Every single Canadian who was at least five years old in back in 1972 can tell you exactly where they were on Sept 28th 1972. That’s the day Paul Henderson scored the most dramatic and famous goal in hockey history with just 34 seconds to go in the final contest of the eight-game Summit Series between Canada and the USSR.
The two nations went to to toe with the first four contests being held in Canada and the last four in the Soviet Union.
Canada stood still that September afternoon with classes canceled across the country while television sets were wheeled into school auditoriums for students to witness the most important hockey game ever.
To many, it was a lot more than just a sporting event. There were many political overtones to the series as it was seen as the capitalist way of life in North America against the Communism of the Eastern Bloc. In 1972 the Olympic Games were purely for amateur athletes which the Soviet hockey players were classified as. Many players on the squad were recruited from the famous Central Red Army while the Canadian team consisted entirely of professional NHL players.
After getting a first glimpse at the Soviets, many who had holes in their socks and sweaters, most Canadians believed their country would have no problem sweeping all eight games.
When the series faced off at the historic Montreal Forum on Sept. 2nd, the Soviets embarrassed the Canadian NHL’ers with a thorough 7-3 beating. With their pride dented, the Canadians rebounded to tie the series two days later at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto with a 4-1 win. On Sept. 6th in Winnipeg, the teams skated to a 4-4 deadlock and the Soviets won the fourth and final game in Canada 48 hours later with a 5-3 victory in Vancouver.
Canadian fans were shocked as the Soviets held a 2-1-1edge in games with the last four to be played thousands of miles away on foreign soil. They didn’t know if their team was that bad or if the Soviets were really that good.
One of Canada’s better performers was left-winger Paul Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Henderson, who was one of the last players to make the team, netted two goals in the first four games and was playing well on a line with center Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers and right-winger Ron Ellis, his linemate with the Leafs.
When the series resumed in the USSR after a two-week break, Henderson showed he hadn’t lost his scoring touch with another two goals in an exciting 5-4 loss to the Soviets. However, the chances of winning the series appeared to be slim and none after Canada blew a 4-1 lead and watched helplessly as the hosts notched five third-period goals. The only for the Canadians to emerge victorious was to take the final three games on the road, which seemed a near-impossible task.
Henderson took matters into his own hands and saved the NHL’ers from an embarrassing series defeat by scoring the winning goal in game six in Canada’s 3-2 victory. He then added the game-winner again two nights later with less than three minutes to go in a narrow 4-3 victory.
Somewhat miraculously, the series was even heading into the eighth and deciding game with each nation having three wins and a tie, but the Soviets held the edge in goal difference. Everything in this “Us vs Them” battle had come down to the final act with Canada needing a win to take the series.
Things certainly looked bleak as the Soviets held a 5-3 lead in the third period in what was one of the most emotionally-charged hockey games ever. The Canadians never gave up though and fought back to tie the game 5-5 with 7:04 to go after the home team made the fatal mistake of trying to protect their lead .
With just under a minute left on the clock, Henderson jumped on the ice and headed straight for the net. A loose puck found its way onto his stick and he took a shot that was saved by Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak. However, the rebound came right back to Henderson and he deposited it into the back of the net with just 34 seconds remaining for a 6-5 win in the most famous event in the annals of ice hockey.
Henderson was an instant hero all over Canada and could have easily been elected Prime Minister if he had chosen to run for the position. He led his team and nation to the most unlikely of victories on hostile soil and had scored the winning goal in games six, seven, and eight. It was a miraculous feat and the moment was caught on film by photographer Frank Lennon. His photograph of Henderson celebrating the goal became the most famous photo in Canada.
Henderson finished the eight-game series with a seven goals and three assists and didn’t know it at the time, but he had become immortalized in Canadian culture not just the hockey world. In 2010, the sweater he was wearing in game eight was sold by auction for over a million dollars and taken across the nation on tour.
Canada has never forgotten the 76-year-old Henderson of Kincardine, Ontario and his heroic series. After hanging up his skates he became a motivational speaker and minister and co-wrote a trio of hockey-related books. In 2012 he was honored as a Member of the Order of Canada.
Henderson skated in 707 regular-season NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Flames between 1962/63 and 1979/80, his nhl stats showed 236 goals and 241 assists to his name for 477 points. He also skated with the Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls of the old World Hockey Association (WHA) from and notched 143 goals and 143 helpers for 283 points in 360 outings.