“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote the poet Dylan Thomas. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Sitting in a medical centre with an intravenous line in his arm and cellphone in hand, Paul Henderson is doing just that.
With pockets of cancer all over his body and infecting his blood, the hero of the 1972 Summit Series sees his life with a new immediacy and clarity. Over the next month or so he will begin chemotherapy to slow the disease. It is called lymphocytic lymphoma chronic leukemia and while Henderson remains vital there is no cure.
The dying need feel no reserve in discussing life, every element of life. For Henderson that includes the Leafs, his employer for six seasons and the team he returned to after scoring the goal of the century.
Specifically, Henderson wishes critics would lay off Phil Kessel.
“The guy is fifth in the league in scoring,” he says. “Fifth. All you read about is how he isn’t tough enough. The press in Toronto is so negative. They pick on Kessel something awful.”
And then he laughs out loud at his sudden burst of passion.
“I warned you,” he says. “Don’t get me going on this.”
His third consecutive game-winning goal, the capper to the greatest comeback in Canadian sport, is why Henderson remains a public figure long after most of his teammates have slid into quiet retirement.
The shot was not an end but a beginning for Henderson who struggled mightily to gain a footing in his life and then accepted an invitation into Christianity three years later. He has been mentoring ever since.
More than 1,000 pastors will pray for him on this morning and his life’s work, to use his celebrity to help people and bring them to God, shows only the first sign of slowing down. He makes himself nap if he has an evening engagement and his wife Eleanor has helped convince him to say no more often in order to marshal his energy. The IVs have been upped to twice a week.
Still, Henderson was up at 5:25 a.m. praying before departing for a 7 o’clock meeting. He has stood before countless pulpits, at sports banquets, motivational sessions and church events, all to the goal of achieving his life’s purpose through his Leader Impact Group ministry.
Abetted by Eleanor, Paul Henderson has long been vigilant about his health. The pair eat nothing that is fried and favor organic food. He is so careful because his dad, Garnet, died of heart problems at 49.
His vigilance would save his life. In 2004 Henderson needed a stint to survive a near-fatal blockage in his heart. Mindful of Garnet’s fate, he went to the hospital without hesitation. With a heart problem staved off and without a meaningful strain of cancer in his family, Henderson could be forgiven for thinking he was in it for the long haul.
Always methodical, Henderson went for a full check-up including an ultrasound of his stomach two years ago. Lymph nodes infected with cancer were easily detectable on the screen. A few days later he was unloading suitcases from his trunk at a downtown hotel when the cell rang. He listened to the message and turned to Eleanor. “It’s what I thought,” he said. “I have cancer.”
Cancer famously refuses to discriminate between athlete and sofa-dwellers, the good and the evil, the famous and the face in the crowd. It is relentlessly, tirelessly democratic and at 69, Henderson has mourned many including four lost members of that Summit Series team.
In 1996, winger Bill Goldsworthy died of complications from AIDS. Gary Bergman, the unsung defenceman Henderson considered a key contributor to the win, died of Cancer in 2000. Prostate cancer claimed rock-hard executive John Ferguson in 2007. Winger Rick Martin was felled by a heart attack in 2011.
Death isn’t quite a stranger when you are entering your seventies. Still, the elemental question of the dying never passed Henderson’s lips.
“I never asked ‘why me?’ I still wouldn’t change places with anyone in the world,” Henderson says. “I put my faith in God and I have 37 years of walking with the Lord. I believe in staying positive. I have no fear of dying. I have today and if I am here tomorrow well that’s great too.”
Like any husband, Henderson is grateful that it is he and not Eleanor who has been afflicted. The pair met in Lucknow, Ontario, where Henderson worked at a grocery store. Eleanor came in to shop and the 15-year-old Henderson, never shy, waited only to learn her name to begin their courtship.
“It’s far tougher for Eleanor than me” he says. “If it’s just me, I can cope with that but if lost my wife… I couldn’t even think of losing her.”
Everything he could ask for is in place. He has 10 grandchildren he singles out in his morning prayers. Henderson has influenced countless thousands through his service. His name is known to most Canadians.
Long called upon to speak on how to live, Henderson acknowledges that how he dies will be watched as well. Amidst the blizzard of reunions, speeches and appearances he is also writing his autobiography. It is called The Goal of My Life.
“Everyone will think it’s about 1972 but it’s also about my mission: to be a godly agent of change,” he said.
Paul Henderson is at the stage of his life where he laughs a lot, most frequently at his own nature, his perfectionism, impatience and the sometimes undiplomatic nature of his passions. He likes to quote famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: ‘it’s what we learn after we know everything that counts.’”
One thing that hasn’t changed is his conviction that someday the Leafs will once again enjoy a parade down Yonge Street. Problem is it may not happen in his lifetime.
Paul Henderson laughs at the wicked humor of that thought and considers it, if only for a moment.
“I’ll always be a fan,” he says. “Don’t expect me to switch horses now.”