Paul Henderson has not let his cancer slow him down.
The 72-year-old hockey legend has been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia since 2009, but thanks to a risky experimental drug trial the cancer is being held at bay.
What’s important though, is that with his faith he did not let the diagnosis change who he is.
“We have learned to be thankful for the day and enjoy today, because nobody knows the future,” he said. “I’m really fortunate, I have a great wife and family and we’ve decided that cancer is not going to define us.”
On Thursday night he was at the Black Knight Inn speaking at the Red Deer Regional Catholic Education Foundation’s sixth annual fundraiser sponsorship event.
Henderson is best known for his improbable winning goal against the Russians in Game 8 of the Summit Series. The moment is etched in the minds of hockey fans across the country and being introduced to new ones on a daily basis.
But his fight now is an almost more improbable one.
Three years ago, against his oncologists advice, he flew to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD., to take part in a clinical drug trial. While he is not cured, he is as healthy as he has been since the diagnosis, even putting back on 25 pounds.
“The only option I had here was chemotherapy, but I knew my body would never handle that well,” he said. “It was a bit of a gamble. There’s 56 of us in this trial, but nobody gets a placebo and I’m really doing well.
“I still have cancer, it is not a cure, but it’s what we call sleeping with the bear. If we can keep the bear in hibernation … it’s a one day at a time type deal.”
Henderson has been a regular on the public speaking circuit for years speaking at everything from fundraisers, like Thursday, to school assemblies. Despite the cancer, he is as busy as ever.
There are two distinctly different reactions he gets, depending on the demographics of the audience.
For the older generations, he’s able to transport them back to 1972, the names, the events, the games, the stakes instantly recognizable.
When he’s in a school gym, however, it’s quite a bit different.
He’ll pole the crowd to see who’s actually heard of him before that day, and he’s noticed a shrinking minority know who he is. Those that do, it’s because their dad told them or they’ve watched the games on DVD or the Internet.
However, he still gets calls weekly from kids doing research projects on influential Canadians or moments in Canadian history.
Backing up his place in the story of this country is the numerous awards and honours he’s received, including Queen’s Jubilee award, the Diamond Jubilee award, the Order of Canada, the Canada Walk of Fame and is part of both the International Hockey Hall of Fame and the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.
“It is satisfying, it is a trip to be a part of history,” said Henderson. “I think I’ve done a lot with my life that’s very satisfying since I’ve quit hockey.”
But the game today is about as recognizable to him as his name is to the younger kids.
Everything has changed, the players are bigger, faster, stronger and paid far more money, while the game has evolved strategically and tactically.
He’s not even 100 per cent sure he could play at today’s top level, despite a pro career that spanned 19 years, split mostly between the NHL and the World Hockey Association. Between the two leagues, he combined for 1,067 games, 367 goals and 384 assists.
“In your mind you always think you could play, but you have to be a totally different hockey player today than I was in my hey day,” said Henderson. “I think I came a long at just the right time.”
He does still watch hockey, though when it’s the NHL rarely for more than a period at a time. His attention is more on minor hockey.
He and his wife Eleanor live minutes away from two of their five grandchildren in Oakville, Ont., and can often be found at hockey rinks throughout the Toronto area.
“I haven’t been to a Leafs game in four years but I’ve seen 100 of my grandsons’, my wife and I love going,” said Henderson.
His grandchildren, however, fully understand who their grandfather is and what his goal meant for Canada and the game.
“The 14-year-old (Alton) always wore 19 and he has a younger brother (Logan) who’s 10, and we thought he’d want to wear 19 too, like his big brother, and on his own, he said ‘No I want 72,’” said Henderson, who also wore 19 during his playing career.
He has a picture of the two in their jerseys with their backs turned, spelling out 1972 in their numbers that has a prominent place in his den, his “Soul Space.”
His home life is a busy one.
For the past 31 years he has been running a ministry called Leader Impact that helps people find their spiritual roots — a group that has spread from three people in Toronto to 45 cities in three different countries. Meanwhile he and his wife also regularly speak at marriage seminars, something he proclaims to be an expert in only because of the mistakes he has made over the last 52 years, “so I can tell people what not to do,” he said with a laugh.
The doctors have not given Henderson a prognosis for how long he has left, and his legacy is secured in Canadian history books. But he is still focused on getting the most out of what time he has left.
“I want to finish well,” he said. “There’s so many people that start off and do a great job but then they screw up down the road, and there’s nothing worse, it’s tragic.”