May 10, 2012
Henderson talks hockey, cancer and faith
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency
LONDON, ONT. - Paul Henderson scored the biggest goal in Canadian hockey history.
His last minute goal against the Soviet Union in 1972 gave Canada a victory in the first series between the two teams. The series engaged a nation and made Henderson an instant superstar. It was the ultimate Canadian sports where-were-you moment.
On Thursday Henderson stood before almost 700 people at the London Christian Prayer Breakfast. It was a room full of people who actually remembered watching Henderson score. Henderson seized the opportunity to weave the history he is most known for, with the history he wants to be remembered for.
The goal made Henderson a hockey superstar in Canada. Many of the 700 people also came to see the Christian superstar.
Henderson spoke for almost 25 minutes on his faith, his becoming a Christian and how it has changed his life.
Not even cancer has made Henderson question that faith.
Henderson has lymphocytic lymphoma chronic leukemia. It's a slow moving cancer that was first diagnosed in November 2009.
"I'm full of cancer now," Henderson said. "I'm probably headed for chemotherapy very soon. As you can see, some of the lymph nodes are starting to get pretty big and I have some sizeable growths in my stomach . . . I wasn't looking to be the poster boy for cancer. My philosophy, don't let cancer ruin your life. You get up every day and use what you have and what time you have left."
Henderson didn't only score the winning goal in the last game, although that's what he's remembered for, he also scored the winning goal in the previous two games. He was the toast of a country. But there was something missing. The fame took over his life but he didn't handle it well. Fame is what most hockey players crave but Henderson was troubled by it.
"I had no spiritual dimension. Religion didn't do anything for me," Henderson said.
It took a mentor in 1972-73 to turn Henderson's life around. It was Mel Stevenson, a man who knocked on Henderson's door and wanted Henderson to do a hockey school with him.
"I asked him what did it pay," Henderson said. "Mel said, 'it's a Christian camp. We don't pay anything.'"
And with that Henderson's road to Christ began.
"He told me that I didn't seem satisfied, that I always looked on edge,' Henderson said. "No one told me that before."
It took two years for Henderson to be convinced there was a God.
"I always thought Christians were the weak people. When you can't make it in life then you have to ask God. I really prided myself on being a self-made man."
He became a Christian in 1975 and was determined to become a "Godly change agent." For the last 29 years he has been mentoring other men looking to understand Christianity.
Henderson says "there is no wrinkle-free life." His faith has helped him through health issues that almost took his wife Eleanor's wife and helps him get through his battle with cancer.
"It took me two years but I had all my questions answered and I haven't taken a step back since," Henderson said.
It wasn't easy showing your Christian side in professional hockey back when Henderson was playing.
"It's a lot easier now," Henderson said. "There are a lot of high profile Christians, Mike Gartner, Mark Osborne, Laurie Boschman, Ronnie Ellis, Mike Fisher today. There are lots of guys who are very, very strong. Now there are chapels (in the rinks.) We never had any chapels. Most NHL teams including the Leafs, have a chapel."
Henderson estimates he knows 28 or 30 high-profile Christian NHLers now.
Despite his illness Henderson says he has no plans to retire from mentoring men.
"I'm going to die someday. Everyone is going to die someday," Henderson continued. "I'm 69 and can't think of anyone who is more fortunate than myself. The bible says not to worry so I don't. I just get up in the morning and ask God for help to get through the day. If tomorrow shows up then I'll take the same shot tomorrow."
In the ultimate statement Henderson alludes to the peace his faith has brought him.
"Right now, I would not trade places with anyone in this world," he said.
Excerpts from Paul Henderson's speech On his 1972 goal: "I enjoy speaking to an older crowd. At least some of you were alive in 1972 when I scored the goal. Now I go to schools and kids say, 'who is that old goat?'"
On the sweater he wore in 1972: "If you have any gets that ever get to the NHL, play in a big series and score a big goal, tell them not to give their sweater away. I had an excuse. I had six concussions." The sweater sold for $1.27 million.
On former Leaf owner Harold Ballard: "I left for the WHA to get away from Harold Ballard. It was one of the best moves I ever made . . . But after I became a Christian I sent him a letter of apology for all the bad things I said and thought of him." Henderson got no response but harbours "no bitterness or anger."
On his diagnosis with cancer: "It was just a punch in the stomach . . . But never had angst or fear about this. Am I looking forward to dying, no not really? Is it worsening . . . yes. But when you have hope and peace, you can handle anything."