BUFFALO, N.Y. — Long accustomed to being recognized in most every rink he enters in Canada, Paul Henderson enjoys attending his grandson’s college hockey games in relative anonymity while seated with his wife Eleanor in Section 10 of Buffalo’s Harborcenter.
Perhaps, Henderson wondered whether it’s a result of crossing the border, where Americans aren’t familiar with him scoring what might be the most iconic goal in Canadian hockey lore to settle the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.
Or maybe, Henderson said, it’s because his goal with 34 seconds left of a 6-5 win to secure Canada a 4-3-1 series victory happened so long ago.
“You know, you’ve got to be over 50 to know who the heck I am,” he said, breaking into a self-deprecating laugh by phone from his home in Mississauga, Ontario.
All of that might change on Saturday, when Henderson will be the focus of attention before Canisius College’s game against Atlantic Hockey Association rival Niagara. With his grandson, Canisius sophomore forward Alton McDermott, lined up at center, Henderson will celebrate his 80th birthday by conducting a ceremonial faceoff.
“It’s going to be a proud moment,” Henderson said. “I want to get pictures of it. That’s a memory that we’re not going to let go, I’ll tell you.”
Henderson long ago accepted the trappings of celebrity that come with his place in history. An entire nation was caught in the grips of paralysis watching a collection of some of Canada’s best players fall behind 3-1-1 to an upstart, play-making Soviet Union team, before winning the final three games — all decided by one goal.
Henderson is now content playing the role of a doting grandfather and celebrating personal milestones with his family, which makes Saturday’s puck drop more meaningful. It is not lost on Henderson and his family that he might not have been around to cherish turning 80 if not for his successful battle against cancer.
Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2009, Henderson was given some five years to live before he took part in a clinical trial of a new drug introduced in the U.S. in 2012 that’s credited with saving his life.
“I was just talking to my doctor this morning and my bloodwork last week was as good as I’ve had since before I got cancer,” said Henderson. He split his first 12 NHL seasons between Toronto and Detroit, played another five seasons in the World Hockey Association before closing his career with the NHL’s Atlanta Flames in 1979-80.
For the 21-year-old McDermott, Henderson will always be affectionately known as “grampy.”
Though growing up aware his grandfather played professional hockey, McDermott didn't realize the magnitude of fame until he was 9 years old, when entering his homeroom class on the first day of transferring to a new school and saw a picture of Henderson hanging prominently on the wall.
“What he actually did kind of blows me away,” McDermott said.
McDermott wore No. 19 in honor of Henderson until he got to Canisius, where the number has essentially been retired after Cory Conacher became the school’s first player to reach the NHL. McDermott flipped the number and wears 91. His younger brother Logan, meantime, wears No. 72 in honor of 1972.
Majoring in finance, one of the reasons McDermott chose Canisius is because of Buffalo’s proximity to his family. On game days, the Hendersons usually make the short drive to McDermott’s parent’s home in Burlington, Ontario, and then travel together in making the 50-mile trip to Buffalo.
“I always know where to look for them in the stands. I always give granny a little wave in warm up, and (Henderson) gives me a thumbs up,” McDermott said. “Yeah, those moments are what I’ll always remember forever. We’re a hockey family.”
The most memorable came while McDermott was 16 and playing with the Ontario Junior Hockey League Oakville Blades, who were promoting a “Pink the Rink” game to promote cancer awareness. McDermott honored his “grampy” by wearing a pink jersey with Henderson’s name on the back, and then scored a goal on one of his first shifts.
“Eleanor and I both had a tear in our eye,” Henderson recalled.
Though Henderson leaves the coaching to Canisius’ staff led by Trevor Large, he laughed in saying he wishes McDermott would shoot the puck more often. In two seasons, McDermott enters the weekend with five goals and six assists in 45 games with Canisius.
“He’s always been a goal-scorer. I was a goal-scorer, too. But man, he can fire the puck,” said Henderson, who combined for 376 goals and 760 points in 1,067 career games split between the NHL and WHA.
“But you know, he’s here to get an education, and he’s here to enjoy himself,” he said.
“As grandparents, you just got to love them, and spoil them and encourage them. So we’re cheerleaders," Henderson added, before looking ahead to Saturday. “We’ll be there for sure. I’d love for him to score a goal. Hopefully, he will.”