a two-week break and a pair of exhibition games, Canada lost a hard-fought Game Five 5-4 in Moscow, and it looked like all hope was lost.

Enter Paul Henderson. Henderson was a talented NHL player, but not a star; he scored a career-high 27-best goals in 1968-69 with the Leafs. He was on Team Canada for his two-way play, but he turned into a saviour. In the Game Five loss, he scored an early goal, crashed into the boards, suffered a concussion, refused doctor's orders to sit out and scored again on the next shift. He scored the game-winning goal in Game Six's 3-2 victory and repeated the feat to give Canada a 4-3 win in Game Seven. In Game Eight, Henderson was once again out there giving it everything he had, and it paid off with his legendary goal.

It's perhaps appropriate that Henderson became the hero. He wasn't a star like Esposito or Clarke, and he certainly wasn't on a level with Bobby Hull or Bobby Orr, the greatest Canadian lights of the day who missed the series thanks to the WHA-NHL conflict and injuries respectively. In fact, to this day, Henderson has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame despite a good NHL career. He brought the guts, the grit and the defensive intensity though, and did something extraordinary with his limited gifts, earning a crucial series victory not just for his coach or his teammates, but for an entire country. In my mind, that's someone to look up to. That's why Henderson will always be one of my sports heroes, and why his goal will remain one of my favourite sports memories, even though I wasn't around to see it.

Related: Check out Magic's great piece on the matter and Joe Pelletier's amazing Summit Series site.


  1. Great piece. As a 31 year old native New Yorker, I probably shouldn't have any significant connection to Paul Henderson and the Series. I shouldn't, but I do because of my love of the game. The Series was one of those rare sporting moments that was so much bigger than sports. It's history, really, and it deserves all the recognition it gets.

  2. "The Series was one of those rare sporting moments that was so much bigger than sports."

    I think that covers it exactly. Most of the time, despite all the things we like to project onto them (the success of cities, the greatness of countries, etc), sporting events are usually just sports. That's fine, as there's plenty to talk about even in those cases, but there are some rare moments when events on the rink/pitch/gridiron transcend sports and take on a larger significance. Oddly enough, I think two of the most poignant examples have come in hockey with the Summit Series and the Miracle on Ice; both were incredible athletic triumphs that were much more than just a game.