I was three days old when Paul Henderson scored The Goal.
There aren’t many Canadians of a certain age that don’t know about The Goal. For Canadians and sports lovers, particularly those born prior to 1965, Henderson’s goal in the final minute of the eighth and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series between Canadian-born NHL players and a Soviet Union squad helped define an era in Canadian sports, politics, even life in general.
Having been in my infancy when it happened, I had no idea what it all meant. I first heard a clip of Foster Hewitt’s famous play-by-play of The Goal in, of all things, a mid-’80s Molson Export beer commercial. I started hearing Henderson’s name in novelty songs, including one that proclaimed The Goal as the single greatest moment in Canadian history. It made extremely little sense to me, especially as I hadn’t yet given myself over to full-on hockey fandom.
Finally, in 1989, CBC-TV cleared things up for me by airing the made-for-TV movie Pray For Me, Paul Henderson. Ostensibly about a group of high school misfits trying to win glory in the early years of the game show Reach For The Top, the story played out against the backdrop of the ’72 Summit Series. (Fun fact: Yannick Bisson, now starring in CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries, earned the scorn of his fictional classmates by playing the school’s lone Russian student and loudly cheering for the supposedly-evil Communist plotters on skates.)
At one point of the movie, classes were cancelled to allow the students to watch the series’ deciding game. Down 5-3 in the third period in Moscow, the Canadians stormed back to tie it, setting the stage for Henderson’s heroics. And as soon as the puck hit the net and Foster Hewitt hit high notes not reached by any sportscaster before or since that time, the fictional high school class went bonkers, throwing papers and books into the air before chanting Henderson’s name.
It was relentlessly cheesy and corny. But that movie scene, combined with news coverage of similar gatherings unfolding across Canada in September of 1972, struck a chord with me. This was a moment that united the country in a rarely-seen fashion. Even people who didn’t care about hockey wanted to know what happened. America had its man-on-the-moon moment, coming only six years after the country was shaken by John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Our moment, at least for this particular generation, was a Toronto Maple Leaf jumping on a loose puck in front of an exposed Russian goalie named Vladislav Tretiak.
(I would discover, years later, that as a child on a VIA Rail train making its way through the Maritimes, my younger sister would share an orange pop with Vladislav Tretiak. But that’s another story for another time.)
Today, Henderson – now a member of the Order of Canada, as you can see by the photo above – is still asked about The Goal hundreds of times a year, but he’s parlayed that iconic moment into a post-hockey career as a motivational speaker. As a Christian myself, I am also personally heartened by Henderson’s 1975 acceptance of Christ as his saviour and his devotion to God’s work in the following four decades.
There will always be debate about the true merits of the ’72 Summit Series, coloured as it was by the Cold War and the fact that it was absorbed by a generation not that far removed from the “Duck and Cover” era and the Cuban missile crisis. Some sportswriters have even suggested that Canada’s highly-paid NHLers were lucky to simply avoid completely embarrassing themselves against the Soviets, and given that Canada finished the “friendly” outing with four wins, three losses (including a 7-3 humiliation in Game 1 at Montreal) and a tie, those cynics may have a point.
And yet the Summit Series continues its reach into the present day. Even the exasperated interview by Phil Esposito after a 5-3 Soviet victory in Game 4 at Vancouver became the centerpiece for, of all things, an animated Christmas special that found a way to combine hockey and ballet in 2015, The Curse of Clara: A Holiday Tale.
Yes, that’s right: An animated special about The Nutcracker with Phil Esposito reliving the ’72 Summit Series. Veteran Hockey Night In Canada announcer Bob Cole even called the play-by-play for a ballet sequence in the late stages of The Curse of Clara.
Only in Canada, eh?